Northern Colorado utility leaders look to future

Listening. It’s a word that peppers Jacqueline Sargent’s conversations.

Since coming on board last August as the Platte River Power Authority general manager, Sargent has initiated community listening sessions. Her priority is to understand what the nonprofit electric utility’s customers in Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont want as it takes a look at its long-term power supplies.

The utility generates its own power from a variety of sources including coal, hydropower, natural gas and wind energy.

“We currently have sufficient resources to meet the munic ipal cities’ loads through 2018,” Sargent said, “so we decided to take a step back and do some listening in the communities” PRPA serves, Sargent said.

In the coming year, she said, PRPA will take the input gathered at the listening sessions and analyze different scenarios for long-term power generation.

Brad Gaskill, chief executive of the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, is among those concerned about Senate Bill 252, which would require rural electric cooperatives to boost the amount of renewable power in their portfolios to 20 percent by 2020, up from 10 percent today. Co-ops with fewer than 100,000 meters and municipal utilities with fewer than 40,000 customers would be exempt.

Since SB 252 was sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk in April, Gaskill has been working with other rural electric co-ops and wholesale suppliers to see it vetoed.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Gaskill said. “We support renewable energy, and we want to increase those resources, but they aren’t reliable enough yet and fossil fuels are still the most economical sources of energy. This bill is asking us to do too much in a time frame that’s too short. It’s a big concern of mine.”

Jim Van Someren, communications manager at Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale electric power supplier that provides energy to 44 electric cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, concurred.

“Despite repeated requests to be a part of drafting this bill, none of the entities (rural co-ops) that are directly affected were allowed in the room,” Van Someren said. “We have a commitment to our customers to provide them with the most economical electricity possible, and this bill will severely impact that.”

Ron Asche, CEO at United Power, also a nonprofit cooperative that services the Front Range, voiced the same priorities that Tri-State, PRPA and Poudre Valley REA expressed: reliable, affordable electric power. Asche pointed to the renewable projects United has in place, including Methane to Megawatts, developed with the town of Erie’s landfill and private contractor Landfill Energy Systems. The system captures methane gas that is naturally generated by decaying matter in all landfills and converts it into electricity. Unlike wind or solar energy, methane systems operate continuously, not just when the resource is available, making it a highly reliable method for generating renewable energy. Currently, the system is operating at 3.2 megawatts and is capable of producing enough electricity to power 3,300 homes per year. At full capacity, the system is expected to generate 5 megawatts of power annually.

All three utilities report good fiscal health. They’ve had to take long, hard looks at their bottom lines and make some difficult decisions. Despite cutbacks in employee benefits or eliminating positions through attrition, they’re all looking at implementing new technologies such as smart-metering and monitoring systems that allow them to be proactive rather than reactive when outages occur.