La Plata Electric Association’s board of directors election is quickly approaching, with ballots set to be mailed out to co-op members on Friday.
With those ballots, the approximately 7,600 LPEA members in Archuleta County have a choice between two candidates running for a seat on the LPEA board of directors.
Those candidates are J. Robert (Bob) Formwalt and Kirsten Skeehan.
While an article in last week’s issue of The SUN (on page A1) presented statements from each candidate, SUN staff posed three additional questions to each candidate about the future of energy and issues facing LPEA: What is your perspective on the future of energy, both on a wider scale and locally? How can someone affect that future as an LPEA board member? What are the most important issues facing LPEA as they relate to Archuleta County?
Skeehan provided written answers to the questions, while Formwalt opted to answer the questions verbally.
• What is your perspective on the future of energy, both on a wider scale and locally?
Formwalt: “Nationwide, we’re running short on energy that’s going to be reasonable to buy. It’s going to really press fixed income people and people on the fixed income scales,” Formwalt said.
Continuing, Formwalt noted he is focusing on alternative energy sources and that “renewable energy” is a misnomer because all energy comes from the sun. “If you use it up, there’s no more energy coming from the sun.”
“We, as a nation, must start looking at alternative energy solutions other than fossil fuels. We cannot afford to price energy so high that we’re damaging people on low and fixed incomes. It’s going to be a long while before we will be able to get off fossil fuels simply because there is nothing there to replace them at this time,” Formwalt said.
Only nuclear energy would serve as a replacement, Formwalt indicated, but added, “This nation is not able to embrace nuclear to the capacity we would need.”
Instead, Formwalt said, we need to look at forms of alternative energy available locally. The most available form of alternative energy locally, is hydroelectric power, Formwalt said, also speaking of biomass, solar and wind.
“We have so many steep streams that we should be utilizing those,” Formwalt said, adding that putting “microhydros” in streams would harvest energy without the building of dams.
“Biomass is another one that’s available to us. We have a lot of forested lands that are not being utilized for tender, and those are becoming diseased forests because they have not been thinned by man or fire in recent years,” Formwalt said.
Of solar and wind, Formwalt said solar is probably the second most available form of alternative energy locally, but that there is not enough sustained wind in southwest Colorado to make wind power a viable option.
Skeehan: “The worldwide demand for energy and electricity specifically is increasing. As the demand rises, so are costs. We recently saw an increase in our LPEA base rate and can expect more raises. A strong economy depends on inexpensive energy. Internationally, we are seeing the effect of China’s development as they compete for coal contracts and push prices up. As a small business owner, I felt the effects of China getting involved in a market when they started buying wheat and my flour prices went up 40 percent. I don’t want that to happen to my electric bill.
“Coal in both nominal and real terms is increasing in price at the same time that some other fuels are decreasing in price. Incredible advances have been made in geothermal and solar generation that are bringing the costs down. We must aggressively pursue multiple sources of energy in a responsible and thoughtful manner or risk spiraling costs as available resources diminish.
“Here in the La Plata Electric Association area, population is increasing as is the use of power. As we try to attract more diverse businesses to this area, we must be able to guarantee a robust, affordable and stable infrastructure. That means redundancy, which could be supplemented by geothermal or biomass power plants and solar.
“We have opportunity for growth beyond tourism and second homes. I was stationed in Iceland for a year where their geothermal power plants make abundant and cheap electricity. They have attracted high tech companies who need lots of electricity to run data centers and server farms. Wouldn’t it be great to responsibly harness the power of the hot water under our feet? LPEA can encourage those kinds of projects and encourage the private investment dollars that will make those projects happen. We can’t depend on government programs to make these projects happen.”
• How can someone affect that future as an LPEA board member?
Skeehan: “The board sets the direction and the tone of the cooperative and with that new direction comes new solutions. The board has to serve the coop members and keep rates affordable — those are their main tasks. That means they have to listen to their members. In multiple surveys both locally and throughout rural electric coops, members have said that they support and want renewables. The board has to take that desire from its members and turn it into real power.
“The board needs to encourage problem solving — figure out how to say yes. Electrical distribution is a complex field. Anyone who thinks it is easy is kidding themselves. I applaud LPEA for doing a decent job at it and I know they can do better. The more variables in a problem, the more exciting it is to solve and I want to be part of that solution.
“Policy and pricing is determined by the board. On my PAWS bill, the more water I use, the more I pay per gallon. That might be a viable option for pricing and might allow the base rate to remain low. LPEA needs to be innovative to keep rates affordable and the board drives that spirit of innovation and creativity.
“As a board member I will help set that tone and that direction — to solve problems, to get smart about rate structures, to encourage local economic development that creates jobs and careers in our community and keeps our energy dollars local.
“It is time to begin now to look for cheaper long term alternatives to coal to keep our long term electric rates low and not wait to the last minute when prices will be bleeding us dry. Fortunately, we have abundant local resources that we are currently beginning to use and develop: geothermal, bio-mass and solar energy. So we know alternative energy works but we need to step up the pace with visionary leadership that can develop polices to expand local renewable energy throughout our community. That leadership can create local jobs and careers for our young people and help jump start our local economy.
Formwalt: “We, as LPEA board members, and understand there are twelve ... we can have our input and argue our points,” Formwalt said, continuing, “We need to be expanding into the alternative energy sources as we can afford them. Our economy is in such terrible shape right now, if we embrace alternative energies that cost more than fossil fuels do today, it’s going to do a lot of damage to our economy and to our membership.”
What are the most important issues facing LPEA as they relate to Archuleta County?
Formwalt: The most important issue, according to Formwalt, is, “having an affordable electricity that is dependable.”
There are groups that would like to have tariffs feed into the local electric system and rates, Formwalt said, which would be guaranteed income for those groups — something Formwalt currently opposes.
“None of us have guaranteed income,” Formwalt said.
“Solar technology may improve to the point in the next few years that we might want to embrace it,” Formwalt said, adding that LPEA does buy “quite a bit” of solar through its net program, where the providers are paid at retail value until the break-even point, and then are paid a wholesale rate.
The program is heavily subsidized by the federal government, Formwalt said, adding, “I don’t know any other business with a guarantee that they will survive.”
The other issue at the forefront of Formwalt’s concern is the lack of redundancy of power coming in through Tri-State’s 115kv transmission line feeding into the area from the west.
“We do not have enough duplication of lines if Tri-State’s line should go down,” Formwalt said. “That’s one of my big issues. I’ve been making sure there’s been enough in our budget ... to have another line come in ... as long as I’ve been on the board.”
Other issues, Formwalt said, are insignificant compared to the two he voiced.
“1. Keeping the power on!
2. Keeping rates affordable.
3. Encouraging local development of power. Building for the future now. Don’t wait until it is too expensive. Diversify the portfolio now. In our little piece of paradise here in southwest Colorado, we have energy potential ready to be cultivated. With initial tests showing geothermal water hot enough and close enough to the surface to generate clean power; with biomass in our forests needing fire risk reduction which can fuel clean power; with 300-plus days of sunshine which can fuel clean power. There are alternatives to shipping wind based electricity in from Wyoming; alternatives to burning increasingly expensive coal. Alternatives to spending $70,000,000 outside the area for our power.”