Voices of 100%: Colorado Town’s Residents and Businesses Join Forces for Clean Energy — Episode 88 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 23 Oct 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Colorado, a long-time hub of hiking and skiing, has become the unexpected hub of clean energy commitments. In a swing state often divided over political issues, what makes renewable energy so popular?

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Lissa Ray and Monique DiGiorgio about Durango, Colo.’s recent commitment to 100% renewable electricity by 2050. Ray, a climate activist, organized the residents of Durango as the point person for the Sierra Club. DiGiorgio, Managing Director of Local First in La Plata County, rallied local businesses for the cause. Farrell asks the two for lessons learned through their work on Durango’s Ready for 100 campaign, the benefits of making the commitment in rural Colorado, and advice for other organizers looking to do the same.

Listen to the full episode to learn what cities served by rural electric cooperatives can do to strengthen democracy in their community, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Lissa Ray Because you’re meeting people and talking to them about things that are important to them and you create this connection and this network and a confidence in people and that snowballs and starts to get bigger and bigger.
Monique DiGiorgio Many business owners, especially the local independent ones, are really going to see that economic case and the holistic view of local renewable energy and be very supportive.
John Farrell What makes Colorado a hotspot for 100% renewable energy and why is the Southwestern Colorado town of Durango joining the fight for clean energy? On this episode of Local Energy Rules, we talk with climate activist Lissa Ray, and the managing director of the Local First independent business alliance, Monique DiGiorgio about these issues. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self- Reliance and this is our special Voices of 100 series focused on local leaders and their pursuit of 100% renewable energy. It’s all a part of Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast, sharing stories about local renewable energy. Lissa, welcome to the program.
Lissa Ray Thank you for having me
John Farrell and Monique DiGiorgio. Welcome again to Local Energy Rules.
Monique DiGiorgio Thank you, John.
John Farrell I wanted to start off and to pick on you, Lissa. Just by eyeballing the Sierra Club’s map of cities that have made 100% renewable energy commitments, it seems like there’s something in the water in Colorado and that it’s a hot spot. Do you have a sense of why it is that so many Colorado communities feel motivated to make this commitment and does that connect with, do you feel like it’s similar to what motivated folks in Durango to adopt this goal?
Lissa Ray Yes, I think it’s all tied into amendment 37 which passed in 2004 which establishes a net metering law and a renewable portfolio standard for Colorado. We have investor owned utilities and we have large co-ops and small co-ops in Colorado. So a little bit different across the state as far as how those are applied. But I think that’s what really gave us the impetus to get started on all of this. So as far as Durango goes, we actually started working on renewable energy increasing in our co-op shortly thereafter in 2005 and I can talk to you more about the co-op process and how we approach things differently from most of the other cities that have adopted a hundred percent renewable energy commitments in Colorado.
John Farrell Yeah, I think this is actually a perfect segue into my second question here already, which was one thing that we try to help folks understand through this podcast is the role of utility companies and the fact that there are different kinds. So you know, in many cities, especially larger ones like Denver, the utility is a private company that’s overseen by like a state regulatory commission. Folks often appointed by a governor. But your utility, the La Plata electric association is a cooperative. And that’s true of many smaller towns or rural communities across the United States. They are served by cooperatives. I’m just curious like how has that reacted to the goal and does it being a cooperative help or hurt in this process? And maybe if you want to expand on how you’ve already been working with them on this, since it sounds like it’s been going on for quite a while.
Lissa Ray Well, right and typically our co-op, just for some background is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and our co-op is run by an elected board of directors and traditionally probably the first 50 years of that existence, those board of directors listened basically to what staff told them was going to happen and they said, that sounds good to me and went on their merry way. But once we started asking for more renewable energy in the portfolio, we got some pushback and those directors were really not in favor of that. So we started working to get, should I say a renewable energy advocates on the board and that took us a really long time. We worked really hard to do that and we’ve just last year gained a majority of directors on the board that are a renewable energy advocates. So that’s been a different process.
John Farrell I would love if you would expand a little bit on that process in terms of electing the board, because I think people are very familiar with like a local election for a mayor or a city council and they think to themselves, Oh well if you know you get organized, it might take a little while to get new folks on your council, but if you really have built a big movement or you know, organize a lot of people, you could do it in a fairly short period of time. Is there some reason that it takes such a long time or is there some difference in the way that the co-op holds its elections that made that more challenging?
