For Colorado's largest power co-op, going green will mean taking down the King of Coal

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Sprouting up through the haze along the horizon, the three smokestacks of the Comanche coal-fired power station rise far above anything for miles and miles on the dry, empty prairie on the outskirts of Pueblo. Two of them, attached to units 1 and 2, have been puffing away for more than thirty years, generating 660 megawatts of electricity to homes and businesses across Colorado. The third one is brand-new and tops off the nearly finished Comanche 3 coal plant, which will produce a whopping 750 megawatts when it is fired up later this year, making it the most powerful power plant in the state.

Closer in, maybe five miles from the station, the boxy, gargantuan buildings crowded around the smokestacks become visible. Now the plants resemble squat, long-necked creatures, a herd of brontosaurus lumbering across the dusty wasteland.

To Stanley Lewandowski, they look like the future. Sitting in the back seat of a minivan heading to the station, the 71-year-old trains his sharp, dark eyes on the smokestacks and smiles. Up front sit two representatives of Xcel Energy, the Minnesota-based power company with 1.3 million Colorado customers. While Xcel owns most of the $1.35 billion plant, Lewandowski — or rather, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association — controls a quarter of Comanche 3. Lewandowski is the general manager of IREA, the state's largest electricity cooperative, which is why he's checking on the plant's progress.


Stanley Lewandowski

When the van arrives at the facility, Lewandowski likes what he sees. Guided by the Comanche 3 project manager, Lewandowski quietly takes it all in. The 3,000-degree combustion chamber and the 285-foot-high supercritical boiler that subjects water to temperatures and pressures so powerful that it forgoes boiling and transforms directly into steam. The mammoth turbine, powered by that steam, that will generate 3 to 5 percent more power than those in old-fashioned coal plants. The behemoth bank of 45 fans, each resembling a set of helicopter blades, which will help condense the steam into water so it can be pumped back into the boiler. And above it all, the sheer concrete smokestack rising 500 feet into the sky that makes Lewandowski catch his breath.

"Holy smokes," he exclaims. "I think it's worth $366 million."

That's what his quarter of the plant will cost Sedalia-based IREA, which provides power to a 5,000-square-mile area of Colorado, from the mountains of Park County to the plains of eastern Arapahoe County to the suburbs to the south, east and west of Denver.

To Lewandowski, the investment makes perfect sense. He believes Comanche 3 will provide cheap, reliable power to his co-op members far into the future. That's been the mission of rural co-ops ever since they were born decades ago: to provide electricity to sparsely populated parts of America. And it's one Lewandowski has accomplished with flying colors since 1974, when he took over at IREA.

Under his watch, the co-op grew more than tenfold, from a 12,000-member hardscrabble operation to the eleventh-largest in the nation, with 138,000 members. Yet IREA still boasts some of the lowest electricity rates of all 22 Colorado co-ops.

And, as Lewandowski loves to point out, he's done it without newfangled energy ideas. While he may be wearing a grass-colored sweater today, he jokes, it's not because he's green. Wind farms, solar technology, energy conservation mandates: To him it's all as crazy as what he sees as a made-up global-warming catastrophe.

Comanche 3's smokestack will spew out 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, but Lewandowski isn't worried about the effect on the environment. "There are some people who are saying that eventually people will look back and laugh at this period with regard to the global-warming argument," he says. "I've lived through other scares like this, like killer bees and disease pandemics. It's almost like part of the culture has to scare the living daylights out of you."

Lewandowski has made a career of opposing the status quo, and woe to those who've stood in his way. These days, though, he might be more on his own than ever as he prepares for his biggest fight yet, the 2009 IREA board of directors election this month. While Lewandowski isn't up for election — as general manager, he's hired and fired by the board — the contest has turned into a referendum on the man and his policies.

Some co-op members, taking the name IREA Voices, say Lewandowski has used his position to further an ideological, anti-green agenda — one they believe will send IREA energy bills skyrocketing. For them, the final straw was his maneuvering to buy part of Comanche 3, which many predict will be the last coal plant built in Colorado. With cheap and easily accessibly coal getting harder to come by and politicians considering a hefty carbon tax on fossil fuels, Lewandowski's critics say Comanche 3 could end up being a multimillion-dollar liability.

