Green line divides co-op candidates

Wedge issue: Are renewables worth increased rates?

Green blooms in the spring. It’s no different in springtime races for La Plata Electric Association Board of Directors when candidates regularly make arguments for and against green forms of energy.

Four seats of the 12-member board are up for renewal every spring with this year’s election concluding May 11 during the annual meeting of the member-owned cooperative at Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio. Mail-in ballots are due May 10.

Three of the four races are competitive as Tom Compton, who represents District 2, southern and western La Plata County, does not have an opponent.

As in last year’s election, when two incumbents were unseated by two challengers running on a green platform, this year’s candidates can be distinguished by their enthusiasm for alternative sources of energy.

Former Durango Mayor Michael Rendon, who is running for the District 3 seat representing the city of Durango, said the popular support for renewable forms of energy is “a wave that’s catching on. (LPEA) has made leaps and bounds (in renewable energy), but I feel the LPEA has gone about it kicking and screaming.”

Because he believes climate change will lead to more natural disasters, Rendon thinks it is important for the community to become self-reliant and establish more reliable forms of energy.

If Rendon, a program director for the Southwest Conservation Corps, favors a push toward more renewable energy, his opponent, Richard Alan Yoder, represents the backlash.

Yoder, who made a career designing information-technology systems for Fort Lewis College, health-care systems and a utility, said he has “multiple interests in running” but is angry that my “power bill has gone up $40 a month since the first of the year.”

He blamed “special interests” pushing inefficient forms of energy as the “reason why our rates are going up.”

Arguing that the output of energy from solar is inefficient compared with the amount of power that goes into creating solar systems, Yoder asked, “How long would we continue to subsidize it both with taxpayer money and with the electric consumer?”

Because of how rates are structured, Rendon did not think it was accurate to blame rate increase on renewable energy. With polls showing popular support for renewable energy around 70 percent, Rendon wondered how such a majority could be a “special interest.”

In the two other races for LPEA seats, the debate follows a similar pattern with incumbents worried about passing on the costs of renewable energy to consumers.

Lindon Stewart of District 1, Archuleta County, and Herb Brodsky of District 4, north and east La Plata County, are open to renewable energy, but they add they must balance other interests, too.

Stewart is a retired electrical engineer who has developed power plants around the world,

“Power has always been in my blood,” said Stewart, who was appointed to the board in 2011 to fill a vacancy.

“I’m in favor of renewable energy, but I think we need to go at it at a reasonable pace where we don’t have unintended consequences, so impacts don’t affect member rates,” Stewart said.

Brodsky has served 21 years on the board. He was off the board for four months last year when he lost a close election to green advocate Heather Erb. Brodsky later was reappointed to the board to fill a vacancy.

In response to criticisms by Jack D. Turner, his challenger, that the board has been too conservative, Brodsky said, “That’s the opinion of a small number of our members who would like us to be doing more in renewables. I feel I have to represent a very diverse community. I try to think about what’s best for everybody.

“There’s so much more to this business than any one issue,” Brodsky said.

Turner and Mark Garcia, who is running for District 1 against Stewart, argue that diversifying LPEA’s energy portfolio is a pragmatic approach.

Garcia, a former town manager of Pagosa Springs and former director of the town’s geothermal program, responded that “coal is the reason why our rates are going up. The price of coal is going up. This allegation that renewables are the problem is false.

“There needs to be more consideration of renewables,” he said. “I’m not sure the current board has been doing that.”

Turner, who is running for District 4, also thinks diversifying the cooperative’s energy sources is a smart policy in line with the Western value of self-reliance.

A native of Durango, Turner remembers his family-owned gas station and gas-distribution business failing during the oil embargo of the mid-1970s. The lesson he learned is that “you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Turner is an adjunct professor at Southwest Community College. Before returning to Durango, he helped negotiate a settlement between utilities and the Skokomish tribe in Washington state.

Turner said he is sensitive to passing on costs to the consumer, having met people on the campaign trail who have to make choices between buying food or paying their light bill, but believes diversification is how “we protect ourselves as a community.”

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