President of Holy Cross board defends caution on renewables

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” A longtime member of Holy Cross Energy’s board of directors says the Roaring Fork Valley’s biggest power supplier has to take a “balanced” approach to business despite growing pressure from the environmental movement.

Tom Turnbull, a Carbondale rancher, is being targeted for ouster by environmental activists after nearly 30 years on the utility’s board of directors. The Aspen Skiing Co. and individuals in the green community have endorsed his opponent, Carbondale resident and Glenwood Springs businessman Marshall Foote, in the current election. They believe Foote will embrace renewable energy to a greater degree. (Foote was profiled in a May 16 article in The Aspen Times.)

Turnbull, the current board president, said he is proud of the steps the power distributor has taken to reduce carbon emissions. He supports the utility’s direction to add increasing amounts of renewable energy to its mix and to promote energy efficiency among customers. Holy Cross devotes about $2 million per year to programs such as rebates for customers who install photovoltaic systems and purchase high-efficiency, “Energy Star” appliances. It also subsidizes energy audits of members’ homes to help them boost efficiency.

While he supports those steps, Turnbull also said Holy Cross must take a balanced approach to business to make sure electricity remains reliable and affordable for its members. That means investing in power supplied by coal plants. Energy generated by coal-powered plants costs between 4 and 5 cents per kilowatt hour to produce. Electricity from wind and solar farms costs triple that amount, Turnbull said.

He sees renewable energy as a big part of Holy Cross’ future, but the timing is what has him at odds with critics.

“I just hope we do it at a pace and a cost that’s more manageable,” Turnbull said. “I would be bothered if we had to do it in the next year or two, because it would be really expensive.”

He strongly defended Holy Cross Energy’s decision to invest in the Comanche 3 coal-fired plant in Pueblo. That plant is considered one of the most efficient and cleanest, as far as non-carbon pollutants. It will open by the end of the year.

Instead of simply buying power from a wholesaler, Holy Cross invested in the plant by acquiring an 8 percent ownership interest. It will provide Holy Cross with one-third of its current “load,” or the supply it needs for its commercial and residential customers.

The investment in the plant is exactly the type of balance Turnbull believes Holy Cross needs to make along with investments in renewables.

“It’s a baseload that we own,” Turnbull said of the Comanche 3 power. “We get it at the cost of production.”

In addition, Turnbull isn’t convinced that Holy Cross will be able to meet the forecasted growth in demand from customers by relying solely on renewable energy sources. Locking up dependable power from a coal plant was critical, he said.

Turnbull is seeking re-election to a three-year term. Two other seats on Holy Cross Energy’s board are up for election. Vail incumbent George Lamb faces a challenge from Adam Palmer. Incumbent Hal Clark, who represents the upper Roaring Fork Valley, is running unopposed.

Clark, a strong supporter of tapping more renewable energy sources, also supported the investment in the Comanche 3 plant because of its potential for “substantial financial savings” for Holy Cross.

Now, however, it appears that savings might not be as great as when the Holy Cross board made its decision. Congress and the Obama administration are examining possible ways of taxing carbon emissions, so power from plants like Comanche 3 might get more expensive.

In a recent newsletter, Turnbull wrote to Holy Cross members that he hopes carbon tax policy will receive thorough, deliberate debate and that the government won’t act in haste. His report also riled critics who perceived he downplayed the significance of global warming.

“There is no doubt that we are witnessing a warming trend but, historically, civilization has benefited and thrived in warmer periods as opposed to ice ages,” Turnbull wrote.

“It’s not clear that Tom feels climate change is a problem or even human-caused,” said Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co.’s executive director of community and environmental responsibility

Although both Turnbull and Clark supported Comanche 3, it is clear from a broader look at their views and votes that Clark is progressive when it comes to renewable energy while Turnbull is conservative, Schendler said. That’s why Clark got the Skico endorsement and Turnbull didn’t, he said.

Turnbull declined to comment on the Skico’s endorsement of his foe.

Holy Cross Energy members have until June 5 to vote in the election. The ballots came in the mail at the beginning of this week. They must be returned on or before June 5.