New Mexico Co-op Dumps Monopoly Supplier to Offer More Solar — Episode 141 of Building Local Power

Date: 9 Dec 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of the Building Local Power podcast, ILSR Co-Director John Farrell speaks with Luis Reyes, General Manager of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in New Mexico. John and Luis discuss the many benefits of distributing solar power through the community and Kit Carson’s plan to provide members 100% of their daytime electricity from local solar projects.

Highlights include:

  • How rural electric co-ops are adapting to new challenges and expectations after serving rural areas for more than 100 years.
  • Why, due to contracts with coal plants, Generation and Transmission cooperatives (G&Ts) often hold back distribution cooperatives like Kit Carson from generating much of their energy locally.
  • How Kit Carson connects members to high quality Internet access — and how they rose to the challenge of distance learning by connecting schools and Internet hotspots at no cost.
  • How co-op members are shaping future renewable energy projects.

 

“I continue to see the co-ops in the forefront of this new energy world we’re facing, and we’re probably the best equipped to address it. I think that’s positive for the co-op nation.”

“We have to get out of these scare tactics and, and say, the sun doesn’t shine at night, so let’s put some batteries. Or let’s get wind that follows that nighttime profile. And instead of us as co-ops and utilities making excuses why we can’t, we should figure how we can.”

 

 Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the Host of Building Local Power and Communications Manager here the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: Today you’re going to hear from ILSR Co-director, John Farrell, who is joined by Luis Reyes, who is the general manager of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in New Mexico. Starting in 2022, Taos, New Mexico and surrounding communities will receive 100% of their daytime electricity from local solar projects. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, which is the utility that serves that area, is also connecting everyone of its 30,000 members to high speed affordable internet service. You’ll hear John and Luis discuss the advantages of self-reliance in rural communities and how Kit Carson’s progress has been driven by member engagement. With that, onto the show.
John Farrell: Without further ado, Luis, welcome.
Luis Reyes: Yeah, thanks John, it’s nice to talk to you again.
John Farrell: Now, your cooperative has gotten in the news for all sorts of reasons around clean energy, but one of the things I think most people don’t realize is that you’ve really been at the helm at Kit Carson for a long time. I looked up in your bio and I think you’ve been there now for over 25 years. I was just curious to start out by asking you, how have things changed for being a [inaudible 00:01:37] electric cooperative in New Mexico during your tenure? I can imagine that there’s a lot of things in terms of technology and how things are moving that might be different.
Luis Reyes: Yeah, John, thanks. Yeah, I’ve been fortunate actually, to be here at Kit Carson for over 37 years, and the CEO, General Manager for, it’s going to be almost 29 years. So, one of the things that have changed is member’s expectations. Co-ops have always been pretty democratically controlled, we listen to our members, but what I’ve really seen is members really do not have problem and more of them speaking of what they want from their co-op. So I I’ve see that change.
Luis Reyes: I’ve seen the change of members that don’t remember being without electricity. When we started, there was still enough kind of the old timers that remembered when the first linemen came to the ranch or farm and got that one light bulb going. A lot of our members don’t remember black and white TV, so much less electricity, it’s always been there.
Luis Reyes: I think the other thing that has really been unchanged is really the co-op model and really how it’s strengthened going forward doing during this energy transition, during COVID, having local control, having a say in your local energy supply and what you want from your local co-op. I don’t think that’s really going to unchange. In fact, it really is a hallmark of the strength of the co-op model.
Luis Reyes: So, as you mentioned on technology, we’ve gone from analog meters to smart meters, but I think they’re all positive changes. They’re really all positive changes and I do think I continue to see the co-ops in the forefront of this new energy world we’re facing, and we’re probably the best equipped to address it. I think that’s positive for the co-op nation.
