The eight member board, meeting in SMPA’s spiffy new digs in Ridgway, with one exception, (Ouray’s Kristi Westfall) is relentlessly middle aged and male. Rural electric coops seem to run that way. I hadn’t been to a coop meeting in years, but the April 18 meeting in Ridgway felt eerily familiar. Rural electric coops are the epitome of American bureaucracy – and are heavily subsidized by low-cost federal loans.
With the exception of Perrin, SMPA board members spoke solemnly about the imperatives of supporting Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s request to its 44 member coops to extend their power purchase contracts for another 10 years. Present wholesale power contracts go to 2040. Perrin’s pleas – 300 some SMPA ratepayers had signed a petition opposing the contract extension, plus similar opposition from both San Miguel County and the Town of Telluride, cold-fired power plants and their impacts on climate change – were dismissed.
Tri-State says it’s between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” It wants to build at least one new coal-fired power plant soon (down from three) in order to meet rising demands for increasingly expensive electric power. One of its members, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, is still refusing to back Tri-State’s contract extension plan. Despite Tri-State’s sudden conversion to some clean energy strategies, DMEA General Manager Dan McClendon says Tri-State needs to make “significant changes” in its financial planning to justify its expansion plans.
Meanwhile, McClendon told me, ratepayers in the Tri-State system will likely face up to a 60 percent rate increase. We can expect a new 12 percent hike, topping last year’s 12 percent rate increase. Then, to finance even more power generating capacity, an additional 30 percent rise may be imposed. McClendon points out that, to supply electric power to the west’s huge new energy developments (oil, gas, coal and possibly nuclear fuels) Tri-State must raise its wholesale power rates. That means homes, ranches, farms and small businesses (once the core users of federally financed rural electric power) will be forced to pay for “the needs of large customers.”
Like Telluride’s Wes Perrin, DMEA’s voice is a lonely one. San Miguel ratepayers strongly opposed the Tri-State contract extension, Perrin said, pleading with other boardmembers to recognize the environmental and financial pitfalls of Tri-State’s plan to greatly expand its power generation capacity. Nevertheless, in a 6-1 vote, SMPA board members supported Tri-State’s purchase contract extension. Tony Forrest said he’d struggled with the issues, but bowing to unidentified Mountain Village constituents who spoke to him privately, he would vote “yes.”
Veteran board member John Arnold, who represents Down Valley and other outlying San Miguel County areas, said Tri-State’s recent annual meeting was impressive, and showed that the giant wholesale electric power cooperative’s policymakers were beginning to listen to members concerns. Tri-State’s new ideas include some alternative energy sources and a gas-fired power plant. Like several other board members, Arnold said in order “to have a voice at the table” SMPA must support Tri-State’s contract extension request. Likewise, he also voted “yes.”
More than a dozen San Miguel area residents who drove to Ridgway that Wednesday morning to urge boardmembers to vote against the Tri-State contract renewal were stunned and angered by the 6-1 vote. After all, SMPA is a cooperative – its ratepayers “own” this utility. And we’d been ignored.
SMPA board president GaryYamnitz, who represents Redvale, the town of Norwood and Slick Rock, was not required to vote, although he did not oppose the contract extension plan. Yamnitz, a veteran SMPA boardmember, has served continuously since 1985. His current four year term expires in 2010.
Arnold is in his third term, which expires in 2008. Perrin is up for reelection this summer – so far unopposed – to a second term. Tony Forrest is in his second term, which expires in 2009. Westfall, also in her fourth term, will be up for reelection in 2009. She represents a newly formed “at large” district, which combines the former Ouray and Silverton director districts.
So where does that leave SMPA’s ratepayers? Well, elections (mail-in ballots) will precede SMPA’s annual meeting June 2 in Telluride. Unless disgruntled SMPA ratepayers look to the coop’s recall process, it’s unlikely much will change any time soon.