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Jessica Matlock talks about her five years at La Plata Electric, the changing world of electricity, and the need for flexible contracts


by Allen Best

Jessica Matlock left La Plata Electric Association in southwest Colorado on March 16, roughly five years after she joined the organization as chief executive, to take the helm of Portland-based PNGC Power. It’s an electrical cooperative with 16 members spread across Oregon and six other states. La Plata is a member of a larger cooperative, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which has 42 members across four states.

Jessica Matlock

Jessica Matlock

When she left Durango, three of Tri-State’s members were scheduled to leave Tri-State. A week later, directors of La Plata voted to serve notice that their co-op will also depart in two years. See: La Plata Electric bids adieu to Tri-State G&T. Big Pivots, March 26, 2024.

She said much of her time in Durango was spent in trying to negotiate a more flexible contract with Tri-State. During her time, La Plata also built its first community solar garden and bought the first vehicle-to-grid school bus in Colorado.

A Colorado native, Matlock has a bachelor’s degree in chemical oceanography and a master’s degree in public administration. She previously worked in the Pacific Northwest and was also in the U.S. Coast Guard. Along the way she has also reared three children.

She talked with Big Pivots by video on March 11. The interview was condensed.


Big Pivots: What drew you to La Plata Electric and what expectations did you have when you took the reins in 2019? 

Jessica Matlock: I’m a fourth-generation Coloradan. I grew up on a horse ranch near Morrison and Red Rocks. It was coming home.

Then there was the opportunity to work for a co-op. I’d worked for a wholesale electric provider, Bonneville, and then a public utility district. So coming to work for a small cooperative was attractive because I really enjoy the co-op model.

I had few expectations. The board had expectations for me: Examine how to achieve more flexibility for our membership and provide that opportunity for our members to have a say in our power supply.


By flexibility you mean being able to generate more of your own power? 

I think it comes down to the co-op missing out on a lot of opportunities because we cannot self-generate. I don’t know if you saw that recent Washington Post article that came out in regard to blackouts potentially happening across the U.S. (See: Amid explosive demand, America is running out of power.)

I spoke to some CEOs in the Pacific Northwest recently, and they said, yeah, for the first time ever, they’re expecting blackouts this summer because they just cannot keep up with demand. During the Texas storm (February 13-17 Winter Storm Uri), Tri-State was going to have blackouts for some of their co-ops until one co-op bailed out another co-op.

By managing our own power supply, we’re closer to the issue and have greater ability to resolve those problems. It not just about flexible power supply. This co-op wants to manage its own future instead of giving that over to somebody else.

It’s not just about green power. It’s that we can do it in a more affordable way than Tri-State, especially with the Inflation Reduction Act, which allows us to realize those tax benefits. We find better pricing when we develop it. That’s why we developed Sunnyside Solar Project. It’s more affordable than if we were to sign a purchase power agreement with someone else.


Sunnyside, is that a solar project that’s been completed?

We just have to finish some final reviews and inspections, and then it goes live this summer. That will be our first community solar project.


What were your notable successes? 

Bringing self-generation to La Plata. This will be the first renewable generation project La Plata has ever built. That’s definitely noteworthy.

It’s also getting La Plata back on track financially. One of my efforts was to create more accountability at La Plata. When I started, none of the vice presidents had ever seen a budget, their budgets. Fiscal management and fiscal accountability are number one. If you look at our rankings in the state (among cooperatives), we’re in the top three of being fiscally sound and financially solid, according to our bank.

Our members, their number one priority is affordable rates. So if we can better manage our financials, then we can deliver on affordable rates. And that goes back to our power supply.

Staying with Tri-State, we are subject to rate instability. If we were to be on our own and do our own power supply, we can lock in our power supply for a certain amount of years and know that the rates will not go up. Or maybe they will go up at a certain percentage over time, but at least we’ll have more certainty. Right now, we do not have a lot of certainty.


Let me push back at you just a little. Tri-State hasn’t had a rate increase since 2018. I grant you one is planned now. But everybody seems to be raising rates. So again, six years, that looks pretty stable to me. 

They’ve never had this type of rate methodology until now. In the past, their board was able to pass their own rates. That is no longer true for Tri-State. (Now that Tri-State rates are governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), Tri-State must get FERC approval for rates.