John Farrell: So when we talked before Luis, what had been really exciting to me in speaking to you was that the cooperative was on track to get a 100% of its daytime electricity from solar by 2022, so that you and working with your members had made a lot of investments, a lot of plans around developing solar. Now this was a few years ago, I’m curious, are you on track to meet that goal? Can you explain a little bit more about what that means? Daytime electricity, obviously solar energy only available during the day, but what share of the co-op’s overall electricity will come from solar? Give us a little context for that and tell us how the plans are coming along.
Luis Reyes: So John, that’s true, it’s always been a goal of Kit Carson and its members. Really, it started at out as, how do we get more solar than we can get today? Under the old structure that we were under, we could only gain 5% of our energy from renewable resources. That was kind of uniform and common throughout the co-ops that took power from G&Ts across the country. So as you may know, at a certain point, our members wanted more from us so we decided to exit our G&T.
John Farrell: I’m sorry, let me interrupt really quick just for the listeners who don’t know the term G&T, but it’s a generation and transmission co-op, so it’s the co-op of co-ops that would build the [inaudible 00:04:53]. You might be able to explain it better than I, but just making sure that we do explain it.
Luis Reyes: Okay, thank you. So yeah, our generation transmission co-op, so it is a co-op of co-ops who are looking for power. A lot of these generation transmission co-ops were formed in the ’50s because no one else wanted to serve electric co-ops and they served us well during that time. But as more renewables came to the forefront, more communities wanted local choice, it was as Kit Carson’s opinion that the generation transmission model, as good as it was, just couldn’t keep up with the changes and the expectations our members had with Kit Carson. To be honest, we weren’t sure if they were able to make that change.
Luis Reyes: So we decided to exit from our generation transmission co-op, it was what I would call amicable. I mean, it was negotiated and we worked out the issues. We didn’t end up in court and we exited with an exit fee and we had a couple of goals. The first was we wanted more affordable and stable rates. We had just gone through a series of rate increases that we thought were becoming unaffordable. The second is that we wanted our members to choose or our members wanted to choose their power supply or have some options, and one of those options was more solar. So we exited in 2016, we had had several meetings with our members but after the exit in 2016, we established a co-op goal of 100% daytime solar, and that we were going to hit by 2022, which ironically was the same year that we would finish paying off that big exit fee that we negotiated with the generation transmission co-op.
Luis Reyes: So you fast forward and we’re going to do it through, excuse me, we’re going to do it through a DER. We’re going to distribute it, that may cost a little bit more, but it was a members’ feelings that everyone wanted their solar facility in their community. So that will come to benefit us in the future as things evolve, but that was our model. So fast forward today, we’re going to hit that target. Right now we’re about 63% daytime solar and finishing our last two big solar projects. The last two big projects will come with battery storage so at the end we’ll have enough solar, we’ll have about 41 to 42 megawatts of distributed solar that will match our daytime demand or capacity. We will probably at the end, John, create, generate about 42 to 44% of our energy will come from solar.
Luis Reyes: Kit Carson is located in the high, in the mountains here, spur off the Rocky Mountains, Sangre De Cristo Mountains. We’re actually a nighttime, winter peak-er, and so we do, because of the cold weather we’re a resort town, a mountain town. We sell a lot of energy at nighttime. Snow making is a big driver in the wintertime for the four ski areas that we serve. So that’s the first step in this transition that would’ve never happened under the old model, and I think that’s important as we are seeing the effects and impacts of climate change, the impacts of us not moving quick enough into this renewable energy world.
Luis Reyes: So the next step is then, let’s add some storage, and then let’s start address transportation. So besides Kit Carson having… We’ll hit our goal by June of 2022 to hit that a 100% daytime solar. What that really means is when the sun starts to come over that horizon and hits that first solar array on the east side of our system, we start generating electricity. When it sets in the west and we have a raise in the east, the west, the north, the south, and into house, you have solar generation distributed across our territory. We’re generating solar as soon as the sun comes up. It’s like anything, it’s not perfect, we know that there’s cloudy days and there’s rainy days and we know that at the night it doesn’t shine, but we think this is a process and technology will catch up.
