Political clashes over replacing coal power with cleaner energy sources aren’t just affecting the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico, which is at the center of a fight over closing an aging generating station in northwest New Mexico.

The issue of how power is sourced also is playing a key role in the already contentious politics of one of the state’s largest electric cooperatives, Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative.

The co-op’s 21,000 members in a rural service area that spans parts of five counties — Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, San Juan, McKinley and Sandoval — have the right to elect the people in charge of keeping the lights on at their households and businesses.

Like many New Mexico institutions, the co-op for years has been plagued by juicy infighting. And, as recent lawsuits, election disputes and management turnover show, things don’t always always run smoothly. The Rio Grande Sun recently reported that in less than a decade, the co-op has had six general managers, some of them interim managers.

While rates and reliability are always a concern, environmental issues also are playing a part as “reformers” tussle for seats on the co-op’s 10-member board.

Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, trying to encourage co-op members to get out and vote in elections for three positions on the co-op’s board, declared in a news release earlier this year that rural electrical cooperatives are “one of our nation’s most grassroots democratic institutions.”

While not endorsing any candidates, the organization said, “The upcoming election provides the member-owners an opportunity to elect a new board that stands for their values. Together we can ensure the path to a vibrant clean energy economy with new local jobs.”

Then came the co-op’s June elections.

Two of three “reform” candidates won. One of them, Bruce Duran of El Rancho, ran unopposed. Dixon garlic farmer Stanley Crawford, meanwhile, defeated an incumbent board member.

However, in a split vote in early July, the co-op board invalidated the election of Duran, who has been critical of past board President Nick Naranjo of La Mesilla. Opponents claimed Duran is not a valid member of the co-op. They noted that Duran’s wife — from whom he is legally separated — paid most of the recent electric bills for the couple’s house. Despite the separation, the couple still resides in the home, said Duran’s lawyer, A. Blair Dunn.

Duran, along with others, filed a lawsuit in state District Court in Santa Fe, arguing he should be reinstated.

Besides reinstating Duran, the lawsuit asks the court to remove another board member, Lucas Cordova of Española, claiming Cordova doesn’t live in the district that elected him.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Patrick Herrera, a “reform” candidate who lost to Cordova by 139 votes.

Crawford said in a recent telephone interview he believes his election caused the “old guard” on the board to “freak out.”

“I think that’s why they got rid of Bruce Duran,” Crawford said. “There’s no real oversight of the board. Many board members have been there so long, they’re resistant to change.”

If Duran gets back on the board and Cordova is kicked off, reformers will have a majority on the board, Crawford said.

A question of strategy

But the major problem Crawford sees is the lengthy contract the co-op has with the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, made up of rural electric co-ops in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

While Tri-State says on its website that it has “a highly dependable and cost-effective fleet of coal and natural gas power plants,” Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said its energy portfolio contains about one-third renewable energy. He said Tri-State operates two solar facilities in New Mexico — a 30-megawatt facility near Springer and a 25-megawatt plant near Deming — plus many more in Colorado.

But Tri-State, which since 2000 has provided 100 percent of Jemez Mountains’ energy, has imposed a 5 percent cap on energy produced by independent sources. Boughey acknowledged that is a point of contention with some co-ops. He said Tri-State has formed a committee of representatives from all its members to look at renegotiating contracts “to increase flexibility.”

However, there is no time frame to come up with recommendations, and certainly not much pressure: The Jemez Mountains contract doesn’t expire until 205o.

“This is something we could do locally,” Crawford said of renewables. “We could produce solar energy here and save on transmission costs.

“Next door we have Kit Carson Electric Co-op, which is on the cutting edge of renewable energy,” he said, referring to the Taos-based outfit that serves about 23,000 electricity users in Taos and Colfax counties, and part of Rio Arriba County. “Kit Carson paid $37 million to buy out of their contract with Tri-State. But they’ve almost paid it off.”

Kit Carson, which got out of its Tri-State contract in 2016, has committed to 100 percent daytime solar energy by 2022, according to its website, and already has built solar arrays supplying 10 megawatts of power. By 2022, Kit Carson plans to have 35 megawatts of solar power in service plus at least 3 megawatts of battery storage completed. It has a 10-year contract with Guzman Energy, a Denver-based company that specializes in renewable energy.

Jemez Mountains board President Leo Marquez of Fairview said in a recent interview that it would be far more expensive for the co-op to go the Kit Carson route and buy its way out of the Tri-State contract to supply more solar energy.

“The rate would double or triple,” Marquez said. “I don’t see us doing that.”

By the numbers

However, a look at residential rates shows that while Kit Carson is more expensive, it’s far from double or triple the cost of Jemez Mountains power.

Jemez Mountains charges slightly more than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for a residential customer’s first 700 kilowatts, plus a $16 monthly facility charge.

Kit Carson charges a little over 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for a residential customer’s first 750 kilowatts, plus a $20.50 monthly system charge.

A few years ago, Jemez Mountains made a serious move to build a 50-acre solar array in the Black Mesa area that would have produced 7.5 megawatts of power, which equates to the 5 percent cap in the Tri-State contract. The co-op was in negotiations with SoCore Energy, a Chicago solar company, to build the facility.

But shortly after Joseph Sanchez resigned as general manager in 2017, the co-op board voted to scrap the project.

“I was trying to save the customers some money and take advantage of the 5 percent the Tri-State contract allows,” said Sanchez, now a state representative who is running for election in the 3rd Congressional District. “I spent about a year working on that.”

Last year, the co-op, in partnership with Rio Arriba County, broke ground on a smaller, 2.5-megawatt solar facility near Alcalde.

However, according to a report in the Rio Grande Sun, that project has been tainted with politics because board member John Tapia is employed by Consolidated Solar Technologies, an Albuquerque company. Co-op officials have said there was no conflict of interest because the county, not the co-op, chose Consolidated Solar to manage the project.

“The solar deal reeks of cronyism,” said community activist Heather Nordquist. “When they killed the original plan that Joseph [Sanchez] had researched, it was almost with no explanation. We got the story in December when we found out that the the replacement project involved John Tapia’s employer and a per kilowatt-hour rate of more than double the one Joseph had negotiated.”

Tri-State recently announced a plan that calls for “aggressive carbon reduction, renewable energy and resource planning requirements.” But it raised the hackles of some New Mexico environmentalists when it filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in hopes of being regulated by the federal agency rather than state regulatory agencies like the Public Regulation Commission.

“That would be another huge hurdle for getting more renewable energy,” Castillo of Conservation Voters said.

Boughey, however, said that if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepts Tri-State’s application, state regulators would still have control over environmental issues and all matters except rate-making.

“We’d still have to comply with New Mexico’s goals for renewable energy,” he said, referring to a state law passed this year that aims to shift New Mexico away from coal in favor of carbon-free energy sources.

Nordquist, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said she doesn’t expect issues with the Jemez Mountains board to fade away anytime soon.

“There are far more seats coming up in 2021, so they’d better buckle up their seat belts,” she said. “… We get nowhere until we can just take out the trash on this board. It needs to be wiped out and rebuilt from the ground up.”