The methodology they submitted to FERC allows them to true up every year. So, at the end of the year, Tri-State can look back to see if it adequately recovered (revenue) through its rates to cover expenses, and if not, it can add a surcharge to every member that next year.


About the time you returned to Colorado in 2019, Tri-State applied for FERC jurisdiction. Was that a wise move by Tri-State or a mistaken venture?

Well, the co-ops are saying it could be a wise move. Just read the FERC filings. (Other co-ops) go after Tri-State for not being just and reasonable and fair on several points. Many of those co-ops that have left or are leaving have asserted that.

Tri-State will say to you that they’ve still made the right decision, but at the end of the day, they still haven’t gotten their 2024 rates approved by FERC. FERC did not agree with them. And there’s a number of other things that they’re not winning at FERC. (As of late April, nothing has changed).

From our perspective, it’s nice to have a third-party expert review what Tri-State is doing (and) questioning their decisions.


You’ll be running a G&T in the Pacific Northwest. How is that G&T different from Tri-State? 

This G&T in the Pacific Northwest covers more states, seven altogether, and it has fewer members. However, they’re members that want to join PNGC, which is opposite of Tri-State.

PNGC had a member who wanted to leave and (the G&T) actually worked with the member to find a solution for it to leave. And then they said, let’s not let this happen again. And so they rewrote all of their contracts to be flexible. That is the major difference between this G&T and Tri-State.

PNGC does not generate electricity. Tri-State does. But PNGC is moving toward doing so. They can avoid the mistakes others have made as they move toward meeting their member needs with flexible contracts.


What is the key characteristic of that flexibility? 

The current Tri-State contract is not very long. This PNGC contract is much lengthier because it has a lot more optionality for its members. There are on and off ramps within this PNGC contract.


My understanding of Tri-State is that they felt anchored by their huge investments in central power generation, mostly coal plants. And that is why they said, we can’t allow that much flexibility. We need to have you here to be able to help pay off, for lack of a better word, these big beasts. Is that a defining problem for Tri-State? 

I think so, yeah. They made that decision to invest in coal when everybody else a long time ago was leaving. I was actually working for the Department of Energy and Bonneville Power for a U.S. senator on the (Senate) Energy Committee, and Tri-State came in and lobbied me to say, please help us protect our coal when everybody else in the late 1990s was realizing that they needed to start moving away from investments in coal. So yes, it was Tri-State’s past decisions that have left them with this problem.


How do you see G&Ts evolving in the next decade? As I’m Colorado centric, I’m interested in Tri-State very specifically. And how do you see co-ops evolving? 

This new G&T in the Pacific Northwest is already realizing issues and having to evolve because they have these environmental mandates and requirements. It is very difficult to build base-load generation or even renewables because of NIMBYism and transmission constraints. So they’re trying to find the future of, okay, how do you use the energy that you have more effectively and shaving off peaks? It’s more battery storage, it’s V-to-G (vehicle to grid) technologies. It’s understanding your peaks and working with human behavior on shifting that use.

For the G&T model, it’s really listening more to your members. Tri-State was great for La Plata in the past because the co-op here was small and needed a bigger G&T to supply this base-load generation that was reliable and affordable. Now we have more options. These co-ops are becoming more sophisticated, and these G&T’s are going to have to be more sophisticated.


To what extent do we have a rural-urban divide within Tri-State? I look at United Power with 111,000 members, and even La Plata, you’ve got a lot of very rural areas, but you also have Durango. Can G&Ts meet the needs of the United’s and La Plata’s without leaving behind other cooperatives, those with maybe 3,000 to 5,000 members and whose largest load arrives with irrigation season? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this too because the (G&T) I’m going to has the same issue. There’s very small co-ops there that don’t want any change. They don’t need it. And there’s larger co-ops that do want change. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, right? You have to provide different options and products for your members.

Tri-State is trying to work on another product for its members, the partial contract, but they’ve not been successful. And that’s how you make sure that you’re not leaving a certain co-op behind in your membership. You supply different products.

Bonneville Power, who I used to be with, has several different products you can choose from, and that is how they were able to fairly serve Seattle City Lights with a million people in population down to the small St. Helens cooperative of 5,000 members. They provided for more optionality.