Luis Reyes: The next step is installing batteries. We think battery technology will evolve to long duration. We read and see the research done on hydrogen for base load. So I think as we move into this new world, technology will keep up. Then with the addition of electric vehicles, we’re starting to build out our EV charging infrastructure and looking at ways to have EVs deployed in our territory. I think one of the underlying goals is at access to all. In the old model, outside of the 5%, the only people who really could afford rooftop was those who had some means. I think that is starting to change. You see more community solar projects. Our system, if you’re a member of Kit Carson, you’re going to get solar energy because it’s our primary resource mix. So we want to take that same philosophy for electric vehicles and charging, that just because you may not be financially able or your lower to moderate income doesn’t mean that we can’t give you opportunities to experience EV transportation, whether it’s something you own, whether it’s in the secondary market use cars, or whether it’s enhancing or growing public transportation.
Luis Reyes: Again, these are things that John, and I say aren’t prime the sky. We actually, if you come to our territory, you can see probably, we’ve probably done 12 different of projects on the solar side. Everything from 100 KW to 15 megawatts. We’re putting in about 15, almost 16 megawatts of storage. So they aren’t small batteries, they’re big enough to take us through peak times if we use batteries for peak or for reliability, if we have to pick up critical circuits during outages. So we really are on this track to be carbon-free. Our goal right now is 2030, as other people shoot the 2040, 2050, we think it’s doable much sooner.
Luis Reyes: One of the issues when you’re the first adopter is it’s a little too tougher and maybe a little bit more pricey, but we get to experience benefits sooner. So that’s where we’re at. It’s been a great journey and we’ve learned a lot about solar and batteries. We’ve also learned about a lot about our members and their requirements, their needs, and how important it’s to listen to them. So that’s… we’re on phase one of this journey after we’ve left and it’s really been right now, one of the highlights of, I think the… Not just what I’ve done here at the co-op, but the co-op itself. I think nationally, what co-ops can do when they decide to engage their members, listen to their members and then put that plan actually into action.
John Farrell: Let me ask you a little bit more about you left your generation and transmission co-op tri-state, and are not the only co-op that has done that. You mentioned that it’s because you didn’t feel like the model that they had really was adaptable enough to the interest of your members to accelerated deployment of renewable energy and solar. You also had those cost concerns. Do you think that that will change? Do you think that the generation and transmission co-ops, having seen your co-op Kit Carson or Delta-Montrose in Colorado or other places, will start to shift and give more flexibility to their local co-ops to generate more of their own energy to offload some of the expensive resources like the coal power that they’ve had for many, many years, or do you see other co-ops needing to follow in your footsteps, in terms of looking to exit and to go on their own? Just because there are so many co-ops, I mean, they serve one in seven customers across the country gets their electricity from a rural electric cooperative, but there’s really only a handful like Kit Carson or the Kauai Island Electric Cooperative, or Delta-Montrose that have really set off on the course that you’ve set.
Luis Reyes: Yeah, so I do think we have to be real careful on when we go forward because there are some co-ops that still feel that the current generation and transmission model works for them. I mean, if we’re really talking about flexibility, and there’s some co-ops that still think that the generation and transformation co-ops is the best way to aggregate power, then I think they have to do what they need to for their members.
Luis Reyes: I do though see a growing sense of a lot of co-op members through a lot of co-ops I talk to that do want change because their members are, as I mentioned, we’re not unique in having a younger demographic. We have a lot of folks moving in from California and New York so you have this transformation of urban folks moving into rural areas because they like the lifestyle and the quality of life, but they still want the amenities and they want clean air and clean water.