"By using assumptions from the last century that no longer hold true, IREA assumed that a coal plant would be cheap and reliable. Now it's abundantly clear that it will be neither," says Leslie Glustrom of Clean Energy Action, a Colorado citizens' group that's wants to shutter Comanche 3 before it's even turned on.

IREA Voices, which includes people with ties to some of the most prominent renewable energy and environmental interests in the state, succeeded in electing one sympathetic board member two years ago, and it is backing three challengers this election. If all three win, the group could take control of the seven-member board, possibly sell off IREA's investment in Comanche 3 and get rid of Lewandowski — whose ideas, they believe, are as fossilized as the stuff that'll be fueling his coal plant.

But don't count this dinosaur out. Driving back to Sedalia from the Comanche station, as he watches the sun drop below the Pueblo foothills, Lewandowski considers the new-energy ideas he's been hearing about lately. "To some extent, I am the only one yelling and screaming about it all," he says.

And knowing Lewandowski, he'll be yelling and screaming till the end.

IREA's March 3 board of directors meeting at the co-op's Sedalia headquarters begins with the typical fireworks. Shortly after Lewandowski delivers a report on the "complete nonsense" coming out in support of global warming, boardmember Mike Kempe asks whether IREA should take advantage of the Obama administration's new stimulus funds.

"You think we should be propelling ourselves toward socialism?" Lewandowski thunders, glaring at Kempe. "That package will be proven to be one of the biggest mistakes ever recorded. And from our end, we are not going to be part of spending the taxpayers' money foolishly."

The dressing down continues throughout the meeting. When Kempe asks if IREA needs to follow non-discrimination rules for utilities that receive Rural Utilities Service loans, Lewandowski cuts him off. "How long have you been on this board?" he growls. "You have been on this board for two years, and you don't know that we don't have anything to do with the Rural Utilities Service?" IREA paid off its government loans years ago.

The other six boardmembers say nothing. In fact, IREA's board has gone along with everything its general manager has proposed for decades — the sign of a well-run co-op, says Lewandowski.

That changed when Kempe, an IREA Voices co-founder and senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, was elected. "I go to the meetings knowing that no one will second my motions," says Kempe, who has since dropped his formal ties to IREA Voices. "I know it, but I still have to fight. I am absolutely confident we're going to fix IREA."

Lewandowski sees him as the enemy. "The guy has a good background, but he knows nothing about running a utility," he says. "You have someone who's been picked by a group and elected by the group, and this board bends over backward to try to be nice to him, but he has an agenda."

The drama cuts to the heart of the upcoming election. If IREA Voices has its way, this board will be filled with more people like Kempe who believe IREA should be investing in renewable energy resources and energy conservation measures.

Lewandowski clearly doesn't want this to happen, and as the meeting draws to a close, Kempe asks him if the co-op has been using its resources to back the incumbents.

"Are you making an accusation against me?" retorts Lewandowski. The room is tense for a moment — until the general manager waves his hand dismissively.

"This is ridiculous," he says. "Let's move on."

In this country, electricity is a given. Most people don't stop to think about the millions of electrons involved when they flick on a light or plug in the toaster, let alone the hundreds of thousands of miles of efficient transmission lines that carry these electrons from generators to homes and businesses in an instant.

Things were very different 75 years ago, when much of the United States was still literally in the dark. While urban centers were largely electrified by the 1930s, rural America was too sparsely settled to interest for-profit power companies. So vast swaths of the country lagged behind the cities in terms of infrastructure, industry and quality of life — a disparity that increased during the Great Depression.

In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 to provide subsidized loans to member-owned rural cooperatives so they could build their own generators and power lines. The agency, which was replaced by the Rural Utilities Service in the 1990s, was a runaway success, with nearly all rural areas electrified over the next few decades. In the process, the co-ops (there are now more than 900) became community rallying points for the otherwise isolated farms.

IREA was still largely rooted in this agrarian lifestyle when Lewandowski came on board. The only child of a Northern Indiana union official, Lewandowski was by then well-versed in the intricacies and eccentricities of co-ops, having worked for the Rural Electrification Administration for nine years and for the San Isabel Electric Association co-op in Pueblo for one. One of the challenges they faced, he says, was that co-ops often tried to play the role of the big, bad energy company, hiring unnecessary staff, dabbling in questionable investments and obsessing over unproven technologies.