These G&Ts have to provide a suite of options for members like fully load-serving or load following entity to maybe just supplying base-load generation — or how about a load following product. It’s different products and services.


How has your experience at La Plata with Tri-State informed your plans for your new position? 

I have the empathy and perspective of being a co-op that needed more optionality, but also wanted to protect my fellow co-op (Cortez-based) Empire, a co-op that’s completely happy with their current product with Tri-State. I know what both kind of entities need.


La Plata in November filed a lawsuit against Tri-State. Will that legal proceeding continue after you are gone? 

It will, and that’s all I can say because it’s open litigation.


How should we understand the importance of transmission for all the members of Tri-State? Is this a defining issue? 

It is. If we want to bring power to La Plata to create diversified power supply, we face major transmission constraints. Now, if we were an RTO that would open up. So absolutely, it is a good thing that Tri-State is looking at joining an RTO, the Southwest Power Pool, because that is what’s necessary to unlock transmission capacity.

Discussion of how you deal with the transmission market between the Southwest Power Pool and the California ISO is needed. There’s been a discussion of which market is better. It is best if those two come together and develop a resolution about the seams.


Do you have thoughts about which one, SPP or CAISO, is better? And is there a third option?

I’ve been working on markets for literally 20 years. I think most of the folks in the western side of the U.S. would probably go for the California ISO except for the governance. I do not think that going to an ISO that is governed by the (California) governor and legislature is a good idea because transmission should never be about politics.

In that respect, the Southwest Power Pool would be better, but I know that that leaves a lot on the table for Western states.

If the California ISO can figure that out, then they would be successful in gaining support in those Western states and even potentially Colorado.


You mentioned the Washington Post story, the tremendous increase in demand posed by data centers. Is that kind of a new twist? For a long time, we just would just go build more coal-fired power plants, and they just keep getting bigger and bigger and more of them. Then at some point we saw an actual leveling of demand as we started taking Amory Lovins seriously. Now we seem to be moving beyond that. And this is before we get the full electrification of transportation or adoption of widespread building electrification. 

Artificial intelligence requires a lot of computer technology and data centers. Add that onto your data centers for Bitcoin and the Amazons and others.

Sure, it was easy to say, oh, we’ll just build a gas plant or a coal plant, but you can’t do that anymore in Washington and Seattle or in Oregon. And they can’t rely on hydro. Hydro is having its issues with climate change and requirements for salmon, and now the Snake River dams are coming out. That’s thousands of megawatts (of capacity). How do you fill those voids?

That’s where some of these utilities, big utilities in the Northwest, are telling me we’re faced with blackouts soon. I’ve never heard that before. That’s scary. And they can’t go out and build quick enough because of land rights issues.

Nobody wants anybody to develop large-scale solar or wind development in these Washington and Oregon neighborhoods. So what do they do? They’re going to have to find power in a different state, but those states need the power.


We still haven’t figured out the mix of baseload and storage with renewables. In Pueblo, the talk is of nuclear when Comanche 3 closes. Is there anything that you have formed strong opinions about in this regard? 

There has to be a solution for some type of base-load energy, and nuclear is one of those. And the small modular nuclear is definitely an answer.

But a third party entity is trying to develop a 200-megawatt solar facility down here (in southwest Colorado), and they can’t get it through — even in our area in the Four Corners, which you would think would be easy, because no one’s living around it. Well, there are farmers and ranchers living around it. They don’t want it.

So if people think that the solution is just putting out more solar and wind and batteries, they don’t understand all the issues with doing that. There are many, and it’s really difficult. I mean, it was even hard for us to develop a 1.7-megawatt solar facility because the neighbors didn’t want it, even though it was next to an oil field and a substation.


Wow, interesting. I had no idea. 

Yeah, sounds good. But people don’t realize how difficult it is to get the renewable generation into the ground.


What qualities and experiences should the directors of La Plata look for when choosing your successor? 

Someone who knows how to develop power supply. I knew how to develop, and it wasn’t scary to me. A lot of people in the co-op world have never built generation before, so it’s a little bit scary.

La Plata staff members understand the grid and distributed-energy resources and other things. They just need somebody to help them with removing barriers and support them and provide guidance and experience on how to successfully negotiate the purchase power agreements to build renewables.

Allen Best
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