Luis Reyes: So I do think that if the G&Ts are going to survive they’re going to have to adapt. I don’t think it should be the other way around, that the distribution co-op has to adapt. I think we as distribution co-ops created the G&Ts. The G&TS were a product of the distributing co-op’s desire to have their own power supply. So I think if generation and transmission co-ops don’t adapt, then you’re going to have more co-ops wanting exit. I think they’re going to want to exit not because the manager does or the board, it’s because the members want flexibility just as you mentioned, people want choice. What we’ve experienced here is, people want to believe that the renewable energy they’re getting is local. So for someone to say, you’re getting renewable energy but it’s from 500 miles away. It sounds good but is it really ever getting here to my home? With Kit Carson, you can drive a couple of miles away and you can see the solar array that you just follow the lines, that goes right to my house. So I do think they have to adapt and if they don’t, I do think distribution co-ops have an obligation to exit, to fulfill their members’ expectations and requirements. John, that’s why we’re formed, for the members. This tail wagging the dog that’s occurred, where the generation and transmission co-op is dictating to the distribution co-op what’s good for us, that doesn’t work anymore.
Luis Reyes: I think the other issue is the generation and transmission co-ops policy makers have to make it affordable for distribution co-ops to exit. There can be this outlandish fees exit. I understand and we actually had a key poll. Kit Carson’s exit should not cause any distribution co-op to subsidize this. So I think that’s important because I don’t want anyone to subsidize this as if we decide to move a different direction. When you follow what’s happening, when you have [inaudible 00:16:37] cases and millions of dollars going to lawyers to help so a distribution co-op wants to leave to meet its member’s expectations. I just think that’s wrong. I think the G&Ts in this case are just wrong to… Because at the end of the day, it’s the rate payer, it’s the member who pays the legal bill. So I don’t think that’s right. I think there has to be flexibility, it has to go back to how we were formed, the democratic process.
Luis Reyes: I think if we don’t allow distribution co-ops to really explore what’s out there, rural areas will continue to get further and further behind when it comes to energy, whether… Because right now the policy, at least in the Western states is to close coal mines and a lot of coal mines are being closed. So if people don’t have choice from their co-op or their G&T, they’re going to do it, a lot of people, they’re going to start putting solar on their home. They’re going to start putting batteries on their home and make that choice that not every member has. That right now, that’s still cost prohibitive for a lot of members. So again, my hope is that the generation and transmission would create a model going forward that allows those who want to stay, to stay, and those who want to exit, exit affordably and without a lot of litigation and move on to what we were created was, to deliver services to rural Americans.
Jess Del Fiacco: We’ll continue on with this conversation after a very short break. Thanks for listening to our show, if you’re enjoying this conversation between ILSR’s John Farrell and Kit Carson’s Luis Reyes, I hope you consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to help support our work. Your donations make this show possible, and if you want to hear more stories like this, you should check out another one of our podcasts called Local Energy Rules, that’s where you can hear John interviewing folks from across the country who are implementing local, renewable energy solutions in their own communities. Thanks, and now, back to the show.
John Farrell: I’d love for you to talk a little bit more if you’re willing, about the solar and the fact that it’s local. You mentioned before that members are interested in being able to see the connection between the solar that’s being built in their house, that in the projects that you’ve been building in Kit Carson territory are close by. People can drive out and see them and see them and see the wires that connect that solar array to their home. Could you talk a little bit, you mentioned that it might have cost a little bit more than say, doing one centralized solar array or doing that through a G&T for example. What were some of the things that members were interested in? Are there economic benefits that aren’t on the utility bill necessarily that you can account for? Are there things like resiliency or reliability benefits again, that don’t necessarily show up on the bill that were things you were thinking about in building solar out in that way?
Luis Reyes: Yeah, so John, first, I think it’s reliability and resiliency. I mean, we could, if you can control your own power supply, and again, these are building blocks. So 44% of our energy’s local, so during the daytime if there’s a system issue, we can control that. We can continue to deliver energy. Since we live in the mountains, we’re really concerned about fires and forest fires, and having power lines run through there and having to shut down power so that firefighters can fight that. With the way we’re designing our system, we can actually shut down the lines and still have power because of solar and batteries to at least take care of critical infrastructure during those times. So it starts to bring in resiliency, helps us attack these emergencies that come to us.
