Colorado law creates transparency in rural power co-ops

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Originally posted on ILSR.org

After moving to Colorado, Joe Smyth realized that he was prohibited from participating in his generation and transmission co-op – despite a Colorado law promoting co-op transparency.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Joe Smyth, researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute and author of CleanCooperative.com. Farrell and Smyth discuss barriers to democratic participation in the decision-making process of rural power co-ops and how to promote transparency in all power co-ops.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below, including a transcript and conversation summary.


Reforming the rural electricity cooperative

Joe Smyth has a history of environmental activism and clean energy advocacy, but was not interested in power co-ops until he was served by one. At a meeting of his co-op’s board of directors, Smyth saw co-op executives grapple with falling solar energy costs.

In his view, the co-op had two choices: treat solar power as a threat and crack down on net metering, or accept the transition and support members when they switch to solar power. He soon realized, however, that their decision was not that simple. Distribution cooperatives like his get their electricity from a larger wholesale electricity supplier: the production and transport cooperative.

Rural electricity cooperatives are a product of the New Deal era. Since it was not profitable to electrify sparsely populated areas, rural America was left in the dark. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 created hundreds of electric cooperatives which, without shareholders or profit, could serve these areas with less overhead. Since power co-ops are non-profit and owned by customers, they are often not regulated by state agencies. Without this oversight, many co-ops fall behind as the electricity sector undergoes rapid transition.

Client-owners face barriers to participation

In the absence of state law, power co-ops can set their own rules, including whether co-op members can attend board meetings. They can also decide what information to post and what to remember. Without access to information, it is difficult for member-owners to have an opinion and influence on their cooperative.

We see some co-ops making decisions really behind closed doors, without letting their members know why they made decisions about the direction of the electric co-op as we move away from coal.

Colorado has a long history of legislation ensuring cooperative transparency and access to board meetings. However, this transparency and access did not apply to the Tri-State production and transport cooperative. Since Tri-State’s decisions have “huge implications” for the co-ops they serve, says Smyth, there has been a call for those decisions to be made in a public forum. A 2021 bill enacted by the Colorado General Assembly enforces this public forum.

We cannot have a democratically managed public service without transparency and accountability.

Distribution cooperatives release themselves from their contracts

Prior to the 2021 bill, two electric co-ops successfully left the Tri-State umbrella: Kit Carson Electric in New Mexico and Delta Montrose Electric Association in Colorado. These distribution co-ops discovered that they could get cheaper wholesale rates elsewhere. The two cooperatives, linked by the principle of “concern for the community”, also wanted to meet local demand for renewable energy capacity.

Kit Carson and Delta Montrose faced multi-year processes to opt out of their contracts with Tri-State. As the two went their separate ways, the other distribution co-ops provided by Tri-State watched intently. Tri-State does not want to lose any more members, in particular its larger customers. Because of this threat, says Smyth, Tri-State may now be willing to offer more flexibility to its remaining members.


Listen to our 2018 interview with Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes and our 2016 interview with former Delta Montrose board member Ed Marston.


Do the three states have a future?

To have any future, says Smyth, Tri-State has to move away from coal – it’s just too expensive. He hopes that in this transition away from coal, Tri-State will also allow members to participate in decision-making. Co-ops don’t just want clean, affordable energy, says Smyth. They want to make their contribution and support their communities.

What is clear is that Tri-State now understands that they must ditch their unprofitable coal-fired power plants, both to keep their member co-ops and to comply with Colorado and New Mexico rules… but s ‘they do it in a way that simply reinforces the fairly centralized, top-down decision-making processes under which they have historically operated, or which further empowers their members of electric co-ops, the distribution utilities, to do what makes sense to their communities, it is not yet clear.

Episode Notes

Check out these resources to learn more about the story:

For real-life examples of how cities can take action to better control their clean energy future, explore the ILSR Community Toolkit.

Explore local and national policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive community power map.


This is the 139th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares landmark stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the political and practical obstacles to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is produced by John Farrell and Maria McCoy of the ILSR. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally appeared on Ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to receive the weekly Energy Democracy update.

Photo credit featured: National Renewable Energy Lab via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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