Lissa Ray So we have 12 directors on the board and we have four districts. So three directors representing each district. One of those in every district is up for election every year. So we have an election for our board of directors every year and they serve a three year term. So why was it so hard? Well, you had 12 directors, many of whom had been in there for 15, 20, 25 years. So they’re pretty stuck in that model that they’d been following for all this time and very resistant to anything new. So one at a time we started electing new directors. Eventually we ran a panel of four, this was in 2011 instead of just running one director here, one director there, we ran a panel of four and really did a push for a platform based on getting more renewable energy to the LPA customers. And that brought more attention to it because traditionally only about 6% of the membership votes for their director. So he had a very, very low turnout and those familiar names keep coming up on the ballot and people just keep voting for those familiar names. We have increased that votership up to about 25% which we hear is probably the biggest percentage of voters in any co-op nationwide. But it’s been a real struggle.
John Farrell I want to ask a few more questions about the co-op and kind of the process with renewables, but I want to get to you Monique to ask you about kind of your role in this cause. One of the things it was, I was so excited about having you as part of this conversation is that a lot of the folks who are involved in these hundred percent efforts around the country are either, maybe it’s an elected official who was kind of already turned onto the issue. Maybe it was a climate activist like Lissa, but you kind of come at this from a different approach. You know, you’re a leader in the local first organization. Could you explain a little bit about what local first is and then how that brings you to this conversation about renewable energy?
Monique DiGiorgio Yeah. Local First is a pretty unique nonprofit. We’re a business trade association, but we’re still a nonprofit and we’re the voice of the local independent business community here in La Plata County, the remote Southwest corner of Durango, Colorado. And we represent more than 270 local independent businesses. So we’re in a unique position to really speak on behalf of local renewable energy, both from an economic standpoint and an environmental one. And that is because our mission is the triple bottom line. So our mission is to build an economy that values people, the planet and prosperity for everyone. And that mission really underscores local self-reliance. So everything that you guys do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and it really speaks to a business community that understands the importance, let’s say of local renewable energy, not only to the local economy and you know, employing people and the solar industry in general, but also that the carbon impacts are that secondary, right? So we understand that the planetary benefits from a climate standpoint are also really important. So we brought I think a pretty unique perspective to the local renewable energy dialogue. And it’s because really our organization is just so well poised to do so. So we were pretty excited to be working with the community and folks like Lissa to really start being a leader in local renewable energy here in Southwest Colorado.
John Farrell Lissa, coming back to the question on the co-ops. So you’ve done a lot of the work has just been getting the co-op to actually care about these issues that you and Monique and others have been working on. What are the changes that you’re seeing? You know, I just saw a Rocky Mountain Institute report, I think it was earlier this year, maybe last year, that Tristate, which is this larger kind of co-op of co-ops that serves many of the Colorado has this big opportunity to shift to renewable energy and to reduce costs for all the co-ops that it produces electricity for. Is La Plata electric on board with that? Are they looking to tri-state to help kind of answer this question or are there things they’re doing at the local level? You know, how are they being helpful around this renewable energy commitment?
Lissa Ray Quite frankly, TriState has a noose around our neck, a stranglehold on this because they required us to sign a long-term contract, which we committed to buying 95% of our energy from them for the next 40 years, leaving us with only the ability to generate 5% locally. So, um, unfortunately there aren’t very many co-ops that are members of Tristate, which is also a co-op, that feel that increasing the amount of renewable energy is important to their members. So Tristate’s been very difficult to work with to try to get their um, portfolio changed. One of the reasons is, years ago they decided to buy a coal mine and they also started investing in the sunflower plant in Kansas to be built. So now that coal is becoming a less in demand, I will say our renewable energy is less expensive. They’re in a position where they have stranded assets. That’s a dilemma.
John Farrell Yes it does. So has a La Plata already kind of done everything it can in terms of that 5% that is left to them to generate from local resources, kind of what’s the next step if Durango has made this commitment to 100% is there more they can do? Cause I’ve heard some stories of other tri-state members that are wrestling with this same issue. Maybe not a majority of them unfortunately. But you have the Delta Montrose electric cooperative, our you have kit Carson who have both pushed on Tri-State to do things differently. Is La Plata similarly going to look at either trying to leave Tristate in order to have a little more freedom or to find other ways to acquire renewable energy?
Lissa Ray A year ago our representative to Tristate and our CEO asked Tristate formally to increase our amount of allowable renewable energy to 10%. That was taken to the board and voted on and the board voted against that option, said you can come back in two years and ask us again. So we didn’t move very, very far with that request. And in the meantime, our board appointed a committee to study power supply and that included possibility of a buyout, similar to what Delta Montrose and Kit Carson have already done to buy out the contract and go with an energy broker for our energy supply, our electricity supply. So we are looking at all those options right now and we have asked tri-state formerly to give us a price to buy out our contract.
