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Lynn Fisher-Dwyer didn’t need another job. Besides running Dwyer Greens and Flowers, a nursery tucked into the ruddy hills of Garfield County’s New Castle, she had side gigs in landscape consulting and design, not to mention a teaching position at Colorado Mountain College. So when Auden Schendler called in 2008 and asked her to run for a seat on the board of their local electric utility, Fisher-Dwyer said no.
Two weeks later, he called again: “We really need you,” he said. Schendler, then the director of environmental affairs for Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo), had seen Fisher-Dwyer’s $100,000, ground-mounted solar array. He knew she heated her largest greenhouse with a solar thermal system. To him, she seemed like the perfect progressive candidate to help him lead a coup at Holy Cross Energy, the Glenwood Springs–based co-op that, at the time, used coal and natural gas almost exclusively to power the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys. Still, Fisher-Dwyer demurred. “Auden,” she said, “I don’t have time for this.”
But Schendler kept calling. “He wore me down,” Fisher-Dwyer says. “I did some soul-searching and thought it was time for me to give back to the community.” She decided to enter the race, becoming the first in a line of Schendler-backed, climate-focused candidates to attempt to join the co-op’s board of directors. The challengers quickly discovered, however, that the then directors wouldn’t surrender their power easily. “It was a street fight,” Schendler says. At one point, Schendler joked in an email to supporters that he would bring his family to an election night event “so nobody tries to shoot me in the head.” Nevertheless, Fisher-Dwyer—who faced a longtime incumbent—won. And Schendler’s nominees kept winning. Within about three years, a newly created environmental bloc controlled a majority of Holy Cross’ seven-person board. Their goal? Rethink the energy provider’s reliance on fossil fuels.
To limit global warming to manageable levels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body charged with studying the climate crisis, has said the world needs to decrease carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Reforming utilities is critical to that effort. “Analysis after analysis has shown that the electric power sector is the linchpin for achieving our economywide climate goals,” says Pam Kiely, associate vice president of U.S. climate for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to mitigate climate change and other environmental problems. The question is: How do you green an industry that’s hardwired to carbon? Thanks to Schendler’s uprising, Holy Cross might have found the answer.
Today, 15 years after Fisher-Dwyer won her seat, the utility is a national leader in clean energy. Holy Cross has set an aggressive goal of supplying 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030, a mark that, with some creative thinking, seems imminently reachable. To finish the mission, Holy Cross’ leaders must not only continue investing in solar and wind projects, but they’ll also have to completely reimagine what a utility can be.
Schendler’s foray into utility politics started the year before he recruited Fisher-Dwyer, as he sat in his office at the base of Snowmass Mountain poring over Excel spreadsheets. The company’s emissions numbers didn’t make sense to him.
Frustrated, Schendler stared out the window at his view of the resort’s snowcat diesel filling station. He had spent the past few years trying to lower SkiCo’s carbon footprint. He’d changed lightbulbs, replaced old boilers, retrofitted windows, installed insulation—all the things you’re supposed to do to cut carbon emissions. But after all that, his calculations showed the company’s output had actually increased. What the hell was happening? Schendler began to investigate, and he soon pinpointed the culprit.
Founded in 1939 as Holy Cross Electric Association Inc., the utility quite literally turned on the lights in the rural reaches of the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys. The utility grew along with the area’s resorts in the 1960s, eventually serving a 1,400-square-mile territory stretching west to Garfield County, east to Vail, and south to Aspen and Marble. But despite the influx of retirees and second-home owners, the board of directors continued to be dominated by ranchers and farmers, who were committed to providing reliable, affordable energy—which meant sourcing electricity from coal and natural gas. In 2007, Holy Cross’ power mix consisted of 59 percent coal, 29 percent natural gas, and 8.7 percent renewables, with three percent coming from a blend.
In those days, the utility showed no signs of enacting the eco-conscious changes Schendler believed were necessary: His detective work, in fact, revealed that Holy Cross had invested in the Comanche 3 coal plant near Pueblo in May 2006. Burning more of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet had spiked the emissions of Aspen Skiing Company as well as every other business and household the utility served. “It was an epiphany,” Schendler says. “You’re not going to solve the climate problem by dinking around in your own operations. If you want to cut your own footprint and address the climate problem, you’ve got to think economywide.”
