Originally published on ILSR.org
Rural areas are sometimes isolated, disconnected from modern conveniences and the latest technologies. The digital divide is real, but one cooperative in New Mexico is proving to be an exception as it connects customers to affordable solar energy and reliable Internet service.
For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Luis Reyes, General Manager of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. Reyes, who has been with Kit Carson for 37 years, has experienced the cooperative’s evolution firsthand. Farrell and Reyes discuss how Kit Carson’s exit from Tri-State Generation and Transmission allowed the co-op to target 100 percent daytime solar power — without sacrificing affordability or reliability.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
Nearing one century of rural electric service
As rural electric cooperatives came together under the Rural Electrification and Telephone Service Act of 1936, co-op members simply wanted electric service to their rural communities. Now, says Reyes, very few people in the cooperative territory can remember a time without electricity. With electrification in the rearview mirror, customer-members are asking for more.
Together, technological advances and increased member participation are propelling rural electric service to new standards.
I do continue to see the co-ops at the forefront of this new energy world we’re facing — and we’re probably the best equipped to address it.
Generation & Transmission vs. distribution
Generation and Transmission cooperatives (G&Ts) are the “co-op of co-ops,” generating electricity for the many distribution cooperatives that they serve. G&Ts are further removed from the customer than distribution cooperatives, and accordingly, less accountable to customer needs. Most have long-term contracts with coal plants and cannot allow distribution cooperatives to generate much of their energy locally.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative was served by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, but members of the distribution co-op decided to leave after a rate hike. Reyes calls Kit Carson’s exit “amicable,” since the case did not go to court. Kit Carson does, however, have to pay a significant exit fee.
Listen to our interview with Ed Marston, former board member of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, who describes the co-op’s struggles before also leaving Tri-State Generation & Transmission.
Freed from the contract, Kit Carson now sources its own power supply and provides choice to customer-members. If G&Ts are unwilling to adapt, says Reyes, distribution co-ops have “an obligation to exit” on behalf of their customers.
There has to be flexibility. It has to go back to how we were formed, the democratic process. And I think if we don’t allow distribution co-ops to really explore what’s out there, rural areas will continue to get further and further behind when it comes to energy.
100% daytime solar
Before the split with Tri-State, members of Kit Carson were hungry for more solar power. The distribution cooperative’s restrictive contract with Tri-State only allowed them to generate five percent of their electricity from local sources.
After its “amicable” separation, Kit Carson set a goal to generate all of its electricity with solar — during the daytime. The co-op is 63 percent of the way there and is on track to reach 100 percent daytime solar by 2022. Reyes believes that Kit Carson will be the first utility on the mainland U.S. to achieve this feat. Since regional energy use peaks at night, solar power will account for an impressive 40 percent of Kit Carson’s overall electric load.
If you’re a member of Kit Carson, you’re going to get solar energy.
Even as the cooperative pays the exit fee, Kit Carson’s electricity rates are cheaper than they were before leaving Tri-State. Once the exit fee is paid off in 2022, rates will decrease further.
Investing in local, distributed solar
Kit Carson will reach its 100 percent daytime solar goal by constructing local, distributed solar. Reyes discusses the many benefits of distributed solar power through the community, including resiliency. To prevent forest fires, Kit Carson may have to shut off transmission lines. This is easier to do when the community has local solar and storage to serve essential electric needs.
Investing in renewable energy does not mean sacrificing reliability, as Kit Carson has already paired battery storage with several of its solar gardens. Reyes believes that technology will keep up and that energy storage options will continue to grow.
We have to get out of these scare tactics and, and say, the sun doesn’t shine at night, so let’s put some batteries. Or let’s get wind that follows that nighttime profile. And instead of us as co-ops and utilities making excuses why we can’t, we should figure how we can.
Keeping up with member demands
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative has a secondary goal to be carbon-free by 2030. This means that once the utility has 100 percent renewable electricity, it will turn to transportation. Reyes says the cooperative is finding ways to increase access to electric vehicles and improve public transportation.
Started as an effort to modernize the grid with fiber optic cable, Kit Carson is also in the business of Internet access. The cooperative has installed 3,000 miles of fiber optic cable since 2015 and is connecting customers in its territory. When COVID-19 forced all non-essential services online, Kit Carson connected schools and Internet hotspots for students at no cost. Reyes says that Kit Carson Internet is as fast as any competitor.
The secret to Kit Carson’s many successes has been member engagement. Reyes stresses the value of collaborating with members to really understand what they are asking for.
Develop solutions where it’s interactive with the members. If it doesn’t work, they’ll understand why, because they’ve been part of the process.
See these resources for more behind the story:
Listen to our 2018 Local Energy Rules episode featuring Luis Reyes and Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Cooperative.
Read more about Kit Carson’s clean energy and broadband Internet programs.
Read our 2014 report on rural electric cooperatives: Re-member-ing the Electric Cooperative.
Listen to episode 139 of Local Energy Rules, detailing how a Colorado Law Creates Transparency at Rural Electric Co-ops.
Check out the New Economy Coalition’s Rural Electric Cooperative Toolkit or listen to our Local Energy Rules episode featuring two of its creators.
For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 143rd episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.
Featured Photo Credit: Walmart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)