Commentary: The time is now to plan for solar energy

Here in Saguache County, some of my constituents are customers of Xcel Energy others are members-owners of San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, which in turn purchases virtually all its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission per a contract that runs until 2050.

Tri-State is in the process of long-term resource planning which is, for the first time ever, overseen by Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission. This is an important opportunity for the PUC to insist that Tri-State reduce the cost burden of our electricity while ensuring that our abundant solar resources here in the San Luis Valley are fully utilized to supply our electricity.

San Luis Valley has, arguably, the best solar exposure and potential for solar power not just in Colorado, but on the planet. And yet too much of our electricity through Tri-State still comes from outdated and expensive coal from far away. This has to change.

I applaud Tri-State’s efforts to date to switch to renewable energy, such as its commitment to shut down all coal in CO by 2030, and recently securing 200MW of new wind power from the Nyol wind plant. But these steps must continue and this 20-year resource planning process, is our best chance yet of bringing our power supply in line with the latest technologies, thereby lowering costs and reducing emissions as is now required by state law. 

I’m on the Development Resources Group in San Luis Valley, where I continue to advocate for Xcel and SLVREC to build out transmission lines so that we can take advantage of one of our most important assets: solar gain.

Currently we only have one inbound electric line that is shared by Xcel and REC. Exporting power must be explored. Xcel is building a new power line from Alamosa to Antonito, on new easements and new poles, but is not including an option to add a line to export power to the south.

In my view a line to Santa Fe-Albuquerque is an important option for the Valley to export power. As our aquifer disappears, solar transmission is a huge economic potential for us.

Rural Colorado has some of the lowest wages and highest cost of living in the state, including paying some of the highest electricity rates in the west. With the uncertainty of the federal government’s ability to promote sweeping energy change, the states must take matters into their own hands for creating clean-energy-economy jobs, retiring coal, and reducing costs for disproportionately impacted communities. Tri-State’s high rates, due to its $3.3 billion debt load of coal assets, are unfair.

With this resource plan, the Public Utilities Commission should assure that Tri-State will utilize least-cost resources and shave peak charges by investing in batteries and other storage technologies on the horizon. Additionally, Tri-State should be required to shut down expensive out-of-state coal plants that are supplying electricity to Colorado customers, as soon as possible.

Here in Saguache County, we are seeing and feeling the undeniable effects of climate change in our everyday life. Each summer seems to break the previous year’s record for heat; smoke in our skies, once rare, is now ubiquitous.

Our aquifer on which we all rely has been in decline for many years and climate change is a huge factor. We must act now to quickly transition away from fossil fuels toward abundant, renewable resources.

Citizens and farmers-ranchers of the San Luis Valley are working hard to reduce their own carbon footprint, but without the state’s largest electricity providers also doing everything possible, our hopes for averting the worst impacts of climate change may be futile.

Thomas D. McCracken is Saguache County Commissioner, District No. 1.