Tri-State lobbies gov. to veto renewables mandate

DENVER – The company that supplies coal-powered electricity to rural Colorado is waging a media campaign to try to convince Gov. John Hickenlooper to veto a renewable energy bill.

It’s the biggest political advertising blitz since last fall’s election, and it included a full-page ad and half-page ad in the Cortez Journal.

However, Hickenlooper has sent strong signals that he intends to sign the bill, Senate Bill 252.

The bill tells Tri-State Generation and Transmission to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Currently, the company has a 10 percent standard by 2020.

Tri-State supplies most of the power to Empire Electric and other rural co-ops.

In one of the most controversial claims in the ads that ran in the Journal, Tri-State says complying with the bill will cost billions of dollars.

“Senate Bill 252 would impose billions in increased electricity costs on rural Colorado consumers and individuals,” the ad says.

A number of groups, including Club 20 and the Colorado Mining Association, co-signed the ad, which took the form of a letter to Hickenlooper.

The claim is based on Tri-State’s estimates of what it would take to build renewable energy plants or buy green power from other companies, build transmission lines and build backup power plants for times when windmills and solar panels aren’t producing. The costs total about $2 billion, said Tri-State spokesman Jim Van Someren.

Supporters of SB 252 call that bunk. Xcel Energy, which serves many Colorado urban customers, has a 30 percent renewable standard by 2020, which it is expected to meet easily without billion-dollar price increases. Backers of SB 252 argued during debate in the Legislature that the biggest new cost to Xcel customers has been for a coal power plant in Pueblo, not wind and solar power.

Tri-State, a coal-heavy utility, is seeing its rates rise faster than those at Xcel, which has embraced renewable power, said Pete Maysmith, director of Conservation Colorado.

“It’s not surprising that the coal industry is funding a campaign filled with deception and misinformation,” Maysmith said.

Furthermore, backers point out that the bill limits renewable energy cost increases for customers to 2 percent.

But Van Someren said no one can explain how the 2 percent limit will work.

“That’s something where there are still more questions than answers,” he said.

Even though the Legislature adjourned for the year on May 8, lobbying and arguing over the bill has not ceased.

Tri-State’s CEO, along with the head of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, met with Hickenlooper for about 40 minutes last Tuesday.

“It was a very constructive conversation, from what I’m told,” Van Someren said.

A full-page ad took the form of an open letter to Hickenlooper. It was paid directly by Tri-State. A half-page ad also calls for a veto. It was placed by the Rural Economic Action Alliance. Across the state, the REAA is running ads on the radio, television, newspapers and billboards.

Tri-State, the Colorado Rural Electric Association and REA groups from neighboring states are part of the Rural Economic Action Alliance, and signs point to Tri-State’s heavy involvement in the group.

The alliance was founded in February as a nonprofit corporation that does not have to disclose its donors. A Tri-State employee registered the website, according to Network Solutions, a company that keeps track of website domains. Also, the address for the Rural Economic Action Alliance on ad contracts with a Denver television station matches Tri-State’s corporate headquarters.

Hickenlooper told reporters last Thursday that he was still studying the bill and has not decided whether he will sign it. But if he vetoes the bill, it would be a 180-degree reversal. Hickenlooper was involved in drafting the bill, and his staff lobbied for it. Officials with the Public Utilities Commission and Colorado Energy Office – both of which report to Hickenlooper – testified for the bill.

And in comments to reporters, Hickenlooper focused on the need to combat climate change. Climate scientists believe that a warming planet will mean less snow – and less water – for Colorado, he said.

“Who does that diminished water affect more? Rural Colorado.” Hickenlooper said.

It’s prudent to have insurance against climate change, Hickenlooper said.

“That’s what entire whole renewable energy program is trying to do, is to make sure that we have some insurance and that we are using less and less carbon as we transform into a new energy economy,” he said.