A rural utility bucks against its power supplier

In a coal-producing region, this western Colorado co-op fights for renewables.

Kate Schimel April 2, 2015Web Exclusive | High Country News

The relationships between rural energy co-operatives and the utilities that provide their power are usually pretty subdued. Like partners in a long and stable marriage, they mostly understand each other and few disputes make it out of the boardroom.

But earlier this year, it became clear that things have deteriorated between Delta-Montrose Electric Association and its provider, Tri-State. The two have quietly—and not so quietly—been at odds for years over whether Delta-Montrose, a rural electricity cooperative based in Montrose, Colorado, could go outside their relationship to generate some of its own power. Finally, in February, Delta-Montrose called on federal regulators to resolve the dispute.

On Feb. 9, Delta-Montrose filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates much of the nation’s energy transmission. In it, Delta-Montrose asked for the commission to clarify federal law, which could require Tri-State to loosen the ties that bind. Delta-Montrose is allowed to get a small fraction of its power—five percent—from a provider besides Tri-State. But it would like to sign up with a company hoping to construct a small hydro project. The company’s plan is to essentially place a small hydropower turbine in one of the area’s many agricultural canals.

That kind of project would create local jobs and make energy cheaper in the long run for the 27,000 Western Colorado residents who are a part of the rural electric co-op, which powers three counties and the town of Paonia, where High Country News is headquartered. The filing could open the door for many more such projects for Delta-Montrose. But it could also encourage a wandering eye for other Tri-State co-ops, setting the stage for a drop in the amount of demand for Tri-State’s power.

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