Luis Reyes: Economic development, one of the things that we decided is that we were going to build these locally with local contractors. So we got the local developers in a room, asked them if they could partner together to build it. Four came into the room, three left as partners. So for the past six years, we’ve had local people building our arrays, which helps the economy, keeps people working, but we have also been able… these companies now are able to export their skills to other parts of the southwest. So it’s created an economic development. John, you hear a lot from policymakers, even from power suppliers saying, “Well, they’re temporary short term jobs.” Well, they may be but if you work six months here and six months there and six months, then all of a sudden you work two years at four different jobs, but it’s the same skillset. That’s no different than someone building a house. Once you build a house, you have to move on to the next house and the next house. So construction has always been temporary, permanent. So it’s brought that economic development aspect.
Luis Reyes: It’s brought us kind of a marketing tool, if we live in the Rockies and our tourism is based around clean air, clean water, making sure we have sufficient snow to ski. What better energy supply than to have solar energy supplying energy to ski areas and to schools and to businesses? So there is a lot of fact and a lot of benefits in building distributed solar. Because of our grid, if I lost a solar array, let’s say on the east side, I can serve it from the west side through our transmission lines. So it does give me now some redundancy you with the solar facilities, and also allows us the ability to [inaudible 00:22:29]. We in essence are creating a micro grid that if we have to we can isolate ourselves from the main grid at times that we may have to.
Luis Reyes: I think with COVID, it’s hard to say nothing ever as bad is going to happen, because that really showed us that we’re pretty vulnerable to things that we aren’t prepared for or don’t think will ever happen to us. I think we have to think that same way when it comes to operating a utility now. You could have a fire that you didn’t have before, and how are you going to handle that? You could lose a power plant, and how are you going to handle that? Those things happened. So yeah, I think it’s just not getting clean energy and it’s not getting clean energy that’s affordable, it’s all these other benefits that the community gains that everything from a resiliency to economic development and everything in between.
Luis Reyes: I think the other thing is creating a model set other co-ops can look at and take from it the lessons learned. There’s some things that, yeah, we probably wouldn’t do that the same way, Kit Carson, but there’s a lot of things we do because we’ve been successful in deploying this. John, today we have about 29 unincorporated communities, so they’re not a municipality, just little communities. We have over half them today, and I’m looking outside, it’s a sunny day. We already have half of our system already at 100% daytime. That’s schools and that’s churches and that’s a post office and that’s a health clinic. It works, I think that’s… it works, the members are satisfied with that energy. The lights aren’t dimmer, there’s not a reliability issue, it works fine. We have it in the north part where we have a lot of irrigation. That solar today is pumping water on the crops. So it’s almost become the rule, not the exception. It’s almost, if you don’t have solar on your house, then I would… When we first started this, my fellow co-ops basically said, “We were, we weren’t the coal kids, because who does solar? Just Kit Carson and a few hippies.” You fast forward to 2022, if you’re not doing solar, you’re not the cool kids anymore because it has become a very valuable, low cost, reliable resource.
John Farrell: That transition actually brings to mind one question I just wanted to ask. One of the goals that you had in exiting your G&T was to be able to do this local solar. It was also in response to affordability issues, you were worried about the rate increases that were coming for your members. I know that you have this exit fee that you’re going to be paying off next year. Has it already been more affordable than had you remained members of Tri-state and what does that look like going forward, especially once you’ve paid off that fee?
