Records from Intermountain Rural Electric Association board meetings get treated like state secrets.
To see them, Woodland Park resident Mike Galvin had to send a written request to the electrical cooperative's general manager. Permission granted, he leafed through documents at an IREA office under the watchful glare of an employee.
No pages could be copied, per company policy. But Galvin remembers seeing a startling pattern in meetings before 2007, when Mike Kempe of Conifer was elected to the IREA board.
"As far as I can tell, in the 20 years before [then]," Galvin says, "there had never been a dissenting vote."
Now, Galvin is seeking to join Kempe on the seven-member board overseeing IREA, whose 138,000 members live in a mostly rural area stretching from ranches near Fairplay to farms east of Denver, taking in Woodland Park, Castle Rock and portions of Palmer Lake and Monument.
Galvin is frustrated by IREA's negative take on alternative-energy sources and its opposition to tiered rate structures that could encourage conservation. He objects to funding of climate-change skeptics and anti-reform lobbyists, and he rues IREA's investment of $366 million in the coal-fired Comanche 3 power plant that soon will churn out greenhouse gases near Pueblo.
"When they bought into [the plant], they never asked us," says Galvin, a retired elementary school principal and now a consultant.
If Galvin is elected, his district would extend west into Park County while taking in Divide, Woodland Park and the northwestern corner of El Paso County. Challengers, who, like Galvin are backed by a reform group called IREA Voices, are vying for two other seats up for grabs. If all win, advocates for openness and access to renewables could seize control of the board for the first time.
Under a cloud
IREA's leadership personifies the stereotypical good ol' boy network, with directors measuring service in decades and seldom facing opponents.
Gene Sperry, owner of a Woodland Park real estate appraisal business and past city councilor, recalls a challenger when he was first elected to IREA's board in 1989. He had another opponent in 2005. He assumes members think he's doing a good job he's planning campaign strategy from his condominium in Hawaii, where he's near the end of a nine-week stay.
"I hardly ever hear anyone complaining to me," Sperry says.
IREA is, in many ways, a success story. Serving booming areas between Colorado Springs and Denver, it became the largest of Colorado's 22 electrical cooperatives, most of which sprouted decades ago as private companies avoided the expense of stringing power lines in rural areas.
With Comanche 3, IREA is taking a new leap into power generation. Sperry touts the importance of a "firm power supply" and notes an agreement to construct this unit, the third on the site, includes provisions to clean up the other two. Comanche 3 should be operational this fall, but it's fallen under a cloud as President Barack Obama pushes a cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas released when fossil fuels are burned.
Sperry and other IREA leaders don't see the CO2 or, more specifically, the global warming most scientists agree it helps cause as a threat. Online, IREA hosts a variety of documents questioning the prevailing science on climate change, and the organization gave $100,000 several years ago to support Pat Michaels, a noted global-warming skeptic.
"We felt there was only one side of the story being told," Sperry explains.
Asked if he agrees carbon dioxide causes warming, he equivocates: "I don't know if I would agree. I'm not a big scientist, to tell the truth."
Kempe actually is a scientist. He develops plastic components and adhesives for solar panels at National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. Though models are still being refined to predict climate change, he explains, the carbon dioxide debate is basically over.
"We've known it's a greenhouse gas since the late 1800s," he says.
But now IREA members are stuck with a coal plant, and perhaps a price tag tied to emitting carbon dioxide. It's been tough changing the culture that allowed IREA directors to make that decision without member input, Kempe says.
He says he has taken many lonely stands, such as recently being the sole vote against raising IREA general manager Stanley Lewandowski's pay by 10 percent, to nearly $400,000 when you include his bonus. On a much smaller level, Kempe says other directors blocked him from putting his contact information on IREA's Web site.
If he wins the seat via mail-in ballot when voting ends April 18, Galvin will gladly join Kempe's struggle. He says IREA members should pay more attention to the board and its decisions.
"We have a situation where people are assuming that someone's watching the hen house," he says, "and no one is."