John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, Lissa and Monique will explain why something called a franchise agreement can help cities push their utilities, how having a cooperative utility means members can take charge and why there are major health and economic benefits to advancing local renewable energy.
John Farrell Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations every year. Each year, our small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to Ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review on iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
John Farrell So I want to pivot a little bit here and talk a little bit more about what the city is doing itself. So obviously utilities play a really big role in these renewable energy commitments because they’re the ones generating and selling the energy. But there’ve also been some interesting things we’ve seen cities do and ways that they’ve turned their resources toward it. Are there things that the city has done specifically, putting solar on public buildings or trying to change policy to make it easier for residents and businesses to renewable energy or developing like a roadmap? We’ve seen that in some cities. Monique, I want to give you a chance to answer if this is something you’ve been working on too. Maybe if you want to jump in, otherwise we can go back to Lissa as well.
Monique DiGiorgio Sure. I mean we can speak to our most recent, I think victory or I would say leadership shown by the city of Durango and just taking the first step, which is setting a goal so that we can then look at what would be a roadmap to actually achieve those goals. So just as a summary, to recap, the community really came out in force to ask the city of Durango to become leaders in local renewable energy. We had about 222 businesses sign on to a 100% renewable energy resolution and then around 1400 city residents also signed on to that resolution. And it took more than two years to really get the right, let’s say, makeup on the city. And then the leadership from the city council to finally adopt a goal. And what they did was they adopted a 100% goal around renewable energy and it’s a greenhouse gas emission reduction goal as well as a renewable electricity goal at 100% so our next question to the city is really how do we achieve that? And what we’ve been told is that kind of the roadmap to get there is something that we’re all going to be working on as a community. Um, and I think Lissa can speak a little bit more to some of the projects that the city is looking into, but we really see this as a starting point and that there’s quite a bit of work to be done to reach those goals. So we’re looking at everything from electrical vehicle charging stations to supporting more behind the meter solar and really looking at the city infrastructure as well. Also the city of Durango has a franchise agreement with LPA and a, we should have Lissa talk a little bit about that cause that provides a unique opportunity where we could potentially help to meet some of these goals.
Lissa Ray okay. The city and La Plata electric association have an agreement called the franchise agreement. And basically it allows LTA to work on the infrastructure, which is mainly under the roads in our city without applying for a permit. And so it’s a time saver. It’s a bureaucracy saber. So they can do that without any permission necessary. They’ll just go do what they need to do. And in return, the citizens of Durango are charged a franchise fee that is payable on your electric bill because it’s based your electricity usage. So it’s a small fee and that fee is collected by LPEA. And then, um, the city is given that money and put into the general fund of the city. So that’s basically what the franchise agreement is. Eight years ago, the 20 year agreement expired and we tried to get language in there that would allow the city to get around the 5% limitation for one and we’ll put in some milestones, checkpoints for LPA as to whether or not they are doing their part to increase their renewable portfolio. So, um, we did get one clause in there that allows the city of Durango to buy their electricity from someone other than LPEA. So they could contract with say a company that puts in a big solar array and buy their energy directly from them. That’s a piece that we got in there and we’re not sure how we might be able to use that in the future.
John Farrell And just to clarify, that’s for the municipal buildings, not for all residents of the city being able to go shopping somewhere else for power.
Lissa Ray Yes, that’s correct. We don’t really know exactly how we might be able to use that because it hasn’t been tested at this point. So we maybe could extend it to the residents or businesses possibly. But we really have not explored that fully. We really don’t know at this point. The city has invested a small amount of money to put some panels on the airport and that was a joint venture between the city and the County. And they’ve done one other small project. They have been evaluating their municipal buildings as to where those solar arrays might could be placed, whether the roofing is adequate for the load along with the snow load that we’ll get here in Durango and where their best, most bang for the buck might be. So they are in the process of doing an evaluation right now.
