Mountain Town News: Treading carefully in the Colorado Rockies |

Mountain Town News: Treading carefully in the Colorado Rockies

Colorado energy prices drop, energy concerns rise

DURANGO, Colo. – For sometimes years on end, directors of La Plata Electric Association could meet with scarcely anybody noticing. These are different times. Worries about greenhouse gas emissions and plunging opportunities for low-priced renewables have nearly all utilities examining their options.

Directors of the Durango-based La Plata last week were told by consultants that the utility could maintain reliable power while saving money by buying alternative power supplies with much higher levels of renewables.

Salt Lake City-based energy consultant Caitlin Liotiris told board members the electrical cooperative La Plata could purchase 100 percent renewable power on the open market in 2020 at a cost of 6.84 cents per kilowatt hour. It currently pays 7.48 cents to Tri-State Generation & Transmission, according to a report in the Durango Herald.

Tri-State was formed by electrical co-operatives in 1952 to distribute hydroelectric power from the giant dams of the West. As power needs grew, it invested heavily in coal-fired generation and then natural gas.

“Coal keeps the lights on,” said signs several years in Craig, Colo., where Tri-State is the majority owner in three coal-generating units.

But as Xcel Energy and other large utilities are showing, it’s also possible to keep the lights on with large volumes of renewables. Xcel serves Colorado’s Summit County and sells power to co-operatives serving Steamboat Springs, Vail, and Aspen. By 2026 it expects to be at 55 percent renewable generation. In December, it announced it was confident it could hit 80 percent renewables by 2030 using existing technology.

Why doesn’t La Plata just make the switch? It’s not that simple, said Mike Dreyspring, the chief executive, in a press release. “We need to further study the transmission system.” The cost of bringing the power into southwestern Colorado has not been established, he said.

Plus, like a cell phone carrier, Tri-State requires contracts of its members. La Plata’s current contract runs to 2050 and requires La Plata to buy 95 percent of its power from Tri-State. More than 60 percent of Tri-State’s power comes from coal or natural gas. That will decline in the next few years as a couple of coal plants close and as Tri-State adds renewables. But Tri-State still lags the shift being engineered by Xcel.

Tri-State has been facing revolt. Kit Carson Electric of Taos, N.M., in 2016, bought its way out of the contract with Tri-State for $37 million. It is now developing solar farms around Taos and expects to have enough production to meet day-time demand by 2022.

Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric informed Tri-State it wanted a divorce. But after a year of fruitless negotiations, the co-op appealed to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to arbitrate. The PUC agreed to do so in February and set a week-long hearing for June. Tri-State argues that the PUC has no jurisdiction and has filed suit in a civil court.

Taking note of this dissent was Moody’s, the credit-rating agency. “… the dispute between the parties is credit negative for Tri-State because of the challenge it may pose to the generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative’s independent governance and rate autonomy, while raising broader questions about Tri-State’s historically strong member and regulatory relationships,” it announced.

Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey downplayed the significance of the report in a February e-mail to Mountain Town News. “Moody’s did not have a rating action, outlook or watch change,” he wrote.

Several other co-ops, most notably United Power, near Denver, with three times the customers of La Plata, have also indicated dissatisfaction. A new policy being drawn up could potentially amelioate their concerns. But various devils may lurk in the details.

All of this is being watched carefully by the co-ops that serve Telluride, Crested Butte, Fraser, and other mountain towns.

Another big question mark remains how Tri-State’s new chief executive, Duane Highley, will steer Colorado’s second largest utility (Tri-State also serves portions of New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska). People who want change like what they hear, but Higley has tough decisions ahead.

The most challenging is what do you do with the 21st century equivalent of DVDs, the old coal plants and, perhaps, natural gas plants, too. But unlike DVDs, Tri-State is still paying heavy debt on its fleet of fossil-fuel infrastructure.

The bigger question, one defined by Bill McKibben in the April 4 issue of New York Review of Books, is at what point does a new technology cause an existing industry to start losing significant value?

Nobody—including Colorado’s Xcel Energy—has yet figured out the pathway to 100 percent renewable energy. Xcel itself says that coal-fired generation, coupled with carbon capture and sequestration, hitherto a very expensive process, still remains on the table, as does the idea of modular nuclear power plants. They are also expensive.

But the market economics of renewables have swiveled significantly, as McKibben points out. In 2017, sun and wind produced just 6 percent of the world’s electricity supply. However, they made up 45 percent of the growth in supply, and the price of wind and power continues to fall by about 20 percent with each doubling of capacity.

Once upon a time, fossil fuels were the sure road to wealth. That proposition looks increasingly suspect.

Avalanches leave unexploded ordnance in Colorado

FRISCO, Colo. – Scattered around Colorado’s high country above highways after this winter of deep snows lie 22 explosives colored yellow, orange, and blue, all of them shaped like mini-torpedoes. The Summit Daily News says they also resemble Nerf footballs.

The Colorado Department of Transportation put 1,569 explosives into avalanche paths, using Avalaunchers and other devices, to trigger slides when nobody was below. Helicopters were also used to drop charges. This is 10 times the number of charges from last winter, which had relatively sparse snow in Colorado. Only 1.4 percent of the total explosives failed to detonate.

Tracy Trulove, a spokeswoman for C-DOT, tells the Summit Daily that the agency has 70 trained individuals who will try to locate the explosives. Just the same, there could be some things that look like Nerf footballs lying about. It’s best to not fiddle with them.