Others had tried—and failed—to persuade Holy Cross’ leadership to boost its investments in renewable energy. If the directors wouldn’t change their tack, Schendler realized he’d have to change the leadership. Unlike giant utilities such as Xcel Energy, which are owned by investors, Holy Cross is a nonprofit co-op whose board is elected by its customers. Schendler recruited a group of like-minded co-op members who could help him overthrow the old guard. SkiCo even paid for ads, including one for Fisher-Dwyer and Megan Gilman—who ultimately joined the board in 2011 and now serves on the state Public Utilities Commission—featuring Rosie the Riveter and urging co-op members to “be a part of a clean energy future.”
Their opponents cast them as wealthy pawns serving the desires of resort-owning overlords. In 2009, for example, the Vail Board of Realtors urged its email list subscribers to vote for incumbent George Lamb, a local real estate agent: “Special-interest groups based out of Aspen are waging an unprecedented campaign to stuff the ballot box and take control of the board.” After hearing too much criticism from locals about SkiCo’s involvement in the elections, Schendler’s bosses asked him to stop invoking the company’s name in the campaigns. Tom Turnbull, a longtime director of Holy Cross’ board, delivered public endorsements of candidates who were in favor of renewables but still supported coal.
Nevertheless, the environmental faction continued gaining seats on the board. In 2012, after 33 years on the board, Turnbull retired. The Carbondale rancher declined to speak with 5280 but wrote in an email that, “I spent roughly a third of my lifetime working to enhance [Holy Cross’] efforts to provide reliable and affordable electricity for the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys, only to have it hijacked by the environmental wing of [Aspen Skiing Company] as they systematically infiltrated the board and changed the meaning of sustainability.”
The former board’s reluctance to buy greater amounts of renewable energy had come down to two things. One, wind and solar power cost more than coal at the time. And two, there was an intermittency problem: Wind and solar only generate power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
The market has solved the first issue. Once the environmentalist wing grabbed control in 2011—following the elections of Adam Palmer, Dave Munk, and Gilman—it upped investments in renewables by soliciting and buying power from third-party solar projects. At the same time, federal government subsidies and technological advancements caused prices to fall dramatically. The cost of utility-scale photovoltaic systems dropped 82 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to Boulder’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “We set a target,” says current board chair Munk. “Can we move ahead to high levels of renewable energy and still preserve the affordability?” So far, the answer has been yes.
In 2022, Holy Cross inched over a significant threshold: 50 percent of its energy was coming from noncarbon sources. Yet Munk notes that Holy Cross’ rates are among the lowest in Colorado and says the utility had saved customers $29 million in power supply costs since 2019 by greening its product.
Holy Cross’ investments in renewables include a solar array with battery storage installed at Colorado Mountain College last year, as well as plans to contract with two more solar projects, in Rifle and Parachute, when they come online later this fall. After an additional wind power project and a solar project begin delivering power from the Eastern Plains in 2024, Holy Cross predicts it will be at 85 to 90 percent clean energy. That final 10 to 15 percent, however, will be the most difficult to attain. To close the gap to total renewable energy, Holy Cross has turned to an unlikely chief executive.
An enthusiastic, silver-haired man with a penchant for metaphors, Bryan Hannegan became Holy Cross’ president and CEO in 2017 after spending 17 years researching the U.S. electric grid at NREL, at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, and for the federal government during President George W. Bush’s administration. Hannegan had never led a power company, but that’s part of what Holy Cross liked about him. “Utilities suffer from the that’s-the-way-they’ve-always-done-it-here mentality,” Munk says. “Hannegan had much broader exposure to innovators throughout the industry.”
More specifically, Hannegan had a plan to fix the intermittency problem. “If you’re relying on solar, there’s this pesky thing called night,” he says. Battery storage is part of the solution, but today, grid-scale batteries can’t affordably hold enough juice to ensure 24/7 power should, say, the sun refuse to shine for a few days. So Hannegan is embracing a theoretical concept in the industry: Holy Cross hopes to not only make homes, businesses, and public buildings their own mini power plants by outfitting them with solar panels, storage batteries, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries, but it also wants to transform them into sources of electricity for the greater utility.
