Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley Electric Association's decision to buy into a wind farm has local environmentalists applauding, but the alternative energy source has yet to catch on locally.
Responding to customers' requests for electricity powered by a renewable resource, YVEA signed a contract with Public Service Co. of Colorado to buy wind-power from one of PSCo's wind turbines on the Front Range. YVEA started selling blocks of wind power locally last fall.
"We found that wind power is the most cost-effective renewable energy source," said Jim Chappell, YVEA manager of consumer accounts. "The program is more expensive than traditional methods of producing energy, but it is more environmentally conscious."
YVEA customers can purchase one block of wind energy, or 100 kilowatt hours, for $3 per month. The average home in Steamboat uses around 800 kilowatt hours per month, Chappell said.
"We're asking consumers if they would like to assist with paying for the development of the new technology," he said. "Consumers have the option of buying as many blocks as they would like."
While some wind-power customers may be buying peace of mind, they aren't guaranteed that the power they are buying is coming from the wind.
The electricity YVEA supplies customers is like water in a pitcher. Most of the water that fills the pitcher YVEA uses comes from a coal-fired power plant. With the PSCo contract, a small percentage is now contributed by a wind turbine. When YVEA pours out the energy to its customers, it's impossible to identify the energy based on its source.
"There's not a guarantee that the electron produced by wind power is going to the customer's home," Chappell said. "What they're paying for is the cost of displacing traditional fire-generated electricity with wind-generated electricity."
Chappell said that YVEA is providing approximately 3 to 4 percent more electricity per year in the valley due to growth. He said the goal of the electric cooperative is to supply some of that increasing demand through renewable energy sources.
"We have 700 blocks of wind energy we can sell. Currently we've only sold 320," Chappell said. "I was hoping more would be sold at this point and our goal is to sell all 700 blocks and then buy another generator in the future."
YVEA is primarily supplied with energy from the Hayden Station power plant west of Steamboat. The power plant generates power by burning coal it buys from Seneca Coal Co. south of Hayden.
"Coal is by far the most economic source to fuel electric energy," Chappell said. "But the coal industry realizes we need to look at all of our options. This program gives people the satisfaction of mind that they're doing something significant for the environment."
Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) out of Aspen, said Routt County coal miners have nothing to worry about in terms of having their energy source replaced.
"The small amount of wind power purchased by YVEA is not going to put anyone in the coal business out of business," he said. "It's an infinitesimally small amount of power we're talking about."
Putting it in perspective, coal producers in the Yampa Valley have the capacity to produce about 1,600 megawatts of power as opposed to the 1 megawatt of power produced by a wind-powered turbine. Put another way, Hayden Station produces about 38.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity per day of electricity while a wind turbine produces about 5,000, Udall said.
"Electrical demand is growing at a very rapid pace in Colorado and in the next five years we're going to need more power plants," he said. "There is an abundant amount of room for new power to come from renewable resources. I think it's great what Yampa Valley Electric is doing and people can quite comfortably help support it without worrying that they're putting their neighbor out of business. Wind power is wonderful stuff."
Brad Brown, general manager for Seneca Coal Co., understands the attractiveness of wind power for some. But he doesn't see it as a competitor with coal or gas.
"Certainly things that are free like wind make a lot of sense," he said. "Is it going to replace fossil fuel? No. Wind power is expensive and wind generation is a tiny portion of what total electrical needs are.
"The landscape would have to be littered with these wind generators to keep up with what we're doing here."
The turbine power that YVEA purchased is one of 29 at the Ponnequin Wind Facility north of Greeley. Glenwood Springs Municipal Utility Co., Holy Cross Energy and Colorado Springs Municipal Utility have all purchased wind power from the farm, Udall said. The bulk of the power has been purchased by Public Service Co. of Colorado.
"Right now more than 17,000 residential customers and 300 businesses statewide are receiving wind power from the wind farm," Udall concluded.
Both the Hayden Station and the wind farm are connected to the "western grid," electrical transmission lines that run throughout the western United States.
John Spezia is a YVEA customer who encouraged Chappell to initiate the wind power program. Spezia has a master's degree in earth and environmental natural science and teaches at Colorado Mountain College. He said that although wind power is slightly more expensive on the surface, it is actually less expensive in the long run.
"The problem with other sources of energy like dams, coal and nuclear power is that it's partially subsidized by taxes. The cost of the environmental damage they cause is not included in the price of the power," Spezia said. "The cost is externalized because we're not paying for the problems these energy sources cause. Wind power doesn't have the same external costs. Once it's up, it'll last for a long time and doesn't cause acid rain, global warming or nuclear waste."
Spezia said that wind power seems more expensive because of the up-front costs.
"This balances the playing field because it has no additional subsidies. This is a source of power that includes the total costs where other forms of power do not."
-- To reach Bryna Larsen call 871-4205 or e-mail email@example.com