John Farrell I’m really glad that you mentioned the franchise agreement. We’ve done at the Institute some research on franchise agreements. We’ve been involved actually with activists in Minnesota in Minneapolis using the franchise agreement expiration similarly as a leverage point back in 2013 and 2014, but we’ve also tried to document where around the country cities have these franchise agreements so folks can figure out is this something that we can use there? So we’ll have that on the show page for podcast. Ah, when that comes out it’s for folks who are interested in learning more about it. I want to pivot here a little bit and just to ask, to what degree has the city or folks like you have been advocating around 100% renewable energy than talking about how equity fits into this? In other words like how to ensure that the benefits of shifting to 100% renewable energy, which you know have climate benefits and health benefits and often financial benefits. How do those accrue to all residents, like low income folks or indigenous people?
Lissa Ray Monique do you have thoughts on that?
Monique DiGiorgio I do. I can probably speak briefly to it and then Lissa can talk about it as well. But so one of the unique pieces of Durango, Colorado and LPEA is that LPEA is a member owned nonprofit cooperatives. So that means once a month our board of directors meet and we can come as members and speak to that board on the issues that are important to us. And I think that our community really, you know over the last 13 years, but really over the last two to three years we’ve been ramping up that dialogue with LPEA and showing up every month and providing statements on the importance of local renewable energy. And we have one particular advocate who time and time again brings up the health and equity piece of the climate issue and the local renewable energy. And in the four corners here, we have coal fired power plants that are really impacting our air quality and impacting the air quality of the native people, the Navajo nation and others in the four corners. So when we think of local renewable energy, we need to realize that we’re moving away from a coal based fossil fuel economy and energy system and that that’s going to have major impacts from a social equity and environmental and health standpoint for us as a community because really we’ve been choosing coal fired power plants. And then the, uh, health implications are pretty dramatic, especially on the Navajo nation. So there are intrinsic health and equity impacts in this shift to a new energy economy that’s really solar and renewable energy based.
John Farrell Lissa, did you want to add any other thoughts on this?
Lissa Ray So I can add to that that our electricity rates have been increasing significantly over the past 20 years, I’ll say, and are projected to more in the future. So one of the things that we feel like would affect everyone is by the co-op buying less expensive renewable energy, which would be less expensive. And that would at least stabilize and possibly reduce some of the cost to the entire service territory, which covers four cities and two counties basically. So that could benefit all of the residents that use electricity from LPEA
John Farrell I want to ask you one other question about kind of an equity focused policy here and then I’d love to wrap up by asking advice that you might have for other folks who are organizing in small cities across the country. My question is about our policy model called pay as you save. And the reason I’m asking about it is that it’s a really interesting financing model that has come out of a lot of Appalachian rural electric cooperatives where they will front the money for energy improvements on customer property, like whether ceiling insulation, even upgrades to like a air conditioner or something like that and allow people to pay it back on their bill. And in fact it stays connected to the bill and to the property so that if somebody you know, makes a lot of improvements and then moves three years from now, they don’t have to pay it all back themselves. And it’s structured in such a way that is accessible to folks whether or not they have a good credit score so they’re not having to borrow the money themselves. It’s actually the co-op that’s providing them money and actually the co-op can access very inexpensive federal money to do this. And I’m wondering if you have had any conversations about that kind of program, if that’s come up just as it seems to me an interesting ask that folks have made in Southeastern communities of their co-ops to make energy more affordable and then it might align with some of the goals that you have both about deploying clean energy resources as well as uh, helping things be affordable.
Lissa Ray So LPA actually adopted an on bill financing program about four years ago for its customers and they work with a local bank in order to finance energy efficiency upgrades, much the same as what you just stated. There’s a limit of $7,500 I believe that they can borrow, but then they pay that back through their electricity bill and savings hopefully to their electricity bill. We have had very few takers and that could be a marketing problem. They haven’t marketed that heavily and so not enough people know about it or maybe it just is not financially feasible for some of the people that have looked at it. I’m not sure
John Farrell Well, I’d like to just wrap up then with asking Monique, what advice would you have for folks who are working on 100% renewable energy in other communities for engaging the business community? Are there other local first organizations? Should folks seek them out? What would you suggest folks say when they reach out to business owners about these kinds of climate and energy commitments?
