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Candidates for the SDCEA board answered questions at the League of Women Voters candi-dating forum on Tuesday evening. from left to right: Joe Redetzke, Mark Boyle, Blake Bennetts, Michael Robinson, and Jeff Fiedler. Photo by Jan Wondra.

The Tuesday, May 16 candi-dating forum hosted in the Sangre de Cristo Community Room by the League of Women Voters (LWV) focused attention on the five people running for the three open Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA) board seats. The 90-minute session was a fast dive into the candidate’s backgrounds, reasons for running for the board, views on clean energy, and differences in how they would approach service on the board.

The five candidates:

  • Rural Chaffee/Lake counties —

Joseph Redetzke — Incumbent (running for reelection)

Mark Boyle

  • At-large:

Jeff Fiedler

Michael Robinson — Incumbent (running for reelection)

  • Buena Vista

Blake Bennetts — Incumbent (running unopposed for reelection)

The packed room of 60 attendees was treated to a combination forum led by LWV programs organizer Grace Garret: beginning with introductions, questions asked to the panel of candidates in a rotating format, followed by table-by-table sessions where the candidates answered questions, shifting tables every five minutes. Their answers, to the questions posed to them:

Q1. Now that Sangre de Cristo has hosted events to get input from members, what is your biggest takeaway, and as a board member how would you ensure their concerns are honored?

Mark Boyle — “I’ve attended all the listening events and many of the meetings for past couple years. My takeaway from the members is we want more information on this latest rate effort — it was done without a focus group, or outreach — it just fell in our laps as a letter. I think the message has gotten through – that was then, this is now, we need engagement.”

Jeff Fiedler– “It seems like there was a hunger for [the engagement] as an organization that is member-owned, to proactively explain big strategic decisions you’re taking, take the time to answer reasonable questions from members. My takeaway – the rate restructure seems to be not aligned with any clear strategy — people will go along if they feel heard.”

Mike Robinson — “The listening session caused interaction. The co-op in recent history hasn’t been very proactive in communicating key initiatives… it is member-owned after all… If there is a vacuum of communications then misinformation and half-truths take hold — you’re all invited to attend the board meetings.

Joe Redetzke – “We’ve been a little lax in member engagement, we have a strategic plan that calls for meetings like we’ve been doing, and we’re trying to rectify that. About three years ago we had a meeting right here and we all agreed we would hold member events four times a year and then COVID hit. Now that we’ve begun, we are going to have more.”

Blake Bennetts – “We have members who have no idea who they are paying their bill to and that needs to change. I’m excited by the public meetings we’ve been having.”

Q2 — Colorado law says we need to get to 100 percent renewables by 2040 and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. (Tri-State) says it will reach 70 percent by 2030. As of today, you’re at 43 percent, with a goal of reaching 55 percent by 2025, Tri-State says 50 percent renewables by 2025..Are we on track to reach the goals? Yes or no, and what do you think we need to do to get there?

Blake Bennetts  — “No one is on track. We’re all behind the eight ball and it’s why we are working so hard. We can have some talks with Tri-State as we plan for the next 30 years. We’re at a 5 percent (local) cap and we’re going to have to ask to see if we can change it, as we plan for local energy generation. If we continue to use Tri-State, they are going to have a huge solar project come on the grid in the next month or two.”

Joe Redetzke — “First let me clarify — 100 percent renewable by 2050 is not correct – I think you mean 100 percent carbon-free by 2050 … It is not possible to get there by 2050… most of the industry will tell you about 85 percent then we’ll need something as a base load. We are on track and improving every year … Tri-State is bringing on major  megawatts and shutting down their coal plants – they are building what is called ‘power purchase agreements’ so they don’t have to worry about stranded assets. People should know that we are leading here in Colorado – Tri-State will be at 40 percent carbon-free energy as of next year — we are double the nation’s progress which is at 20 percent.”

