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Gunnison County Electric at 1% local generation but aiming to get to 7%

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – At least in part, it took a Swedish lass crossing the Atlantic Ocean to move the needle in Crested Butte.

In 2008, Crested Butte adopted a resolution affirming climate change action. And then it did essentially nothing. It wasn’t for lack of good intentions. But there was no plan, no clear idea of how to move forward. Crested Butte was not alone in this fumbling.

Change is happening now. Some of that is in transportation. The town has two electric motorcycles for use by municipal employees and is getting an electric SUV for police use. It will be a Tesla. If electrification of medium-and heavy-duty vehicles lags, the town intends to get an electric dump truck, when they become available.

Electricity for these vehicles is getting cleaned up, too. Crested Butte gets electricity from Gunnison County Electric, a co-operative that is among 42 that together compose Tri-State Generation & Transmission.

This is from the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

Tri-State will close three of the big coal-burning units in Colorado from 2025 to 2030. It has agreed more broadly to reduce carbon emissions in the electricity it delivers within Colorado 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. This will require the wholesale provider to crimp the carbon it imports into Colorado from coal plants in Wyoming and Arizona.

In addition, Tri-State has loosened restrictions on how much Gunnison County and other member co-ops can generate. The original policy allowed a maximum of 5% local generation. Gunnison County even now is well below 1%. A new policy adopted in late 2019 allows member co-ops to achieve up to 2% or two megawatts of generation, whichever is less. For Gunnison County, that’s 2%. That gives the co-op a maximum of 7%.

In December, Gunnison County Electric completed a 101-kilowatt community solar array on the shop building at the headquarters near Gunnison.

Next comes a solar farm—if the details get worked out—on the edge of Crested Butte. The town is providing three or four acres and has agreed conceptually to the idea of purchasing the renewable energy attributes from the solar installation, enough for the 20 buildings and other pieces of infrastructure that the municipality owns. This includes the town hall, of course, but by far the largest is the wastewater treatment plant. The town will be paying a premium of $20,000 annually.

Key to the town’s commitment, says Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt, is the understanding of “additionality.” There will be clear evidence that the money being spent has produced something tangible. It’s at home, not a wind farm in Iowa or a solar farm in Arizona.

This is very different from the philosophy of Vail Resorts, now the owner and operator of the Crested Butte Ski Area, which happens to be the largest consumer of electricity in the Gunnison Valley. It famously sealed a pact on a wind farm being completed in eastern Nebraska that produces enough electricity, on a net basis, for all of the ski and resort company’s many operations across the country. It doesn’t actually get the electricity, but it does get the renewable attributes. See 2015 story, The murkiness of voluntary RECs.

The Crested Butte site is imperfect. But all sites in the Gunnison-Crested Butte area fell short. This particular site has more serious snow-loading and it gets in the shadows earlier in the afternoon than other locations. Other sites, however, had other problems, including infringement into habitat of the Gunnison sage grouse, an endangered species.

Electricity from renewable sources can be generated more efficiently in other locations, such as near Pueblo. But that is at least two hundred miles away.

Gunnison County Electric will also add to its local generation as the result of the addition of a turbine at Taylor Park Dam. The dam is located in the western folds of the Sawatch Range near Crested Butte.

Taylor Park Dam

The idea of producing electricity from releases at Taylor Park Dam has been around for at least 20 years but now seems to be moving forward. Photo/Allen Best

The idea of harnessing the power of falling water has been talked about for at least 20 years. Many dams have been so retrofitted in recent years: Pueblo, Granby, and Ridgway, among others. See 2015 story, Putting the electric harness on old dams

The Montrose-based Uncompahgre Valley Waters Users Association will take the lead on filing with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for installation of an electric turbine on the dam. The plan is to be able to realize 200 kilowatts of production. A maximum of 3 megawatts would be possible, but that would require new transmission.

The power from the dam will provide steady base-load generation. Those involved, including Gunnison County Electric, hope to get the project finished in 2022.

Why now for these projects? Mike McBride, chief executive of the co-op, calls it an alignment of the stars. “We’ve wanted to do it for many years.”

Crucial to the solar project at Crested Butte, in particularly, was the community desire and support for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. There have been various community goals set and engagement, not only by local governments, but also individual citizens.

“There’s a story here, how much difference individuals and communities can make when they’re willing to step up and make it happen.”

The Taylor Park project again was a matter of time, gaining agreement among partners that it was worth pursuing. But again, he sees a desire for local generation being part of that underlying support.

In Crested Butte, Schmidt points to the power of an individual far removed in motivating local people. He says the powerful message delivered two years ago to the United Nations by the Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg. That, he says, was the turning point.

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