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February 2024

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Op-Ed: NM Rural Electric Co-ops Keep Members in the Dark

Enchantment Magazine, the official newsletter for members of the NM Rural Electric Co-op Association, refused to print a $2,145 paid advertisement. The ad invited statewide electric co-op members to attend a free Zoom talk on how co-ops could move to solar energy by buying out their contracts with electricity supplier Tri-State Electric. Tom Condit, Director of Communications, emailed Ward McCartney, a Socorro Electric Cooperative board member, that his ad would not be run.

“Tri-State is a member of ours and as such in conflict,” Condit wrote in the July 26, 2022 email. He also sent Mr. McCartney a copy of Enchantment’s Advertising Policy which prohibits anything “political, sexually explicit or deemed controversial,” which includes “Solar” among subjects such as cannabis, dating sites, alcohol and anti-aging creams. Enchantment typically runs a Tri-State ad each month.

The free Zoom talk was presented by Luis A. Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson Electric Co-op (KCEC) in Taos, NM. The KCEC built its own solar arrays to achieve the lowest co-op electricity rates in the state. It did this by leaving Tri-State Transmission and Generation Association, Inc., the coal-heavy, Colorado-based co-op. Tri-State supplies electricity to almost all of New Mexico’s Rural Electric Co-ops. Solar-generated electricity costs one-third of the cost of coal-generated electricity.

Mr. Reyes’ Zoom talk was part of the monthly Speaker Series produced by the non-profit 350 New Mexico, a New Mexico chapter of 350.org. 350 New Mexico advocates for policy and actions that slow or stop climate change. The New Mexico Solar Energy Association was a co-sponsor of the Reyes talk.

Ward McCartney thinks that New Mexico electric co-op members should know about available options, “I want other New Mexico electric co-ops to see the cost savings possible for co-op members, the increased local job creation from self-generating solar energy, the support to the local tax base, and the benefit of not being totally reliant on 300 miles of transmission lines for power.”

Tri-State supplies electricity to utility co-ops in four states. Tri-State contracts only allow these co-ops to generate five percent of their own energy. That is why New Mexico co-ops do not add their own renewables; they discourage their members from putting their solar arrays on their roofs. That is also why Kit Carson had to leave Tri-State if it wanted more solar to lower its rates.

In his talk, Reyes explained how Kit Carson bought out its contract, inspired other co-ops to exit and is now able to supply its members with 100 percent renewable solar during summer days.

The 5 percent limitation recently induced Jemez Mountain’s Electric Cooperative to become the second New Mexico co-op to withdraw from Tri-State, at least partially. The Pueblos and Indian Nations in its service area were pursuing community solar projects that would easily exceed the 5 percent cap. Jemez was faced with losing these important members or buying out 50 percent of its contract with Tri-State.
Tri-State’s 2021 Responsible Energy Plan states that by 2024, 50 percent of its energy will come from clean energy sources, and by 2030 this number will increase to 70 percent. This is a positive step, but most of its planned 1,000 MW of renewable installations will be in Colorado with its higher population.
Tri-State closed its coal-fired Escalante Station near Prewitt, NM in 2020. In May 2021 it increased its stake in the coal-powered Laramie River plant in Wyoming.

In December 2021, Tri-State’s largest member, Colorado’s United Power Inc., notified Tri-State that it intended to exit in 2024. Two days later, another Colorado co-op and one Nebraska co-op followed suit. Based on Kit Carson’s buyout terms, United calculated it owed Tri-State $154 Million to withdraw, but Tri-State countered with a $1.2 billion amount. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently in the process of ruling on United’s contract termination payment. Part of the buyout amount is to cover Tri-State’s debt from building coal plants during the 1970s oil embargo.