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Posted: June 01, 2010

Cote’s Colorado: Power in transition

Tri-State Generation aims to keep energy options open

Mike Cote

While headlines about renewable energy mandates usually focus on the state's largest utility, Xcel Energy, Westminster-based Tri-State Generation is undergoing a similar shift. Tri-State supplies power to 18 member electric cooperatives in Colorado, 12 in New Mexico, eight in Wyoming and six in Nebraska, serving nearly 1.5 million people.

Tri-State is working with Xcel Energy on a $180 million transmission line over La Veta Pass from the San Luis Valley that is designed to improve reliability of service and export renewable energy from southern Colorado to the Front Range. The owner of the 171,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, billionaire hedge fund manager Louis Bacon, has been trying to block the project from going through his property.

This interview with Tri-State's Lee Boughey, senior manager for communications and public affairs, was edited for space and clarity from an interview also available as a podcast at cobizmag.com. (Look for part 2 of this conversation in July in the "State of the State" section.)

ColoradoBiz: Tell us about the significance of the southern Colorado project and what the legal battle represents as utilities work on improving transmission lines to bring renewable power onto the grid.

Boughey: Tri-State has been looking into resolving some of the reliability issues in the San Luis Valley and south-central Colorado for the better part of a decade. With the state Legislature passing and the governor signing Senate Bill 100, investor-owned utilities in the state (such as Xcel) also now have a requirement to plan for renewable energy transmission.
South-central Colorado and the San Luis Valley have been identified as areas for renewable energy development. It became clear to Tri-State and Xcel that it made a lot of sense to work together and take a systems-based approach to expanding the transmission system in the southern part of the state. This project would help ensure reliability throughout southern Colorado while also creating the opportunity for renewable energy exports from the renewable energy resource-rich parts of the state.
While we have received broad support from throughout southern Colorado recognizing the need for infrastructure investments, there is one landowner (Bacon) who has a large land holding that is presenting some unique challenges to us. Our success is usually found by sitting down and talking with landowners and other parties and trying to reach some agreements so we can move forward in the public interest to build infrastructure while respecting landowners' property rights and their sensitivities.

ColoradoBiz: Any progress on finding some kind of resolution that would appease both parties?

Boughey: No, not to this date. We hope to be able to do that and would hope that the Trinchera Ranch representatives would want to work constructively with us to help us understand their concerns. It has been characterized before - this is really becoming a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) issue and one that we hope to resolve. I think what is important about it, though, is that it really does represent, perhaps in Colorado, the first battle of the new energy economy to develop our renewable energy resources.

ColoradoBiz: The Colorado Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, recently signed by Gov. Ritter, will require Xcel Energy to retire or retrofit aging coal plants on the Front Range and replace them with other lower polluting fuels, such as natural gas. This doesn't directly affect Tri-State, but what impact might it have in the future?

Boughey: Our concern would be the general notion that use of specifically natural gas is the answer for either air-quality issues or energy-supply issues. It appears that in a sense we're eliminating some choices when we ought to be looking at all of the opportunities and all of the advancements in technology.

We want to make sure that as regulators are looking at policy, the Public Utilities Commission is looking at resources, that we're careful not to pick winners and losers but that we look at the full realm of opportunities; that we look at technology development and what that offers and that we continue to make choices that are in the best interests of consumers, in the best interests of reliability and the best interests of the environment.
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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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