Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Electric co-ops reluctant to adopt renewables; some pose obstacles for members' opinions

Few rural electric cooperatives have been on the forefront of renewable energy development, and most are heavily dependent on coal. Now many are facing increasing pressure from their members to begin looking at new energy sources, and some make it hard to apply that pressure, freelancer Allen Best reports for Planning magazine.

When Tona Barkley tried to attend a directors' meeting of her co-op, Owen Electric in Kentucky, she was met with a closed door and instructions to file a written request at least a month in advance if she wanted to speak at a future meeting. Owen Electric is not the only co-op with a closed-door atmosphere, Best writes. "Our co-ops, for the most part, tend to build pretty sturdy stockades around their processes," Steve Wilkins of Berea, Ky., a member of Blue Grass Energy, which he said also bars members from directors' meetings.

"Too many electric co-ops have turned away from their historic role as exciting, pro-consumer organizations and have instead taken on deeply troubling anti-consumer behaviors," Tennessee Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper wrote in a 2008 essay in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, which Best quotes.

Rural electric co-ops get 80 percent of their electricity from coal, much higher than the national figure of less than 50 percent. With prices of coal-fired energy on the rise and an uncertain future regarding environmental regulation of coal mining, some co-op members are questioning the logic of continuing to invest in coal-fired power.

Some co-ops have moved away from coal, but face questions about where their energy will come from in the future. In 2006 Western Colorado's Delta-Montrose Electric Association refused a contract extension with its current electricity supplier that would have financed a new coal-fired power plant, but now the company "must figure out its own electrical future after 2040," Best writes.

"It's uncharted territory, and it could be we spoke more optimistically than we should have," Ed Martson, a Delta-Montrose director for 15 years, told Best. "Now that you're in the execution phase, you'd understand better what you're up against." John K. Hansen, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, sees renewable energy as key to bringing jobs to rural areas, which can only help electric co-ops. "It doesn't do any good to have a [rural electrical association] if you don't have any customers," he told Best, referencing the population loss of many rural areas. (The entire story will be available after next month's issue of Planning magazine is published.)

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