Luis Reyes: So, John, that’s a great question because that’s something that’s always misinterpreted. Our cost of power today is cheaper than it was when we left Tri-state, so solar costs are down. It is my understanding that after we left… Here’s an amazing little tidbit. When we left in 2016, that was a major event for Tri-state and for Kit Carson, and really for the co-op world. We paid in an exit fee, that was to keep them whole, and we actually had come out of a rate case. Since then though, Tri-state has not had any rate increases up to 2022. In fact, my understanding is had a rate decrease, slight rate decrease. Again, I suspect that with the exit of Kit Carson and the exit of Delta-Montrose, and the potential discussions of other co-ops wanting flexibility, price stability, and the threat that other co-ops would exit if Tri-state did not continue to raise their rates, because we didn’t get any big loads that would stabilize that out. There was not a fundamental change in how Tri-state was operating their system.
Luis Reyes: It’s what I said, I think they finally heard what the members wanted that was no more rate increases or we were just going to leave, and we wanted more renewables, or we were just going to leave. So I think they actually became a victim of, if you don’t listen to your members, then the members will decide and dictate what’s going to happen. So this is a good case of where I think Tri-state had to be responsible or forced to be responsive to its members. For Kit Carson again, we haven’t raised our rates, our cost of power from Guzman Energy is lower than it was with Tri-state. We’ll pay the exit when we pay the exit fee, that will be done basically forever so our members will see a decrease.
Luis Reyes: I think the one area that we really are focusing now is on transmission because when you look at the whole energy picture and you want to move renewable energy, let’s say solar east and wind west, you need a transmission system to do that, but if the transmission providers are too expensive, then we’re back in that same dilemma of not being able to have access to renewable energy because now the transmission system is too expensive. That’s why I think our DER model weathers that, because we’ll have to take our non renewables from a transmission, but more and more, we’ll generate more of our system resources here locally so that we can weather that, mitigate those costs. But we’re actually in a really good position going forward, both on having a lot more renewal resources available to us going forward and also rate stability, without jeopardizing reliability.
Luis Reyes: There’s a lot of talk from lawmakers and utility companies that going to renewable, it’s going to be unreliable. We’ve been… It’s been really, it’s been very reliable. It’s talking out of both sides of your mouth when you say it’s unreliable to go to renewable while you’re building 100 megawatt solar facility somewhere. It is reliable, it just, I think we have to get out of these scare tactics and say solar doesn’t shine at night, so let’s put some batteries, or let’s get wind that follows that nighttime profile. Instead of us as co-ops and utilities making excuses why we can’t, we should figure how we can. I think once we get past that hurdle, then I think you’ll see even a faster adoption of renewable energy, once we decide we can’t fool our members anymore by putting these obstacles in front of them, because our members are pretty sophisticated, they’re pretty smart, they formed a co-op. I mean, they formed our entity, they have us… Yeah, so I think we’re in a great position, everything that we thought we were going to get out of this exit we’ve accomplished.
Luis Reyes: I do think and again, I’m scouring all the websites, but I think in June of 2022, we’ll probably be the first, at least on the continental United States, to hit 100% daytime solar. Our energy’s coming from resources that are local. It’s pretty cool to be one of the first ones to be able to accomplish that. We’re a small to midsize cooperative, we have 30,000 members serving three counties, and if we can do that, certainly the bigger co-ops and bigger utilities can do it.
John Farrell: I agree, I love that story and I love the fact that the leaders in solar, we at one point were talking about Farmer’s Electric Cooperative with Warren McKenna. You and I spoke with them, and then I was talking to folks around Decora, Iowa, they have an energy district there that’s done a lot of investing and helping folks do energy efficiency in solar. I think they said at one point that in their county they had more solar per capita than any other place in the country, and it has just been really remarkable to realize that people think that it’s urban areas and places with progressive policy that are leading. I just think it’s such a great way to flip that around and to tell people, no actually, it’s these rural communities that have the democratic ownership of their systems, that have this interest in self-reliance that are really demonstrating to us what is possible and taking advantage of that flexibility that they have.
