Herndon:Rural Co-ops Struggle to Cooperate | Dateline Wrights Mesa
Jun 20, 2007 | 906 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Grace Herndon

These days, San Miguel Power Association’s electric consumers may be wondering just how the term “co-op” fits into the federally subsidized rural electric cooperative system. Earlier this month, SMPA board members poured cold water on its reform-minded “owner-consumers” by declaring that motions made and passed from the floor at SMPA’s annual meeting on June 2 were, in fact, invalid.

Still, change-minded SMPA consumers can take heart. We’re not the only rural electric “co-op” struggling to emerge from a system that’s locked into a near Soviet-style bureaucratic set-up. The Delta Montrose Electric System is just recovering from a bruising, name-calling director election on June 14, described by one regional newspaper as: “Electric Co-op Election Pits Pro-Coal Against Renewable Energy.”

The DMEA fracas pitted incumbent District 2 director Ed Marston of Paonia. A progressive, against Paonia’s Ken Byers, a go-slow, status quo guy. In District 3, Tony Prendergast, who favored an “open-minded balance of innovation and stability,” faced outspoken coal industry advocate Kathy Welt, of Hotchkiss. (District 1 candidate Michael J. Sramek ran unopposed, taking over for incumbent Paul Gottlieb, who was term-limited.) Prendergast squeaked by, winning with a 33 vote margin. Marston, who told me in an earlier phone conversation that he didn’t know if he’d win reelection given the tactics of his opponents, received 2,734 votes, some 273 more than Byers.

DMEA board members, you’ll remember, brazenly defied the status quo last fall by voting against extending its contract with its wholesale power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. All 44 of Tri-State’s rural co-op member systems were asked to extend their existing purchase contract to 2050, adding 10 years to their present contract. San Miguel Power’s directors, pressed by a group of Telluride and Ridgway ratepayers to follow DMEA’s lead, publicly dithered for a month. Then, in May, SMPA voted 6-1 for the contract extension. Telluride’s Wes Perrin was the lone dissenting board member.

But, despite the difference in board views, the fundamental issues confronting each electric co-op are the same – more power from renewable energy sources and less dependence on coal-fired power plants. But the DMEA battle took on proportions seldom if ever seen in a rural electric election. In a May 30 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel news story by Beverly Corbrell, readers learned that, in a letter to North Fork voters, Welt and Byers “accused their opponents, Ed Marston and Tony Prendergast, of representing a ‘left wing agenda’ and ‘radical environmental groups.’” 

(Telluride’s Sheep Mountain Alliance is a member of Western Colorado Congress, which Byers ultimately identified as the “radical” group.) According to the Sentinel, Welt, who is a consultant for various gas exploration companies and Paonia area coal mines, said coal is good, and  “global warming is due to climate change, not to fossil fuels.”

The contest got even hotter when the three Montrose County commissioners jumped into the fray, two backing Weld and Byers, while commissioner Bill Patterson publicly backed Marston and Prendergast. Post-DMEA election, Marston and others said that in the future “politics” shouldn’t play a part in electric co-op elections.

Clearly, part of DMEA’s gutsy defiance of Tri-State’s contract extension plan had to do with this co-op’s enlightened general manager, Dan McClendon, who said Tri-State hadn’t made the case for building more coal-fired power plants – at a cost of some $5 billion. In contrast, SMPA’s general manager, Bobby Blair, favored Tri-State’s coal-fired agenda. Oddly, shortly before SMPA’s annual meeting, Blair abruptly exited the scene. Although Blair was reported to have resigned, the reasons for this sudden split remain a closely guarded secret. We may be SMPA’s “owner-consumers” but we aren’t entitled to know what went on at the management level. Kind of takes the “co-op” out of cooperative, doesn’t it?

SMPA’s mid-June board of directors meeting, it turns out, is a “strategic planning” session which is “not an open meeting,” according to a SMPA Ridgway office spokesperson. So, that means SMPA’s owner-consumer-ratepayers must wait until the board’s July 18 meeting in Ridgway to restate their demands for, among other things, a voice in selecting SMPA’s new general manager.

One of the three failed motions made from the floor by consumers at the June 2 annual meeting directed board members to allow member-consumers to join in the co-op’s selection process for a new general manager. Another motion would have required SMPA to buy more renewable energy from local sources. A third motion instructed SMPA to put $20,000 into a fund to help support the New Communities Coalition, aimed at promoting sustainable energy use and conservation.

Defending their support for Tri-State’s contract extension request, the majority of SMPA directors said the huge power wholesaler was beginning to listen to calls for these very issues and that it was best to “go along” in order to have a voice in future electric power generation decisions. DMEA’s leadership, however, told Tri-State it expected to have a voice during the length of its present contract – which runs to 2040. Tri-State said the contract extension would enhance the utility’s financial standing, when it sought money to build new power plants.

It’s hard to say why the Delta Montrose Electric Agency voted for change. Mavis Bennett Segal, longtime Tellurider and now editor-publisher of the popular Montrose-based monthly, The Monitor, said she thinks DMEA’s consumer base “has a better mix of values,” a broader cultural and social profile. She was “totally pleased” with the election’s outcome, and saw Byers as too “cautious.” She also worried about the pressure from coal interests, and thought Prendergast was the perfect, well-rounded candidate.

Still, she’s surprised at how close the election was. That leaves San Miguel Power co-op members with few clues about ways to turn SMPA around. But behind the scenes, coalitions are said to be  building, which as the headline said, will pit “pro-coal against renewable energy.” SMPA’s July 18 meeting could see the prelude to that face-off here.
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