Mountain Town News: Why there’s so much excitement in energy | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: Why there’s so much excitement in energy

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Why there's so much excitement about changes underway in energy

PAONIA, Colo. – In an old school gymnasium in Paonia that one speaker commented looked like it had been constructed during the Great Depression, 120 people gathered last week to sort out the future of energy in the 21st century.

The town in west-central Colorado is surrounded by peach and apple orchards, peaks of the West Elk Mountains looming in the background. It's not really a tourist town, as witnessed by the fact that there's just one motel.

Paonia used to be a coal town. The West Elk Mine still operates just a few miles away, but the miners have been laid off in droves as giant central-station coal-fired coal plants get shut down in favor of cheaper natural gas but also renewables in more dispersed locations. In 2012, nearly 1,000 people had bene employed in the local mines. By 2017, the employment had fallen to just 220.

Many key figures in Paonia and other local communities want to be at the front of that shift, not at the dirty backend. Among them is John Gavan, who semi-retired to the Paonia area after a career in technology. A member of the board of directors for the local electrical provider, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Gavan organized the conference, which is called Engage.

"We have an energy legacy, because of coal. But we now we are transitioning to a new distributed and renewable model," he said in an interview afterwards. "We want to be sure we are economically engaged."

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Gavan believes that his Delta-Montrose, he said, is one of the most aggressive electrical co-operatives in the country. A decade ago it began developing electricity using the fast-flowing waters of an agricultural canal.

Elsewhere in Colorado, a utility drew national attention last year when it announced it was planning to close two coal plants and replace the lost generation with primarily wind and solar with some battery storage. Xcel Energy said it could do this and save money for ratepayers and investors. The proposal was approved earlier this month by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

Colorado is particularly blessed with a diversity of renewable resources, but the same declining prices have roiled the electrical sector across North America.

Tom Plant, the keynote speaker at Engage, painted a picture of changes being driven from the grassroots. "Congress last year introduced how many energy bills?" he asked rhetorically. None, he answered. But legislators around the country introduced 3,433 bills.

Plant, who is with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter's Center for the New Energy Economy, described the "mainstreaming of renewables." Wind has declined by 67 percent in the last eight years and solar by 86 percent. "This changes the economics of the entire marketplace."

As a state legislator in 2000, Plant introduced a bill proposing a renewable portfolio standard. It got little support. So he did it again. Again, other legislators batted the idea down.

Then, in 2004 voters, bypassed the legislator, requiring Xcel to achieve 10 percent renewable generation. Xcel, which had opposed the mandate, then got to work, meeting its goals years ahead of its deadline. It then met the next, steeper renewables portfolio. It's now at 30 percent renewables and, with the changes recently approved, by late 2025 expects to hit 55 percent renewables.

"That's an incredible shift in such a short amount of time," said Plant of this and other changes. Electricity, he said, has decreased 17 percent in price during the 21st century even as there has been a shift to natural gas and now to renewables.

Plant also took a few shots at Tri-State, the wholesale supplier for several of the mountain towns, including Durango, Crested Butte, and Paonia, too. "They have the highest carbon intensity of any power provider in the country," Plant said.

Tri-State, for its part, points out that 30 percent of its portfolio is renewables, same as Xcel Energy now. However, Tri-State benefits from hydroelectricity from federal dams, something not available to the investor-owned Xcel. In addition to that difference, there's also the difference in the pace of the shift. Tri-State has added renewables, but at a far slower pace than Xcel.

Another way that utilities will add more renewables is if the power can be moved around the country better to match supplies with demands. Hence the wind of the Great Plains could be paired with the sunshine of California and the desert Southwest in places like Park City and Sun Valley. But there are roughly eight markets in the Western states currently, too small to effectively integrate renewables to maximum efficient. Ultimately, said Plant, it will happen.

Plant said that the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan—which President Donald Trump has set out to dismantle—was intended to bring everybody altogether to talk about stuff like energy markets.

"But without that federal push, the question is where will the push come from?" he said. The utilities haven't really stepped up, at least to the level that Plant and others would like, "so the question is what will cause the utilities to step up?"

Gavan, the conference organizer, compares what is happening now in energy to the giant changes in telecommunciations that began in the 1980s. At the time, AT&T had a monopoly and, with its baby bells, such as Mountain Bell in Colorado, resisted innovation. Phone calls were also extremely expensive. In the late 1970s, it costs 30 cents a minute to talk to somebody just 5 or 10 miles away.

"AT&T acted exactly as Tri-State is acting today: protectionist, anticompetitive and punitive," he said. "That's exactly the wrong game plan."

The telephone monopoly, he said, had few services available and they were very expensive. Innovators foresaw many possibilities: advanced networking services, voice mail, and then exotic call-handling services of value to businesses.

Gavan was among the challengers of AT&T. In his career he was IT director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington D.C. For 18 yeas, he was system engineering and IT director of MCI Telecommunications and later WorldCommunications after its acquisition of MCI. He owns seven patents associated with new technology.

Looking back to the 1980s, he sees many parallels between telecommuncations giant AT&T and some of the big utilities of today.

"AT&T tried to throw up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock to slow the change in the telephone business model, and in the process they wound up shorting themselves. The same thing is happening here."

Much of the conference was devoted to discussions about what those futures might look like. Nobody tried to argue that anything short of massive changes were afoot.

Assessing energy impacts of mansions in the Aspen area

KREMMLING, Colo. – It's now autumn and wildfires continue in Wyoming, Colorado and elsewhere.

One of the smaller fires, at least by 21st century standards, is in the Gore Range, a few miles away from where the Colorado River slices its way out of Middle Park. The Silver Creek fire is notable less by its size than the background story.