When demand for power is high, the company would be able to tap its customers’ batteries to add electricity to the grid for all to share (paying the patron for what the utility consumes). When wind and solar plants produce more power than everyone needs, the utility could instruct participating buildings’ smart thermostats to preheat or precool spaces, thereby reducing the need to crank up the air conditioning during peak demand hours. In this imagined world, Holy Cross wouldn’t be a provider simply selling a product, but rather a connector controlling the flow of power across its customer base. “Each of the homes and devices are like little instruments,” Hannegan says of the plan’s potential. “It takes an orchestra conductor—the utility—to say, ‘I need more electricity over here, less over here.’ ”
Currently, Holy Cross is using incentives to try to fill in that missing 10 to 15 percent. About 600 customers have enrolled in its four-year-old EV program, in which the co-op gives away a free high-speed car charger ($749) in exchange for the right to manage the charging rate so that the utility can slow the flow in case of a demand surge. Similarly, Holy Cross also offers zero-percent financing on a Tesla Powerwall home backup battery—which allows customers to store power generated by home solar panels or from the utility grid—as long as the utility can tap into the device when it needs a boost. In two years, about 120 households have signed up, adding nearly three megawatts of battery capacity to Holy Cross’ grid (enough to power 120 other homes for four to six hours). It’s a small increase, but these inducements are just the first steps toward Hannegan’s vision of a future where “buying and selling electricity is no more complicated than buying and selling tomatoes. [Except] the grocery store doesn’t buy your tomatoes back.”
As transformative as its recent directors have been, Holy Cross is still a rural co-op serving only 46,000 members. Can a larger utility—such as Xcel Energy, with its 1.6 million customers in Colorado—follow its lead? Are other power providers even paying attention to the tiny nonprofit?
“Everyone is interested in what Holy Cross is doing,” says Kent Singer, executive director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the state’s electric co-op trade association, “and their co-op colleagues are going to learn a lot from how they pursue the transition.”
But reaching zero emissions by 2030 isn’t feasible for a utility the size and complexity of Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric provider, says Hollie Velasquez Horvath, the company’s regional vice president of state affairs and community relations. As a wholesale provider to other utilities in the state, Xcel is legally required to maintain a certain baseload of power across the region. “We don’t believe that, at the moment, we can produce 100 percent renewable energy,” Velasquez Horvath says, “[because] batteries just aren’t there yet.”
Xcel has its own ambitious carbon-cutting plans, which it announced in 2018, even before a Colorado law mandated similar cuts for most utilities: an 80 percent reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. Xcel will rely on some of the same every-home-can-be-a-power-plant strategies that Holy Cross has already begun implementing. “Distributed generation is going to be a big piece of the puzzle,” Velasquez Horvath says.
So, if successful, Holy Cross could provide the blueprint larger power companies need to make the transition to renewable energy. “Any time we’ve got a co-op like Holy Cross that is aggressively moving toward a carbon-free future on the electric system,” Velasquez Horvath says, “that allows for us to see how they’re doing it, what their best practices are, and how we can deliver that same type of service to our customers.”
The man who sparked Holy Cross’ revolution is buying into its plans. Schendler, now senior vice president of sustainability for SkiCo, has outfitted his Basalt house with rooftop solar and one of the utility’s first Powerwall batteries. His company-issued Audi E-tron uses a charger he got for free through the utility’s financing program. And although Fisher-Dwyer left the board in 2017, Schendler still recruits candidates and runs campaigns; he says that at least five of Holy Cross’ seven current board members are “all in” on the final push toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Thanks to Holy Cross’ transformation, SkiCo has now exceeded its emissions reduction goals. But Schendler’s pride hardly stops there. “It’s this Podunk utility in the rural West, and they’re on the bleeding edge,” he says. “Where we are now is kind of mind-blowing.”
Correction: The correct name of Lynn Fisher-Dwyer’s business is Dwyer Greens and Flowers, not Fisher-Dwyer Greens and Flowers. We regret the error.