LPEA election: Two new board members gain seats amid one considerable loss of talent

The La Plata Electric Association board has gained the energetic coordinator of Fort Lewis College’s Environmental Center who has degrees in biology and environmental studies, and a background in organizational leadership and education. Rachel Landis is eager to expand the use of renewables in power generation, which was the election issue.

Rancher Davin Montoya retained his long-held seat, promising to continue to bring financial focus to anything out of the usual and to provide what is beneficial to every organization, historical memory.

In Guinn Unger, the board has a former U.S. Army officer with a degree in electrical engineering who was employed at NASA, founded two small businesses and then began consulting in the energy field. Unger is a three-year resident of La Plata County.

Landis defeated architectural firm owner Michael Bell, who became familiar with LPEA’s issues by attending numerous board meetings. Montoya eliminated Kim Martin, a school board member, who wanted voters to have a choice (Montoya had run unopposed during his 27 years) and who increasingly embraced renewables as she spoke with district residents.

Unger defeated incumbent Joe Wheeling, a ranching family member and former corporate CEO who had risen to the position of vice chair of energy supplier Tri-State’s governing board and was in line to become chairman. Wheeling had been an LPEA board member for nine years.

Wheeling’s loss will make it more difficult for LPEA, one of the more progressive co-ops of the 43, to move Tri-State to a mix of energy sources which more heavily includes wind and solar. Having a local representative in a leadership position of any large regional organization makes favored change more likely, and faster. Without Wheeling, renewable advocates have greatly reduced access to Tri-State’s decision makers.

Wheeling’s detractors pointed to the compensation he received by serving on the Tri-State board as vice chairman – more than twice that of LPEA and which requires a lot of time in Denver – and inaccurately labeled him as a Tri-State executive, suggesting he was more beholden to Tri-State than LPEA.

In the coming months and years, there is the possibility of increasing the amount of renewable energy which Tri-State permits a co-op to use from 5 percent to 10 percent. The past LPEA board voted unanimously to make that request of Tri-State. But Tri-State has lengthy contracts tied to fossil fuels and their funding, which would require offsetting compensation, and it most likely will have to permit every co-op to do what one co-op, LPEA, desires. Thus, even a move to 10 percent renewables will be expensive and time-consuming.

When it comes to freeing itself from Tri-State and going it alone, an issue in the election, that is certain to take money and time. Again, LPEA, via Tri-State, is tied to those lengthy fossil fuel financial commitments. In order to move heavily into renewables, the industry has to be able to deal with the times the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. Elon Musk with his batteries is working hard at that, but the technology is not here yet.

Voter turnout in the LPEA election was 5 percentage points above past years, an indication that residents care about power generation and how it occurs. That bodes well for the future, which is fast-changing.

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