The future of energy in Rural America is unfolding right in our backyard. Last summer our local utility servicing Solar Energy International’s headquarters in Paonia, Colorado, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), won a favorable ruling before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This decision recognizes DMEA’s right to step outside of their existing 40-year power contract with wholesale power provider Tri-State, to court and develop cost-effective local energy solutions.
Well, the ruling created a national buzz and its fallout is still to be determined, it’s important for us as residents of Western Colorado and member-owners of DMEA to understand, what does this ruling mean for us?
To begin, it’s important to first recount the history of the nation’s 900 something rural electric cooperatives. President Roosevelt recognized any reemergence from the Great Depression required the inclusion of America’s farmland, and tasked cooperatives with electrifying Rural America. FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 at a time when 9 out of 10 farms were without power (Source: NRECA). Of the 7 guiding principles all rural cooperatives abide by, concern for the community’s health and resilience is the summation.
As part of its longstanding service to the communities of Delta and Montrose and amid the region’s continued economic struggles, DMEA’s leadership on local energy is indicative of the very reason rural cooperatives were first created: to not only power Rural America, but act as a stakeholder of our community’s well-being and economic prosperity.
So What Does Local Energy mean for the Community we call home?
Just last month, Oxbow’s mine silo was demolished, symbolic of the decline of the North Fork’s coalmines, once the county’ best-paying employer. These losses not only devastate coalminers we call neighbors, but county schools, township budgets and downtown businesses that depend on their livelihoods. Such fallout has only increased the necessity for the community to diversify the local economy, in an effort to retain businesses and area youth leaving to study, work and live elsewhere. But as efforts spearheaded by Delta County Economic Development (DCED) show, the region is ripe with opportunities that can strengthen our local economy.
Alongside such initiatives as broadband, agri-tourism, and recreation, access to and adoption of local energy presents an opportunity for us as a community to envision what our shared future could look like, one where we build our self-sufficiency and advance healthy communities. As it currently stands, more than 7 cents of every 10 cents per kWh residential rate customers pay DMEA, leaves the service area. What could it look like if each electron we made locally meant one less we had to import? What would it look like if a portion of the roughly $40 million dollars a year leaving DMEA and its members were to stay in Delta-Montrose counties?
It could mean more projects like the South Canal Hydroelectric Project, first commissioned by DMEA and Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) in 2013, which the co-op estimate saves its members some $2 million dollars a year, compared to existing wholesale rates (and those continue to go up). As Tri-States rates rise, the savings for DMEA and its members only grows.
It could mean biomass generation plants, like the one in Gypsum using beetle-killed pine, or venting methane from coal mines, like that from Elk Creek Mine powering Holy Cross Utility. It could mean capturing solar in the adobes and hydro falling from the mountains. Local energy means local control, predictable energy rates and jobs.
As we at Solar Energy International celebrate our 25th anniversary, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect on our mission to empower businesses, people and communities worldwide through renewable energy education, and how this has taken shape. Our family has grown to include 50,000 alumni equipped with SEI’s industry-leading technical training and renewable energy expertise, working around the world to build renewable energy infrastructure and a sustainable future. The leaps the solar industry has made is ever apparent to us at SEI. Now, each year some 5,000 students come to SEI both online and at our lab yard in Paonia to enter one of the fastest growing industries in the world, that of harvesting the sun’s power.
This realization, coupled with the decline of coal mines where we are headquartered, pressed SEI as an organization to imagine, how could we extend the benefits of solar with our neighbors? Thus our outreach efforts “Economic Revitalization through Solar” began in 2014. We launched the first campaign, Solarize North Fork Valley (May-July 2015) to strengthen our energy-producing community through solar, with a second and expanded effort, Solarize Delta County currently underway (April 2016-July 2016). The mission of Solarize is to create an increased awareness and demand for solar adoption that in turn will serve to bolster a long-term market for solar.
The first round resulted in 23 residential installs, $400,000 of local investments made in clean energy, 120kW of total installed solar, and six new jobs with the local installers we partnered with. This is huge, and only the beginning. Which is why Delta County Economic Development (DCED) approached SEI to expand solarize to all of Delta County, in an effort to increase the affordability and accessibility of local energy solutions.
As we enter the final month and a half of our enrollment program at Solarize Delta County, what excites us the most is talking with more of our neighbors about what a vision of local energy production could mean for our community? What could it look like if area youth could find gainful employment here instead of leaving for the city? What could it look like for the many skilled workers in Delta County and beyond, willing and able to lend their services to these projects? What could predictable energy rates mean for a family with fixed income? What would these savings, amplified over tens of thousands of members mean for our farmers, businesses and towns? Now, imagine what the secondary benefits could look like for our community? We believe we are still an energy producing valley, we are just one in transition.
Solarize Delta County is starting that conversation. Despite the many differences in the community, and even differences among solar adopters, we all seek to live in healthy, vibrant communities. We choose to live here, not because it’s easy, but because it’s worth it. And together as a community, we are resilient and resolved. Local energy won’t turn the area’s economy around on its own, but it’s part of the solution and part of our identity as resourceful residents of Delta County.
For more information or to participate:
Go to: https://www.solarenergy.org/solarize-delta-county/
Google: Solarize Delta County
Facebook: “like” Solarize Delta County
Call: Gerald or Marla at (970) 527-7657 ext. 213
Go Solar. Simply. Together. Solarize Delta County!
DEADLINE TO REGISTER JULY 15th