Questions about technology as phone coverage expands

JACKSON, Wyo. – The National Park Service favors adding 13 cell towers to supplement the 2 existing towers in Grand Teton National Park. Whether this is good is being debated.

The intent, say park officials, is to improve reception in the front-country portion of the park. They acknowledge a small increment of new telephone reception in backcountry areas.

Even a small increment doesn’t set well with Jim Stanford, boatman on the Snake River and a Jackson town councilor. “Are we losing something here?” he asks the Jackson Hole News&Guide rhetorically. “Are these places becoming less wild for the sake of modern convenience?”

Franz Camenzind, a well-known conservationist, also has reservations. “Providing extensive coverage to the general public, I don’t think it’s their responsibility. I think it’s contrary to the value that natural areas and national parks can provide to the public.”

The new coverage will not be comprehensive, says Rusty Mizelle, but he had advice for those bothered by the coverage: “Turn your cellphone off.”

Cell phone service has already fundamentally altered rescue operations during the last decade, says Cody Lockhart, of the Teton County Search and Rescue. First responders now initially use cellphone forensics to determine locations.

“A decade ago, most of our incidents started out as a search, and then became a rescue,” he said. This shift has “definitely saved lives.”

Dumpster-diving bear with taste for honey pays price

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – The blond-haired black bear first attracted attention in Steamboat Springs for its Dumpster-diving. But when it started hanging around a daycare center, state wildlife officials knew that the bear had to go.

But to where? In this case, the bear was captured and then released to a ranch about 50 miles from Steamboat, in the pinyon-and-juniper country near Meeker, in northwest Colorado. But the bear got into trouble there, going after honey in a bee farmer’s hive. That earned the 2-year-old a death sentence.

Kris Middledorf, a wildlife manager for Colorado, told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that when bears cause agricultural damage, they must be killed, because the state must compensate the farmers and ranchers for their losses. It quickly becomes expensive.

The Department of Parks and Wildlife has sometimes provided electric fencing, to keep the bears out of the apiaries. But there are just too many new apiaries in that area during the last 10 years, he said.

Last year, 18 bears were relocated in northwestern Colorado, of which 8 were subsequently killed because they got into trouble a second time.

Biology professor writing a chapter for IPCC report

DURANGO, Colo. – An associate professor of biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango is working on a chapter for an upcoming special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Heidi Steltzer is responsible for the ecosystem section on high mountain areas for the report, which is to be titled “The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” The cryosphere is the frozen part of the Earth. Think high mountains, Antarctica and, at least for much of the year, the Arctic Ocean.

The Durango Telegraph explains that Steltzer first aspired to be a marine biologist, but got sea sick, then wanted to be a tropical biologist. Alas, the heat bothered her too much.

Instead, she landed a spot in the early 1990s at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, near Crested Butte. One thing led to another – including a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado – and to her teaching post on the edge of the San Juan Mountains.

While she may know a lot already, her job with the IPCC is to sift through what others know and distill it into a chapter.

“These places that are far away, cold or vast, we don’t understand them well yet, and this is an effort to put that story together,” she said. “A focus of the report is on how less snow, retreating glaciers and thawing permafrost affect the water supply, hazards, ecosystems, and communities in mountain regions and adjacent lowlands.”

Banff’s grizzly bears adapt to earlier berry ripening

BANFF, Alberta – By 2080, warming temperatures may cause buffaloberries to ripen three weeks earlier than they do now in Alberta’s Bow Valley. At higher elevations of Banff National Park, the earlier ripening could come 40 days earlier, according to a study by a University of Calgary researcher.

That change could make life more difficult for grizzly bears, researcher David Laskin told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

“The buffaloberry crop … is a critical buffet for the bears late in the season, and it’s an opportunity for them to gain a lot of weight before hibernation,” he said.

A male grizzly can eat up to 220,000 berries in a single day.

“Their ability to reproduce relies on how much weight they can put on in summer. There’s going to be a bigger gap between when bears eat berries and when they hibernate, and that may compromise their ability to gain weight.”

That could have implications, he adds for human-bear conflicts.

In Whistler, there’s concern about human-bear conflicts now. In September, the province temporarily closed an alpine trail network after two separate groups of hikers had a close call with a grizzly. Municipal officials tell Pique Newsmagazine that they will ramp up their public messaging about grizzly bears. In the past, the messages had been mostly about black bears.

Manager accused of stealing $1 million in skis and so forth

ASPEN, Colo. – A member of the Aspen City Council from 2009 to 2013 has been accused of stealing more than $1 million worth of skis, snowboards, and other goods while working for the Aspen Skiing Co.

The Aspen Times reports that Derek Johnson, 51, had been fired by the ski company in December. He had co-founded a snowboard shop, which was sold to Aspen Skiing in 2001. He was kept on as managing director of the company’s retail-rental division.

Court documents indicated that the security manager for the ski company told Aspen police about a tip. The tipster had said Johnson was stealing demo skis and selling them through an e-Bay account called “sportandski.”

Spreadsheets found on Johnson’s computer at his home showed that between 2010 and 2018, he and his wife, Kerri Johnson, 48, listed $2.1 million in total sales from the e-Bay account, reported The Times, citing the court documents. With other mechanisms, the Johnson stole $2.4 million, according to the arrest warrant.

The Times notes that Johnson was a community pillar. He had also served as a director of two local resort chamber associations and coached kids’ hockey and football teams. At one point, he ran for mayor.

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