Monique DiGiorgio yeah. I mean the first thing that communities can do is see if they have something like a local independent business alliance. There are many across the nation, although you know there’s really a handful in total, so it’s quite possible that a lot of communities don’t have a Local First as a resource. And I would say that even if you don’t have an organized local independent business Alliance, what you can do is really use that triple bottom line mission of people, planet and prosperity for everyone and really approach your local businesses with that in mind and make the economic case for local renewable energy. Everything from the fact that renewable energy is now less expensive than the old fossil fuel ways of the past. The fact that it creates jobs and that there’s really a strong economic case to be made for local renewable energy and then really integrating that with the benefits for the community around local self-reliance and the environmental benefits and that many business owners, especially the local independent ones, are really going to see that economic case and the holistic view of local renewable energy and be very supportive. We found our community to be extremely, our business community to be very supportive of local renewable energy for all those reasons.
John Farrell Yeah, I was, when you mentioned earlier how many local businesses signed on, it sounded like it was well over half of the members of the local first organization.
Monique DiGiorgio Yeah, actually. So when we had all 222 businesses that signed on, I went and cross-checked how many of those were members of local first and about 70% were. So that really does show that as a local business alliance we kind of have tapped into I think the local independent business community that supports this type of renewable energy and this type of community benefit. So other communities may have to do a little bit of that leg work, but I think it’s a great place to start.
John Farrell Lissa, what advice do you have for folks, whether it’s in small cities or those electric cooperatives for trying to get their community started toward 100% renewable energy goal?
Lissa Ray Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed is in the past two to three years there has been an increased interest and this topic, whether it be from the economic standpoint as Monique was mentioning or from the um, environmental and reducing our environmental impact standpoint, which works in our favor. One on one conversations at different events are definitely the best way to go. People can ask the questions that they are interested in and if we don’t know the answers, we can get back to them. But really getting the community educated about particularly our options and what we can do and how much their support means to us is definitely probably the best thing that you can do. It’s takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, but it’s also very rewarding because you’re meeting people and talking to them about things that are important to them and you create this connection and this network and um, confidence in people and that snowballs, starts to get bigger and bigger. As far as the business owners, they’re really skeptical about what they might be able to do with that 5% limitation. And if we talk to them specifically about what options they might have, most of them in Durango are renters in concerned about, you know, if they make an investment in solar, where would they put it if the owner of the building won’t allow them to put it there. So we’ve looked at some possibilities of programs that we might could pursue in order to work with the behind the meter production, particularly in the business community.
John Farrell I forgot to put this question in my list to give you a head of time so I would to put you on the spot, but it hopefully is not a terribly challenging question, which is just is there something in doing this work that you find inspires you that would be helpful to share with other folks who are trying to do similar work? And Monique, I’ll go to you first.
Monique DiGiorgio Yeah. It was so inspiring to see democracy at work. So we spent so many years and uh, Lissa has spent decades working on this issue and it was really inspiring to see the community show up in force and really voice the importance of local renewable energy and our decision makers to hear that. And to the extent that LPEA actually in the last year adopted a 50% carbon reduction goal by 2030. And so when you see your voice really be heard at that level, I think it really shows that our democracy is working. And that each individual can make a difference. So it was extremely rewarding.
John Farrell Lissa?
Lissa Ray Well, ditto on that, um, most definitely. I think the other thing that since talking to me, I as I am constantly looking at what other cities are doing and accomplishing and have started networking with some of the people that are working on these campaigns and other places all across the country from we get together and have conversations about those things that inspires me and gives me ideas of what we might be able to do here. Start working on from a different angle. So other people in other communities inspire me.
John Farrell Well, I feel like you couldn’t have given me a better opportunity to plug our podcast where we have over a dozen interviews now with folks from communities that have made a hundred percent renewable energy commitments and telling their stories. And this will be one of them when we publish it. So Lissa and Monique, thank you so much for sharing the work that you’re doing in Durango and providing some inspiration for folks in other places across the country as they’re doing similar work.
Monique DiGiorgio Thank you so much, John. It was a pleasure to be on the show
Lissa Ray A pleasure and an honor. Thank you very much.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our voices of 100% podcast series with Durango, Colorado leaders Lissa Ray and Monique DiGiorgio. Check out the show page for links to resources from our conversation about franchise agreements and pay as you save financing, among other things. To learn about other cities pursuing 100% renewable energy, check out the voices of 100% interviews, including leaders in Madison, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, or even Abita Springs, Louisiana. Also on the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find the entire list of 100% cities on our community power map and click to an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goal. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Durango’s Commitment Fits the Trend in Colorado