John Farrell: Speaking of that, I’d love to ask you a little bit, I know that we’ve talked a lot about the clean energy work that you’ve done, but you’ve also done some investments in internet service, something that’s been common among a lot of rural electric cooperatives as well. I have a colleague here at ILSR who directs a program that looks at community broadband networks and he loves to surprise people by telling them that the internet service they get in the city they live in is probably slower and more expensive than most of North Dakota, where co-ops have made huge investments in that. So I’m really interested to hear what Kit Carson has been doing around broadband, and if you can explain a little bit about how you’re able to do that in a way that a lot of other utilities can’t be so nimble.
Luis Reyes: Yeah, so John, that has been, along with solar, one of probably… and especially during COVID, one of the shining stars of the region, is we started a broadband company, 2,000 fixed wireless, just because our members didn’t have any other choice. around 2015, at about 2008, we started to put fiber between substations so that we could communicate and really start to create a smart grid. So we really wanted to modernize our grid, be able to utilize smart meters, control substations, all the stuff that utilities should be doing.
Luis Reyes: Then we were able to get a large grant and in 2015, so today we have about almost 3,000 miles of fiber optic that goes past every single customer or member we have. We offer gig services, we offer as fast as any competitor in the region, we currently have about almost 11,000 subscribers. During COVID, we connected schools, did hotspots, started programs, basically did connect rural school districts and the students at no call cost, just so they could get on. It really has dovetailed real nicely with the renewable energy world because we have a lot of people moving in from, like you mentioned, urban areas, because of COVID they could work anywhere as long as they had a connection. So people moving here would like to work in the morning and hike in the evening, or ski in the morning and do some outdoor recreation in the evening, but they had to get connection.
Luis Reyes: So it really helped our schools, we had a lot more schools, students connected or going to school because we had a connection. You could tell when you’re on a Zoom, if you’re on Kit Carson or someone else, because you didn’t have to turn off your video because you didn’t have enough bandwidth. So we had more people working, living here, even if temporary, because they could work in Austin or Dallas or Phoenix or Denver, but they had a better connection here. Then the quality of life, I mean, you’re talking a population of Taos of 5,000 versus a population of Austin over a million. During these trying times, the smaller populations made it easier to navigate this COVID world and we’re trying to create a model. We’re actually trying to create a model for the north central part of the state that we can connect rural communities. You said, we have probably faster speeds in neighborhoods than they do in Denver, Colorado, certainly faster than Albuquerque, and it’s affordable.
Luis Reyes: I mean we, because of the call model and our basic or first principle is service, not profit. So we were giving fast broadband speeds to students for $25. So they could get 50 megabits up, 50 megabits down, for $25. So that two, three or four kids and someone on Netflix at the same time, so their world wasn’t that much more disrupted because they had to take turns on Zoom or those type of things that you’ve heard about. It’s really then helped on our electric because now we have about 90% of our system is smart grid. We collect it and then we can almost in real time get data back to the co-op to help us, whether it’s on outages, low voltage issues. Now, those technical issues that a utility historically needs someone to call in to say there’s a problem, we almost know instantaneously because we have the meter connected to the fiber connected back to our dispatch center. I mean it’s actually our fastest growing business, is broadband. We get requests from even places out of state, you just query on vast broadband and Kit Carson internet comes up. We just serve this territory but it’s really been a great service to the community.
Luis Reyes: Because John, I think a lot of how we do business today is going to stay, I think a lot of businesses are going to allow their employees to work from home if they have a good connection. That’s extremely important in rural areas because now they won’t lose their jobs, if they can get a connection, they can keep them. They can still work and still be the primary caregiver for their kids or elderly parents that are more prevalent in rural areas than urban areas. Where, because we do have extended families, there’s their families live in one whole community and will take care of each other. So I think the other benefits that people don’t think of are those types of things, of having that connection. It’s helped with, besides distance learning, medicine. Now the clinics are wired so people don’t have to travel all the way into Taos or Albuquerque for a doctor’s appointment. You can do it verse video first because your connection is very good. Then if you have some issues that a doctor needs to see, then you come into the office. So it saves both time and money and peace of mind because you can do it instantaneously. So there’s a lot of other benefits that this broadband has boughten.
