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Taos Energy Report: Renewables

(originally published in Taos Friction)

On Monday night, February 18th, Positive Energy Taos and Renewable Taos, “a working group for 100% clean and locally produced energy,” hosted a program on renewable energy at El Monte Sagrado. Renewable Taos is dedicated to promoting and facilitating a full transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency in Taos County.

The Renewable Taos mission statement:
“We advocate for energy efficiency and renewable energy with an emphasis on local ownership, build community partnerships to facilitate the transition to renewables, and propose and support projects. We also work with other organizations to change the political climate in the state and country to facilitate the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Karlis Viceps, site assessor and manager of Positive Energy Solar (PE) Taos, introduced Allan Sindelar, founder of PE, who spoke about the influences of living at the Lama Foundation. Since installing his first solar panel in 1988, he said he never imagined opening up to a packed house 20+ years later, at an event dedicated to the issue of our time. Renewable Taos aims at generating all of the electricity for the Town of Taos with self-sustaining resources by 2020, and all of Taos County by 2028.

Viceps then introduced writer John Nichols, who warmed the crowd with a tirade about our times. Referring to his congestive heart failure and slight build, Nichols noted thinking an environmentalist’s bumper sticker should say something like, “if you want to be a good environmentalist… kill yourself” (since) “The American way of life is killing us.” He suggested renewables be used to dismantle both political parties, while capping the rich and empowering the poor.

In turn John recognized the next speaker: an eternal optimist, Bill Brown of Sage West Consultants — not as a politician, but as one who “does not talk a lot of bullshit” in a time where “optimists are worth their weight in gold.”

An expert on what is happening regarding all things energy, Brown emphasized the importance of the “public narrative,” a term coined by Harvard’s Marshall Ganz. Brown has been working with the Climate Reality Project since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006. Brown said states like California have been passing energy efficiency and clean energy legislation since the early 70s. He also mentioned his involvement with legislation regarding the Valle Vidal. Brown said the public narrative includes artists and writers that spread the word, such as Nichols in his book Spoon Mountain.

Brown recognized elected officials at the meeting: PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza; Town Councilor Fred Peralta; Town Manager Oscar Rodriguez and County Commissioner Gabriel Romero; and Michele Jacquez-Ortiz, Senator Tom Udall’s northern New Mexico Field Rep.

Among other facts and statistics, Brown said the US has about 5% of the world’s population but produces about 20 % of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions from burning fossil fuels. He discussed issues like the growing population in the Southwest and decreasing water supply. New Mexico is 22nd in energy consumption per capita among USA states. He described regional energy grids in detail, and how power is distributed via Kit Carson Electric Coop and Tri-State, the generation and distribution provider for 44 Rural Electric Coops (RECs) in NM, CO, WY and NE. He displayed a photo of Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes standing next to an electric-gasoline hybrid car.

Both public relations and principled adaptation contribute to the public narrative about renewables, according to Brown. Brown’s consultancy prepared Taos’s High Performance Building Ordinance, adopted unanimously by the Taos Town Council in February of 2009.

Power Struggles Over Power

On Monday, February 25th at the Renewable Taos’ (RT) meeting, chaired by John Gusdorf and Bob Bresnahan, participants discussed the group’s objectives. CEO of Kit Carson Electric Coop (KCEC) Luis Reyes, newly appointed trustee David Torres, PR flack Steve Fuhlendorf, and members of RT discussed at length the possibilities for and impediments to generating local power.

According to Bresnahan, Tri-State, which generates and transmits power to KCEC, is an unregulated monopoly. The combination of energy investment, conflict over regulations between the Public Regulation Commission (PRC), and Tri-State’s executives – who have deep ties to the coal industry – make for a “dynamic” situation.

Compared to other rural utilities in regards to renewables, KCEC is in the vanguard despite Tri-State’s restrictions. A ceiling has been imposed by Tri-State, limiting renewables to 5% of the total energy generated and transmitted locally by RECs. To avoid the industrial coal-based energy provider, folks should install solar or wind systems behind the meter, “net metering” (at your own home), according to Bresnahan.

In the last ten years, local electricity consumers have experienced eight rate hikes. Now, according to Mr. Bresnahan, two more regional coops have joined KCEC to protest a Tri-State request for rate increases at the PRC. The rate request was denied last week by the PRC.

Renewable Taos believes that local residents have the opportunity to promote sustainable energy sources and create jobs, thanks to allies at KCEC and others among the 44 members of Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, Inc. Currently, Taos members send millions of dollars to fossil fuel companies and investors in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, California, and other states. If we generated our own energy, that money would circulate here at home, according to Bresnahan.

Critics say RT functions as a public relations vehicle for KCEC. The local coop resembles Tri-State, which lacks transparency and institutes top-down board policies. Together with RT’s objectives, however, long-time energy mavens like Bill Brown see energy discussions as part of the narrative — a long journey toward the possible.

The Federales Show Up: Monday, March 4th, 2013

The March 4 Renewable Taos meeting was attended by Martin Heinrich’s office representative Andrew Black; KCEC Trustee David Torres; Megan Anderson, representing the Western Environmental Law Center Taos office; Bill Brown; and Karlis Viceps.

The discussion began with a conversation about a letter drafted by Congressional delegation members. Sen. Heinrich, Sen. Udall, and Rep. Lujan are asking the Rural Utility Service (RUSUSDA) for clarity concerning the adjustment of the 5% renewable limit:

Is the renewable limit a legislative matter or administrative policy?
Does the USDA’s RUS just loan money, or does it have regulatory powers?

Lujan, a former PRC commissioner, and anyone holding congressional office should already know the answer to this question. People who have followed KCEC and local politics over the decades simply say everybody is “lying” to each other about energy issues. Still Tri-State has resisted renewables, raises rates arbitrarily, and even punishes KCEC due to arbitrary policies, says KCEC’s Fuhlendorf .

The contract between Tri-State and KCEC lasts until 2040. So the group discussed Tri-State’s contract breach: Tri-State is now arguing in federal court that it is not subject to state regulation – despite agreeing to abide by PRC regulations when the twelve New Mexico Coops agreed to become members of the giant cooperative in 2000.

The group also discussed the CEC (Clean Energy Collective), a Carbondale, Colorado-based company that delivers clean power generation collectively owned by participating utilities and individuals. And RT drafted a letter to 
Attorney General Gary King, stating that they believe the PRC should be the central agency for addressing such issues.

Meanwhile, the congressional staffers at the meeting stated that they believe the best way to approach the issue is to take it to the federal level. However, they also admitted legislative solutions could take time. The conflict between the PRC and Tri-State could take years to resolve in federal court.

Regardless, RT went on to discuss climate change, mother earth, and the radicalization of environmental movements – the Sierra Club now encourages civil disobedience as a tactic. Brown stated that Tri-State is at least three decades behind issues of clean energy development.

One comment stands out: “How do we unshackle ourselves?”

Face it, folks, it’s a 3-D chess board with private, governmental, and public entities, staffed by bureaucrats, beholden to elected officials and unregulated monopolies, glossed by PR flacks and lawyers, bolstered by intervening public groups — at the end of which Mother Earth probably doesn’t much care. Let’s not forget megawatts, transmission lines, resources, cultural issues, contracts, laws, technology, and solar panels. And despite the presence of the local ruling class, average folks from the Hispanic and Pueblo cultural communities are missing out on the dialogue at RT meetings.

How do we unhook ourselves from the grid? Like Mike Reynold’s Earthship Community? Eh?

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