With 12 cities committed to 100% renewable electricity or energy, Colorado residents have been very receptive to the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign. One of these commitments came from the small city of Durango, population 18,500, in the southwest corner of Colorado. Climate activist Lissa Ray worked on the campaign to secure a commitment, which as she describes, was the culmination of more than a decade of organizing. Ray attributes the ultimate success of a 100% renewable commitment to Colorado’s Initiative 37. 

The ballot measure, called the Colorado Renewable Energy Requirement, put in place a gradually rising renewable energy portfolio for the state’s utilities. It also mandated net metering. The initiative passed in 2004, after which Lissa says renewable energy advocates got to work in Durango. However, they were soon to face an obstacle in their electric cooperative (co-op) and its elected board.

Electric Co-ops Can Enable, or Inhibit, Energy Democracy

Many small, rural cities across the U.S. are served by electric cooperatives. Co-ops, in contrast to investor-owned utilities, have members rather than customers and are governed by an elected board of supervisors. Although this is a more participatory structure than a privately owned company, many co-ops are still far from democratic.

See this 2016 report for more on energy democracy in electric cooperatives.

Ray says that board members of La Plata Electric Association (LPEA), the co-op serving Durango, were all long-standing members resistant to change. As only 6% of co-op members actually voted for their representatives, it took Ray and other organizers years to shake up the constitution of the board. Eventually, they were able to increase votership to 25% — one of the highest election turnouts of any co-op in the United States. A majority of board members are now renewable energy advocates. 

With the co-op board on their side, organizers in Durango were able to secure a commitment to 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2050.

The San Juan Mountains outside Durango

Local Businesses Stand with Local Renewables

Monique DiGiorgio, Managing Director of Local First in La Plata County, organized the community toward its renewable energy commitment from a different angle. At Local First, DiGiorgio represents 270 local businesses united by a triple bottom line: people, the planet, and prosperity for everyone. 

A total of 222 businesses, including a majority of the Local First independent business alliance, signed on to the 100% renewable electricity commitment. DiGiorgio explains that businesses understand both the importance of renewable energy to the local economy and its climate benefits:

Many business owners, especially the local independent ones, are really going to see that economic case and the holistic view of local renewable energy and be very supportive.

Monique DiGiorgio

Local renewable energy boosts the local economy through increased investment and additional jobs, but it also can lower residents’ energy bills — money they can put back into the local economy as well. Unfortunately, Durango cannot simply invest in more renewable energy, despite it being in the best interests of residents.

