Holy Cross faces tough decisions | AspenTimes.com

Holy Cross faces tough decisions

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Holy Cross Energy has built a reputation as a green leader for adding renewable resources into its power mix. Its members want more.

A recent survey showed the vast majority of Holy Cross customers want more power from renewable sources, even if it forces them to pay higher rates.

“Overall, consumers indicated a willingness to pay nearly 8 percent more for their electricity if the percentage of renewable resources in Holy Cross Energy’s power supply mix were to increase,” said a summary of the survey results.

Only 8 percent of the utility customers said they don’t want rates to increase because of renewable energy sources. Another 11 percent said they would be willing to pay less than 2 percent higher rates.

On the other end of the spectrum, 15 percent said they would be willing to pay rates 16 percent to 20 percent higher to be more green. Another 14 percent said they would pay electricity bills that were 11 to 15 percent higher.

Most customers were in the middle, with 52 percent willing to pay between 2 percent and 10 percent more on their monthly bill if it helped Holy Cross mix in more alternative energy into its mix.

“That’s a very strong message,” said Hal Clark, who represents the Aspen area on the Holy Cross Energy board of directors.

Holy Cross is having its annual membership meeting in Glenwood Springs Friday. It will be the first such meeting since the survey results were released.

Those results are one of a handful of ways that the utility company is facing increasing pressure to speed its “green” efforts. Colorado voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that requires energy providers to add more renewables to their mix at a graduated rate over the years. Locally, two candidates who emphasized the need to add renewable energy sources challenged incumbents in a Holy Cross board of directors election this spring. The results of the election will be released Tuesday.

Clark, who has been on the Holy Cross board for 10 years, is regarded by observers as the biggest proponent on the board for renewable energy. He said he wants the renewable energy mix in Holy Cross power supply to grow 1 percent or 2 percent per year. Instead, it stalled, then decreased in recent years. The percentage of renewables was as high as 8 percent in a recent year, Clark said. Now it is down to 6 percent.

Holy Cross Energy’s current power mix is 55 percent from coal-fired plants, 24 percent from natural gas-based plants, 15 percent from a blend of coal and natural gas, and 6 percent from renewable sources, according to its website.

Holy Cross doesn’t produce power. It acquires it from wholesalers, such as Xcel Energy, and provides it to members of its cooperative. It serves 53,000 commercial, residential and industrial accounts in the Roaring Fork Valley, Eagle Valley and part of the lower Colorado River Valley.

Clark indicated that the Holy Cross board’s efforts to add renewables might stall because it is focused on finding power at affordable rates. All new power plants getting built in the U.S. are fired by natural gas, Clark said. That’s because of opposition to coal-fired plants and anticipation of greater regulation.

But natural gas prices are volatile and have recently spiked. That will start showing up on monthly electricity bills.

“We’re expecting some serious increases in prices,” said Clark, who said bills could increase in the 15 percent to 20 percent range this year. “It’s affected our board. They’re really sensitive to it.”

James Snyder, a Rifle rancher and Holy Cross Energy board member, said his top concern is providing affordable energy. That’s tough in the current climate.

“We’re in for a beatin’,” he said.

Even though power generated from fossil fuel sources is on the rise, it is still usually cheaper than alternative energy sources, at least for now. (Higher prices for electricity produced from coal and natural gas means the gap will lessen with the price of electricity produced from wind, for example.) Snyder and other board members, some of whom are conservative ranchers and businessmen, are reluctant to add higher priced “green” energy sources to Holy Cross’ mix at a time when electricity bills already are climbing.

“With this green push, power is going to be out of sight,” said Snyder. “It will just cost more.”

Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Co. and Randy Udall, an energy expert from Carbondale, are alternative-energy proponents. They argue that relying more on wind power could benefit Holy Cross in the long run as a hedge against volatile natural gas prices.

Snyder and Clark are probably at the philosophical extremes of the Holy Cross board, but they agree that climbing electricity bills could alter Holy Cross customers’ willingness to pay more for green energy sources.

Snyder said his district includes retirees in Battlement Mesa as well as ranchers and working-class people scraping by in the Rifle area. He doesn’t believe that they should be forced to pay more for electricity so that Holy Cross can increase renewable energy in its power mix.

“Don’t push it on people on a fixed income. That’s criminal,” he said.

Snyder is one of the two incumbents being challenged in the Holy Cross election. His opponent, Lynn Dwyer of New Castle, based her bid on increasing use of renewables.

Clark acknowledged that the results of the Holy Cross survey, which was conducted last year when electricity bills were lower, could be different now. He personally remains supportive of the idea of adding renewables into the mix.

The Holy Cross membership meeting begins with a dinner at 5 p.m. Friday in the utility company’s warehouse at 3799 Highway 82 in Glenwood Springs. The business meeting is at 6:30 p.m. and will include time for member comments.