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Kit Carson carves out new path for renewables

The Switching Yard of the Escalante Generating Station starts the distribution of electric power (Courtesy of Kit Carson Co-Op)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos broke ground in September on one of its newest solar installations, a 1.5 megawatt array at Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito branch campus.

The branch shut down in years past partly because of high utility costs, according to college officials. But the new solar array will help control expenses as the branch campus transitions to 100 percent renewable energy over the next decade.

El Rito is one of three new solar arrays Kit Carson is now simultaneously building, including a 1.5 MW installation in Questa, and a 3 MW plant in Taos. All three will come online this year, putting the co-op half way toward its ground-breaking target of exclusively using solar energy to meet 100 percent of daytime electric needs for its 29,000 members by 2022.

Kit Carson set that path-blazing goal in 2016, when it ended its long-term wholesale contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to instead sign a 10 year-contract with Guzman Energy LLC, a Colorado-based power provider that’s working with rural cooperatives and municipal utilities to help them rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

A Kit Carson Electric Co-op employee inspects a splice in a new fiber optic cable line that is part of the company’s new broadband network.

Kit Carson already built nearly 7 MW of small-scale solar arrays since 2016 in multiple sites across its service territory, and it will build another 7 MW next year, along with modern battery storage technology.

“Renewables provided only about 3.5 percent of our electricity when we left Tri-State,” said Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes. “Now, we’re at about 30 percent of total capacity.”

Guzman provides backup, low-cost electricity when the sun isn’t shining.

“The lights stay on,” Reyes said. “Our grid reliability has never gone away.”

By 2026, when the current Guzman contract ends, the co-op projects up to $70 million in total savings compared with Tri-State, which remains heavily reliant on large, centralized coal plants. The savings come largely from using small, low-cost solar arrays placed right next to end users, creating a new model of “distributed generation.”

The co-op is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado to study and document that model as an alternative energy route for more rural cooperatives.

“We’re helping Kit Carson build out one of the largest distributed generation projects in the country,” said Guzman President Chris Riley.

Tri-State says Kit Carson’s projected savings are exaggerated, since they’re based on successive Tri-State rate increases in years past that ended in 2014. Tri-State has generally kept rates flat since then, and it’s now also pursuing renewable energy to replace coal.

“Those estimates are based on older financial projections for Tri-State that have changed significantly in recent years,” said Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey.

For now, other New Mexico co-ops remain loyal to Tri-State, but they’re closely watching the Kit Carson experiment.

“Kit Carson is really a pioneer that’s gotten the attention of Tri-State and its member co-ops,” said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst. “We’ll see over time if more co-ops decide to exit Tri-State, or if Tri-State’s new renewable transition plans satisfy them.”

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