Co-op Giant Looms Over Energy Aspirations

Durango’s co-op, La Plata Electric Association (LPEA), buys its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission (Tri-State). Farrell calls Tri-State the “co-op of co-ops,” because it is also a co-operative utility. Tri-State sells electricity to 43 small co-ops in four different states, one being Durango’s La Plata Electric. LPEA is under contract to buy 95% of its electricity from Tri-State for the next 40 years. With a contractual limit to  generate no more than 5% of their energy locally, and Tri-State’s weak commitment to renewable energy, something in Durango must change for the community to reach its commitment.

In the interview, Farrell mentions a Rocky Mountain Institute report that shows specifically how Tri-State could lower customer costs by switching to more renewable energy. However, Ray argues that with a coal mine it purchased 10 years ago and the Holcomb coal power plant (owned by the Sunflower Electric Co-op) in Kansas, Tri-State has too much invested in the status quo.

Durango applied to increase its share of locally produced energy, for example, but was rejected by the Tri-State board. Other communities, facing a similar rejection, have opted out of the cooperative association. Kit Carson Electric Co-op in New Mexico bought its way out of Tri-State, at a hefty exit price: 37 million dollars. More recently, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association attempted to leave Tri-State. When Tri-State named a much steeper price, Delta-Montrose took it to the courts. Ray reports that La Plata may follow suit, having studied the possibility of a buyout and formally asked Tri-State for a price.

We have asked Tri-State formerly to give us a price to buy out our contract.

Lissa Ray

For more on these progressive Western co-ops, listen to this interview with Luis Reyes (Kit Carson Electric Cooperative) or this interview with the late Ed Marston (Delta-Montrose Electric Association).

Durango’s Options Beyond the Utility

After securing a 100% renewable electricity commitment in Durango, DiGiorgio is encouraged that the City will do more.

When you see your voice really be heard at that level, I think it really shows that our democracy is working. And that each individual can make a difference.

Monique DiGiorgio

Despite La Plata’s obligations to Tri-State, Durango has some negotiation tools to put the pressure on both. First is the city’s franchise agreement with La Plata. Through the franchise agreement, La Plata collects a fee from electric customers that ultimately goes into the city’s general fund. In return, La Plata is free to maintain the grid without being tied up in endless permitting applications.

When the franchise fee expired eight years ago, the city put a clause in the renewed agreement that should allow the city to buy electricity elsewhere. Ray hopes this will allow Durango to expand the 5% of energy it can generate locally under Tri-State.

Could your city use a franchise fee to leverage power over the utility? See ILSR’s Franchise Fee Authority map.

Ensuring Durango’s Energy Transition Benefits All

DiGiorgio hopes that La Plata’s business model will keep equity at the forefront as Durango transitions to 100% renewable electricity. As a member-owned, non-profit co-op, members can speak to the board once a month at its public meetings. DiGiorgio believes that participation and dialogue around renewable energy has increased in the last few years, with members often bringing up the health and equity benefits of clean energy.

As electricity prices keep increasing, Ray believes renewable electricity could stabilize and even lower the costs of electricity for all in Durango.

Another option many utilities have turned to is the pay-as-you-save model, which Farrell brings up in the interview. Through pay-as-you-save––also known as inclusive energy financing––the utility will finance energy efficiency upgrades and the customer can pay for them over time on their energy bill. However, Ray says that La Plata tried offering on-bill financing like this four years ago. A Durango bank helped to finance energy efficiency upgrades for La Plata customers, but there were very few takers (if the program was based on personal loans and not well advertised, there may still be an opportunity for inclusive financing).

Advice for Other Organizers

DiGiorgio’s last advice for other communities rallying for 100% renewable energy is approaching local businesses. Making the economic case, paired with environmental and equity benefits, should be enough to convince business owners to sign on. 

As for Ray, connecting with individuals seems to be the best way to get things done:

Because you’re meeting people and talking to them about things that are important to them and you create this connection and this network and a confidence in people and that snowballs and starts to get bigger and bigger.

Lissa Ray

Episode Notes

For additional background on the issues discussed, check out:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 15th episode of our special Voices of 100% series, and 88th of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Durango-Silverton mountains photo credit: andrewghayes via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Avatar photo
Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.