US electric co-op giant Tri-State promises a switch to renewables

But critics say the supplier, which serves 43 co-ops, has been slow to move away from fossil fuels

Tri-State Generation and Transmission (G&T) Association, which supplies energy to 43 electric co-ops in its member network, has pledged a move towards more clean and renewable sources.

As previously reported in Co-op News, many electric co-ops – which serve rural communities across the USA – have been looking to use more renewable energy, prompted by potential cost savings and growing public concern over fossil emissions and climate change.

One barrier to this energy transition has been electric co-ops’ financial obligations to existing fossil fuel suppliers, while contracts with organisations like Tri-State put limits on the amount of electricity they may take from alternative sources. This prompted New Mexico’s Kit Carson Electric Co-op to buy its way out of its Tri-State contract, with another, Delta Montrose in Western Colorado, set to leave next year.

Now, in an interview with industry website Utility Dive, Tri-State chief executive Duane Highly said he sees the “need for a shift into the new energy economy”.

“Utilities once had almost no choice but to build coal,” he said, “but now policies are different, and economics are drastically different. Our goal is a transition that lowers rates.”

Tri-State says it is “pursuing an aggressive transition to a cleaner energy portfolio” and its website sets out a responsible energy plan with “carbon reduction, renewable energy and resource planning requirements”.

It hopes this will “ensure reliability and affordability”, bringing lower wholesale rates while maintaining its strong financial position.

The plan also sees Tri-State promise members more opportunities to develop local renewable energy by considering the types of memberships and contracts it offers.

And it promises to increase its clean energy sources with new wind and solar projects, and to work with renewable providers to make community-scale solar, energy storage and electric vehicle infrastructure more available to its members at a lower cost.

If it is effective, this model could spread to other big co-op energy providers which have hit similar unrest from members, says Utility Dive. It highlights the case of the Wabash Valley Power Alliance, which serves 23 co-ops in the Midwest. This is reportedly pushing to extend its fossil-heavy contracts – and last year saw one of those members, Tipmont Rural Electric, file a request to leave with federal regulators.

Joe Smyth, research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, said: “It’s encouraging to see Tri-State talking about a rapid transition from coal to clean energy. If they are successful, it could serve as an important model for other generation and transmission associations throughout the country, since many face similar challenges and a heavy reliance on coal.

“But we need to see real action from Tri-State and a serious commitment to reduce emissions, like we’ve seen from other major utilities in the region, in line with the climate legislation in Colorado that urges electric utilities to cut carbon pollution 80% by 2030.

“So far, Tri-State has not made any similar commitment, and it’s hard to take seriously any plan that fails to do that.”