Six candidates are vying for three seats in this year's election to the board of directors for La Plata Electric Association, which provides electricity to residents and businesses in Archuleta and La Plata counties.
Electric co-ops across the country are faced with a tough decision: keep costs low by investing in reliable energy sources such as coal, nuclear and natural gas, or invest in renewable energies such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass.
LPEA is no stranger to these debates. The board has been split for years between "green" members who favor renewable energy sources and "old guard" members who favor keeping costs low and letting market forces guide power-supply decisions.
Board members would like to do both, of course, but which way the scale tips often depends on individual ideologies.
Power supply represents about 70 percent of the co-op's expenses, which means board members spend a lot of time discussing how to purchase energy. But a limiting factor in those discussions is LPEA's 50-year contract with Tri-State, its energy supplier. According to the contract, LPEA must purchase 95 percent of its energy from Tri-State, which leaves 5 percent to invest with outside power suppliers, typically in solar, hydro and biomass.
Tri-State's energy portfolio consists of 24 percent renewable energy sources, which means LPEA gets about 29 percent of its power supply from renewables.
LPEA is about halfway through its 50-year contract with Tri-State, and to buy out would cost several hundred million dollars, according to rough estimates. (No formal estimates have been done.) Some members have advocated going that direction, as the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos, New Mexico, recently did.
On Wednesday, April 19, the board approved a resolution asking Tri-State to increase its 5 percent cap to 10 percent, which would allow LPEA to make additional investments in renewable energy sources.
In addition to debating power-generation sources, board members decide on rate structures, infrastructure needs and long-term investments.
There are three board members from each of four geographical districts, for a total of 12 members. They are elected to three-year terms.
Members are paid about $14,400 per year, but they earn more if they attend conferences or travel. They oversee a budget of about $106.4 million.
In addition to the six candidates running for election, one incumbent candidate, Bob Lynch from District 1 (Archuleta County), is running unopposed.
Candidate statements made in their own words were submitted to LPEA and can be found online at www.durangoherald.com. Here is a summary of the six candidates seeking election in the three remaining districts:
District 2, southern and western La Plata County
Incumbent and longest-serving board member Davin Montoya said his greatest asset is his institutional memory. It usually takes directors a full term to come up to speed on acronyms and issues discussed at meetings, he said.
"I understand the issues," said Montoya, who has served on the board for 27 years. "I know what we've tried and haven't tried. ... We're facing some issues that people don't understand."
Montoya said he supports renewable energy sources, but they don't produce enough supply to meet demand.
He called solar a "rich person's game" because residents need a "fair amount of money" to install panels on a house. Meanwhile, solar customers are able to reduce their bills by so much they no longer pay enough to support the local power grid, and other members must subsidize the cost to the tune of about $500,000 per year, he said.
"I'm not against solar, I'm not against renewables," Montoya said. "I'm a business person, and I look at the numbers, and the numbers have to work."
Kim Martin said she's running against Montoya to give members a choice.
Montoya hasn't faced a challenger during his last eight elections.
"I don't think he represents the true majority of the people that live in my district, their interests - and yet no one ever runs against him," Martin said.
If elected, Martin said she'll have a steep learning curve, but she considers herself a quick study. She wasn't sure who else serves in her district. (They are Dan Huntington and Kohler McInnis).
"My opponent, Davin, knows far more than I do," she said. "He's got 27 years of knowledge about it. But does he represent the true values of the district? That's the question, and I say, 'Let's find out.'"
Martin said she's hearing a lot of support for renewable energies.
"I am far more progressive as far as new energy, new technology, new ways of looking at things," Martin said.
District 3, city of Durango
Two people are running to fill the seat held by Jeff Berman, who is not seeking re-election after serving 12 years on the board. Berman is one of the first and most outspoken proponents for renewable energies.
R. Michael Bell said he wants to keep electricity affordable for all members of the cooperative. But he also supports clean energy.
"I support all energy sources that demonstrate responsible conservation and concern for our environment," he wrote in a description of himself for LPEA.
He's lived in Durango for 42 years and managed his own architectural firm for 35 years, which he said has helped him understand the challenges of running a successful business in Southwest Colorado.
Bell said he's attended monthly LPEA meetings for about 1½ years, so he's familiar with the issues. If LPEA demands an increase to its 5 percent allowance for renewable energies, Bell said he thinks Tri-State will listen.
"A transition from the 50-year contract to getting away from coal-fired energy, I think it is happening, but it's a controlled process," Bell said.
If elected, Bell said he'll use his skills as a mediator to bring people together and act as a balance.
Rachel Landis, his opponent, also described herself as a mediator and collaborator who can "heal" a board that is rife with conflict.
Landis, coordinator of the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, said LPEA should address climate change on a local level and keep electricity rates low by keeping energy dollars local.
"I will sponsor new renewable energy projects and work to expand existing consumer energy efficiency opportunities," she wrote in a description of herself for LPEA. "I also support a shift to greater energy independence, which would provide LPEA members increased control over energy rates and also incentivize local, clean-energy development that keep our energy dollars local and create jobs."
Landis said she wants to take a look at existing contracts and find ways to "push back on them."
LPEA should do a better job of marketing its time-of-use program, which lowers rates for customers who use electricity during off-peak hours, she said. It is a sign-up program that many customers are not familiar with, she said.
"There's a reason why marketing has turned us into a consumer culture; it's really effective," Landis said.
District 4, northern and eastern La Plata County
Guinn Unger is not shy about his support for "clean, renewable and locally produced energy," and contrary to popular belief, he says buying coal power "doesn't make sense if we want to keep our electric rates low."
"Coal has become the most expensive and dirtiest fuel, and if we are serious about fighting climate change, we need to quickly move away from this outdated energy source," he wrote in a prepared statement to LPEA.
He supports trying to renegotiate LPEA's contract with Tri-State to allow the co-op to purchase renewable energy, perhaps increasing the 5 percent cap an additional 5 percent every two years.
"You obviously can't flip overnight," he said. "You can't go 100 percent solar even if we didn't have a contract and even if we wanted to."
Unger, who has lived in the area about three years, has a degree in electrical engineering, worked on the NASA space shuttle program and has worked in corporate America.
"I've always been a big proponent of a clean environment," he said. "... I'd just as soon my great, great grandchildren weren't cussing me out because of decisions that I've made that have screwed up their lives."
Unger said his opponent talks a good game when it comes to green power, but his votes don't reflect it.
"His voting record has been to not change, to not take risks, to not look at the new things," Unger said. "That's why I feel like I'd be more in tune with what the people want."
Incumbent Joe Wheeling is seeking his fourth term on the board. He serves as the board's representative to Tri-State and as a chairperson of FastTrack Communications, a subsidiary of LPEA that delivers high-speed Internet to the region.
Wheeling sees big changes in the energy business going forward, including locally, at Tri-State and with regional transmission organizations, third-party operators that buy and sell energy assets across wide geographic regions. The idea is to balance load and demand, create a wholesale marketplace and provide energy suppliers with more options for meeting demands.
Wheeling said Tri-State has made significant gains in its use of renewable energy sources, and he has voted for five wind farms and three large-scale solar generation facilities during his tenure on the Tri-State board.
As a partner in James Ranch Beef, he is a good steward of the environment and supports preservation of open spaces through conservation easements on the ranch north of Durango, he wrote in a statement for LPEA. He has a background in business and a master's of business in finance and strategy.
"I believe in taking a moderate, practical and honest stance with decisions and encourage LPEA to find solutions that are fair for all members," he wrote in his statement to LPEA.