Michael Robinson  – “My sensitivity is the rate of change. My experience in other industries (telecom and financial services) is the faster you move through technological change, the higher the risk, I’m sensitive to reliability and I’m extremely pleased to see our trajectory toward non-carbon sources. I just want us to be careful. We will see significant. increases in demand from EVs and battery use. Colorado is actually one of the most aggressive states in the country pushing for noncarbon sources. Tri-State has been doing a fantastic job in facilitating that.”

Jeff Fiedler — “So Xcel is starting now, they’re not sure how they are going to get there, we need to take that same attitude. I don’t think we’re (going too fast we seem to be on the sideline expecting Tri-State to carry the load for us. I think we should bring production here locally, and not be sending a big chunk of our monthly bills out of the county, and out-of-state.”

Mark Boyle — “I’m going to be the skunk at the garden party. The question has to be framed differently. There are 600 solar users out of 14,000 members. The rest of the power is coming from  Tri-State. The problem with that is us not making the change to the very real problem we have — our climate is changing. We need to do things actively as individuals. The reason they tried to pass that rate change was pushing the opposite way-someone wanting to put solar on their house and it would make it financially unable for them to do that. Is that what we want?”

Q 3– Is there a risk of putting all our eggs (90 percent of our power) in one basket so to speak — versus some more diversified sources?

Mark Boyle — “We aren’t the only co-op out there — there are 42 – starting to ask that questions. I don’t have anything against Tri-State, I like the co-op model. But five percent of renewables is foolish. We could do microgrids, there is a thing called virtual generation. Say there are 10,000 homes, with solar, hook up batteries and with for 1,000 homes, hook up batteries and you’ve got a generation station right in your own community.”

Jeff Fiedler – “Tri-State has been a great partner, but things are changing, technology changes, that we can’t do with the current setup. We’re at risk relying on one supplier. We are missing out on the opportunity to do more local generation. The options are there, they are working for other rural co-ops and communities.”

Michael Robinson – “It’s complex. Here’s the issue, my experience is in risk management. There are always risks to the decision. Tri-State is a risk because they are one source — on the other hand Tri-State is not a risk – they are obligated by law to serve our need. But I, as a rooftop solar are not obligated to serve the grid. On the other hand, we have the opportunities to explore other sources. If we could tap into a geothermal source locally, that greatly reduces our risk.”

Joe Redetzke — “We do buy 75 percent of our power from Tri-State, but we are also owners in Tri-State — we have $10 million in credits in Tri-State. But to buy that out it would be $70 to 80 million and we can’t afford that. Some co-ops are buying power on the open market from them right now higher than we’re paying. As demand goes up we’ll see prices rise.”

Blake Bennetts — “I agree, that what we can do is have conversations with Tri-State, we are very engaged, we have four members on different co-op boards including Tri-State. We can direct them to what we want to see – say geothermal, and our five percent could go to 10 percent. Of all the risks in this market, Tri-state has been helpful for us to reduce our risk.”

Q4 – As a board member would you advocate for the proposed rate restructure?

Blake Bennetts — “I’d advocate for a rate restructuring, but we got feedback on what was proposed recently, going from the low 30s to mid-40s as a base price is too much … we’ve been lucky with cold weather use this past year, but we need to take and reformulate with focus groups.”

Joe Redetzke  — “I agree, we need to reexamine our rates. As we’ve said, we won’t do anything as a board until we hire a new CEO and we need someone who knows rates. We got advice to unbundle rates, and other co-ops have already unbundled. This is a nationwide movement to unbundle rates and we’re at the point of the spear.”

Michael Robinson — “I agree with Joe. The feedback received, we got rate shock response. It doesn’t have to be a huge step. From a revenue standpoint [the proposal] didn’t increase our revenue this year, but in the future the costs are rising. We need to look carefully at how we mitigate rate shock. We have more than 12,000 members  and it is impossible for this board to make all 12,000 members happy.”

Jeff Fiedler — “It’s good to hear the board now saying they aren’t for cost of service increases. I have 30 years experience in climate policy and we need to change strategy.”

Mark Boyle  — “I’d vote against it {the rate structure]. there are ways to cut losses — our  line losses are seven percent– they heat up, sag and lose energy … if you make your energy source local and close to the gird, you don’t lose that energy.”