By Ed Marston, DCED Board Member
In a recent issue of the Merchant Herald, Tom Wills showed that Delta County isn’t that badly off. Yes, 500 of our best jobs have vanished. But they have been partly replaced by so-called PO Box income – people receiving money from pensions, rentals, social security, and so on.
The Realtors say that the market for houses – from inexpensive to the most expensive – is very strong. Rentals are scarce and expensive. So there is good news. But there is also bad news.
Delta County is old, and getting older. The people who have lost jobs and moved away are likely to be young with school-age children. Those who replace them are likely to be older and without children. We are not yet Italy or Japan, where rural villages are populated almost entirely by the elderly and whose schools are empty, but we are on our way.
Still, there are hopeful signs. With some luck, Delta County could be a magnet for younger people with skills: bulldozer and excavator and backhoe operators, surveyors, engineers, and people who can sit in front of computers all day plugged into the outside world via high speed internet connections.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association could drive two of our booms. The first is construction of local electric generating plants. Our new friend, the federal government, just ordered DMEA to buy all the low cost alternative electric power we can use. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled unanimously (three Democrats and two Republicans) that DMEA must buy as much alternative electricity as is offered to it, so long as the offering price matches DMEA’s so-called “avoided cost.” So we won’t be subsidizing the power suppliers.
The Feds then have broken Tri-State’s grip on DMEA’s jugular by freeing us from the requirement that we buy 90 percent of our electricity from it. DMEA is free to go onto the free market in search of cheap, dependable, renewable electricity.
How big a deal could this be to Delta and Montrose counties? DMEA’s 35,000 member-owners require 120 megawatts of power. If DMEA were to buy only 60 of those megawatts locally, the new, small-scale power suppliers would have to spend an estimated (my estimate) $240 million building the coal-mine methane-to-electricity plants, acres of solar panels and small and not-so-small hydro facilities.
For comparison, the Coal Institute says that a new 6.5 million ton per year long-wall coal mine would cost $140 million. So we are talking roughly the construction cost of two fairly large coal mines spread over a decade or more.
The workforce needed to maintain our new electric plants will be tiny compared to a coal mine’s workforce. On the plus side, the local generation will provide us with cheap electricity and provide the county with property taxes, even as it uses methane emitted by the mines, water flowing in irrigation ditches or falling off the Grand Mesa, and sunlight on the dobies. It would be shop-at-home time with a vengeance. Instead of sending tens of millions of dollars to Tri-State each year, that money would stay here, circulating and recirculating.
Much of the new local power will come from out open and closed coal mines. The Oxbow Mine may be closed, but it will keep sending three megawatts to the Roaring Fork Valley. An estimated 30 megawatts could be generated by our three mines, whether they are operating or closed, far into the future. That’s 25 percent of DMEA’s total load.
Solar energy is already competitive with fossil-fuel generated electricity, and there is a tiny boom in residential solar installations in Delta County. These are kilowatt-scale roof-top and backyard installations costing under $20,000 per household. Large scale solar installations sitting in the dobies would generate much more energy and cost much more to build.
Then there is falling water. Delta and Montrose counties have only a few megawatt-scale hydroelectric sites, but we have many kilowatt-scale sites. Percheron, the company that prompted DMEA to ask the federal government about buying power from outside sources, specializes in so-called Archimedes Screw hydro technology. Here, the “turbine” lies more or less flat in the canal or stream, and is driven by the flowing force of the water rather than by the fall of the water. There are a large number of such sites here.
This won’t happen quickly. They will be designed, permitted and financed one-by-one, over years, as we gradually shift from Tri-State’s power coming from the plants in Craig and Hayden to local power. Think of us as having to move, piece by piece, about 15 percent of one of the three Craig units to our two counties.
Over time, it will be a big deal: construction jobs, royalties to landowners leased by solar developers, payments to ditch companies who allow turbines to be placed in their flowing, falling water, and so on.
Other jobs will come from mined land reclamation. When Westmoreland Coal closed shop, three large silos were turned into road base, the railroad tracks were ripped out, and an orchard rose on the site.
Third, but maybe it should be first, is the fiber optic system DMEA will bury or string to connect us to the outside world. Those spaghetti-thin strands of fused sand play the role of an Interstate Highway or major airport, without the noise, concrete and pollution.
Economists talk of “disruptive technologies.” The internal combustion engine disrupted the horse-based economy. The computer wiped out typewriters. Digital cameras destroyed Kodak. Cell phones are eating up land lines. These new technologies do not simply slip noiselessly into an existing society. They rip and rend, as we are forced to adapt to new ways of doing things. The changes are toughest on ourselves. At one time, physical strength and endurance were all important. Now it’s the ability to sit still in a cubical for hour after hour, eyes fixed on a screen.
So ultra-fast internet connections will disrupt our rural ways. There will be new kinds of work, new kinds of people, and new social and political values. The coming change is why some fought to keep DMEA from building a broadband network. Most of us like our two counties the way they are now. What we don’t like is the lack of jobs and lack of children.
So as always, we are forced to make a devil’s bargain. In order to keep what we have, we have to change.
Finally, lastly, there is recreation. We can eat the scenery. Our scenery may not have the billions of calories Aspen’s scenery has. But we have enough mountains and streams and forests to keep us from starving.
Until now, we have hidden our recreation treasurers. Try to legally fish the North Fork above Somerset. It would be a Gold Medal Fishery except that there is no public access.
Another example: North Fork Valley taxpayers paid to build a pool outside of Hotchkiss. Then we hid it in plain sight by not putting up highway signs directing passerbys to this under used facility.
Or move down valley? What if the axle-busting road to the wonderful Ute Trail into the Gunnison Gorge were improved? What if it were publicized by more than a few signs in Peach Valley? What if we provided access not just to the Gorge but to other rivers and streams? What if we opened up some of the roads into the back country that some land owners have illegally closed?
The point is: Delta and Montrose counties are not poor because we lack resources – we have all the falling water and sunlight and seeping methane any county could want. We have great potential recreation. We have wonderful towns. We have pretty good people.
We are poor and aging and losing jobs because we don’t act.