Luis Reyes: I think broadband’s going to become a utility, just like electric. People are not going to tolerate not being without it. In fact, I probably get more broadband calls, if there’s an outage, then I get electric calls. Even though they know you need electricity for broadband, some people just haven’t connected those dots yet and that’s okay. I think it’s helped us on our exit because when it’s given us more time, since we have to take care of our own power supply, not being part of a GT really takes a lot of energy. I think I got probably three to five more days of work than having to deal with power supply issues and the politics around power supply, that I really cannot pay attention to members and their needs such as a broadband and how to expand those services.
John Farrell: I’d love to just wrap up by asking you about how you think other cooperatives can follow in your footsteps, and what barriers do you think they might have to overcome? Obviously, having an example is one of the most important things and you have that, in terms of both the way that you’ve done local, solar, and broadband. What advice do you have for general managers of other co-ops or members of other co-ops that hear about what Kit Carson has done?
Luis Reyes: Well, I think it’s really member engagement and I think breaking down the old model of when you deal with members and give them 10 reasons why we can’t do what you just asked us to do. I think that’s foundationally, that’s the key, if you visit with your members and you understand what their issues are, really understand, not just hear it, to go to a meeting and says a bunch of members want this. Then develop solutions where it’s interactive with the member, if it doesn’t work, they’ll understand why, because they’ve been part of the process. It’s when we don’t engage them that I think we have problems because then they think that we’re hiding something or we don’t want to do more work on their behalf. I think, John, once you figure that out and don’t put excuses of why you can’t do that, then everything else falls in place, but if you don’t have a good communication tool with your members, a good rapport, then what generally happens is the members are going to decide to do what they want without you. So I think that’s a key because it may be staying with the G&T when it comes to power supply. So it may be the reverse where you have members saying, “Hey, let’s see what Kit Carson’s doing.” After you have a good discussion with your members, they may say, “We want to stay. Maybe we’re not ready for that yet.”
Luis Reyes: So that’s what I mean by not put obstacles, because the first thing we do is right away is think that they want to leave. Some may not want to leave. They just want to have a good dialogue to make sure that you’re doing… me as a manager is doing what’s in their best interest, really not what’s in my best interest. I think you do that, then anything else you guys want to do, anything from energy efficiency to solar, then becomes actually pretty easy because you have the support of the community and if things don’t go well, you have a big support system that you just go back and says, “Okay, this really didn’t work that way. Let’s retool in, let’s do it this other way.” I think that’s key, it’s pretty simple. That’s what we did, we just talked to our members a lot, we listened to them probably more than talking. Right now they’re saying we’re not moving our solar fast enough. We’ve moved, I think, pretty fast in five years, but it’s good to have those type of problems when they says you’re not putting out broadband fast enough at least, or you’re not putting out solar fast enough. We like what you’re doing, but you’re not doing it fast. Those are good problems to have.
John Farrell: For sure. Well Luis, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I just find the story of what Kit Carson is doing so inspiring, in terms of really living up to the cooperative model, as you say, and being engaged with your members. A really important lesson I think, for folks who are in the co-op world about how they can do what their members want, whether or not that’s, as you say, exactly what you guys are up to or something else. So thank you again, for taking the time, I really appreciate it.
Luis Reyes: You’re welcome, John, always nice to talk to you.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s I-L-S-R.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew [inaudible 00:42:30]. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction Al. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Jess Del Fiacco is ILSR’s Communications Manager. In this role, she works closely with program staff to develop and implement communications strategy that supports ILSR’s mission. She promotes ILSR’s work through the organization’s newsletters, website, social media, events, and more. Jess also hosts the Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jess for media inquiries.