It has been argued that if only loggers had been allowed to get in and cut trees, there would not be all these blazes. There may be some truth to that, but in that particular area loggers had their way for most of the 20th century.

Kremmling, the nearest town, was a logging town, crews working for Edwards Hines Lumber and then Louisiana-Pacific were given easy access to local forests. If trees were not cut, it was likely because the terrain was too steep. A lot of the thin, spindly, lodgepole pine forests were cut extensively.

And still there is this fire.

Aspen also got a good scare this summer. It happened just before the Fourth of July, when the Lake Christine Fire got started in the pinyon-and-juniper forests about 20 miles down-valley from Aspen. Three homes were burned and 12,500 acres were blackened. By standards of the California fires and many others in Colorado, this wasn't all that big a blaze.

But it could have been much worse.

Aspen, like many of the somewhat higher-elevation resorts in Colorado, had long considered fire a distant threat. In theory, such forests burned —but not very often.

Now, the threat is not nearly as remote.

John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor, has been organizing several forums this week about the prospect of fire.

"It really woke us up, and the wildfire danger is changing," Bennett told the Aspen Daily News.

If the fires do happen, they are now bigger and hotter for a variety of reasons.

Summit County also once thought itself impervious to forest fires. That notion was dashed some years ago. It got a good scare last year, despite strong efforts aimed at insulating Breckenridge and other communities. Another fire arrived this year during the hot, searing days of June. This time, the preventative work likely saved many homes.

But it's not yet over. County officials adopted restrictions last week.

"As is typical this time of year, the vegetation in Summit County is getting very dry, and we need to put prevention measures in place to reduce the risk of wildfire," Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. "Looking ahead, there's a lot of sunshine in the forecast, so we don't expect that conditions will improve in the near future."

Mobile phone use while driving produces hundreds of tickets

KETCHUM, Idaho – Since they began enforcing a ban on use of cell phones while driving in February 2017, police in Ketchum have issued 172 citations. Police downvalley in Hailey have issued a comparable number, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

Blaine County sheriff's deputies have been slower to write summons. as they patrol the unincorporated areas of the county, outside towns, drivers tend to be going at higher rates of speed.

"It's difficult to 100 percent know they're on their cellphones when they're going 55 mph," said Will Fruehling, the chief deputy.

Sun Valley has no such ordinance.

Avalanche on Athabasca but these two got lucky

JASPER, Alberta – Avalanche season has arrived in the Canadian Rockies. The Jasper Fitzhugh reports two climbers were on Mt. Athabasca in Jasper National park on snow that they described as being like plastic foam when they heard a whumpf underfoot.

Both men were dragged 600 metres (about 200 feet) down the mountain. One, although hurt, ended up on top of the snow. The other was buried except for his head and one arm. As such, they were able to emerge from the snow.

Both had shovels, beacons, and probes, tools that don't guarantee survive but do improve the odds.

Camp counselor died with dark cloud over his legacy

JACKSON, Wyo. – A man who had been a familiar figure in Jackson Hole during summers past died several years ago at the age of 95. He might have died viewed as an honorable figure, given his work as a camp counselor to youngsters. Instead, he is being remembered as a serial child molester.

The same accusations had been made in Illinois, where he worked as a physical education teacher. There, the statute of limitations is shorter than in Wyoming. In 2014, he was charged with three counts of immoral acts with a child.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports the case has posed questions about responsibilities of those who are in charge of such things as camps to look the other way when getting reports of child molestation such as on camping trips. Some of the allegations of abuse occurred as early as 1968.

Fiber optic gets to Telluride, ending those spinning wheels

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Fiber-topic lines have reached Telluride, prompting a loud hurrah as the mountain town joined the rest of the world hyperventilating on a surfeit of information.

"No more spinning wheels, when trying to watch your favorite Netflix show in the midst of Bluegrass Festival. No more Internet black-outs when a snowstorm hits," said a press release issued by the Telluride Foundation, a non-profit.

The Telluride Daily Planet explains that the fiber-optic cable was piggybacked onto a power line that had been laid underground to within a few miles of the town. This final work was the result of a public-private partnership of state, county and local governments along with the Telluride Foundation and a local fiber internet provider called Clearnetworx.

Telluride Mayor Sean Murphy described the improved internet connectivity as a boon to economic diversity.

"Twenty-first century broadband connectivity is absolutely vital to the economic evolution of the town of Telluride from a tourist economy with predominantly seasonal service jobs to a well-rounded economy with sustainable year-round jobs," he said.

Dark sky enthusiasts continue to make case for shielding lights

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – In Colorado's Wet Mountain Valley, the debate goes on about restrictions on light fixtures in order to prevent light trespass and light pollution. Those restrictions will be needed if Custer County is to be certified as a Dark Skies Reserve.

Led by Jim Bradburn, a retired architect in Westcliffe who designed the famous tent-like roofline at Denver International Airport, the local dark-sky enthusiasts had hoped to gain the first such designation by the International Dark Sky Association issued in the United States.

Then election politics got in the way. Local political candidates in 2016 argued that the restrictions would usurp private property rights. A slogan was bandied about: change a light bulb, go to jail.

This is despite previous dark sky designations of the valley's two side-by-side towns, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff. To achieve that designation, the two towns had to adopt restrictions.

Instead of the Colorado valley becoming the first U.S. dark sky preserve, the Idaho region around Ketchum and Sun Valley earned that honor.

Meanwhile, enthusiasts of dark skies point to the economic value of preventing light pollution. the Wet Mountain Tribune reports that star-viewing parties this year have drawn 445 people, more than half arriving from elsewhere. Proponents also say that the dark sky has been a factor in some home purchasers.