"One of the biggest issues with small co-ops was they wanted to be modern," he says today. "But I learned that these sorts of things need to be cost-effective."

Over the years, he guided IREA through its own confrontation with modernity. When he started, co-op members were wheat farmers and cattle ranchers, and the town of Parker didn't yet exist. But as bedroom communities displaced the region's farms and ranchland, IREA exploded. Douglas County, in the heart of IREA territory, became the fastest-growing and most prosperous county in the country. The co-op began adding upwards of 9,000 new members a year — and Lewandowski's compensation grew as well.

"Don't you want to know how much money I make?" he asks. It was $300,000 last year plus a $60,000 bonus, and a $30,000 raise in December. "Yeah, I'm well paid, and my board takes care of me," Lewandowski admits from his IREA office, a large, sparsely decorated space with striking views of the mountains beyond Sedalia, "But I also take great satisfaction in what the association has accomplished."

To prove it, he sets off on an impromptu tour of the Sedalia facility, noting how Tweet Kimball, the legendary Douglas County philanthropist and cattle rancher, sold him these 35 pristine acres for a pittance as thanks for improving her sprawling estate's electrical operations years earlier. Strapping on a hard hat and walking through a nearly complete building addition, he explains how he carefully planned the construction and expansion of IREA's headquarters over a 25-year period. And he's quick to rattle off the exact number of employees who've worked here twenty, thirty and forty years.

This fiscally conservative registered Republican (but self-described social liberal) talks about it all with unabashed pride, a tenderness he probably otherwise reserves for chatting about his family — his three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Such professional satisfaction is well earned: between 1982 and 2004, IREA members went without a single increase in their electricity rate, the part of their monthly bill that covers infrastructure costs. Furthermore, thanks to consistent profit margins over the past fifteen years, the co-op has refunded an average of $5 million a year to members.

Lewandowski deserves much of the credit, says IREA board president Tim White, who is not in this election. "He really believes in the purpose of providing energy at the lowest possible cost along with quality service. And he's pretty adamant that we ought to stay focused on doing that and not compromise too much relative to the various things that have come down the pike over the years, such as new gadgetry or regulations."

White, a construction company owner who's been on the board since 1984, plans to back Lewandowski.

Lewandowski says he's kept co-op costs low by aggressively negotiating for lower wholesale power costs and keeping his staff lean and mean. He's also steadfastly resisted one electricity fad after another. When folks across the country began fearing that power lines caused cancer in the 1980s, he called it all poppycock — and as he predicted, the hubbub eventually died down. In the 1990s he helped successfully deter Colorado from passing electricity deregulation laws, thereby saving the state from the skyrocketing energy prices that have since plagued deregulated states like California and Texas. And while other Colorado co-ops and power companies dabbled in ultimately unprofitable side businesses like Internet services and energy speculation and trading, Lewandowski stuck with the good, old-fashioned electricity business.

With such a track record, it's no wonder Lewandowski's set in his ways — or, as his wife, Gayle, puts it, "He's stubborn. Very, very stubborn."

Take his office desk. The broad, dark-wood workspace looks curiously empty — there's not a computer in sight. "I don't need it from a work standpoint," Lewandowski explains. All he uses is his calendar book and phone; his assistant handles everything else. It's an arrangement that has worked for 35 years. Why would he change something now?

In a collection of modern, bunker-like buildings set into the side of the yellow rolling hills outside of Golden, scientists for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are diligently working on transforming the world.

"This is overstating it, but what's going on here is sort of like what NASA did with the computer," says George Douglas, NREL's media-relations manager. In robot-manned science labs and fragrant biofuel breweries, a staff of 1,223 is testing out ever more efficient solar panels, designing increasingly powerful wind turbines and cooking up new enzymes to transform plant materials into super fuels.

"We've reached a tipping point in which finding energy that releases a lot less carbon into the atmosphere is hugely important. The consensus is it needs to change and it needs to change fast," says Douglas. "But people realize it's not just an environmental issue. There are geopolitical problems and the need for energy security. And there is the economic promise of new and more local industry."

NREL is the centerpiece of a statewide attempt to position Colorado as a leader in the so-called "new energy economy." It wasn't an accident that President Obama chose Denver as the place to sign his $787 billion economic stimulus package, $50 billion of which is for renewable energy and efficiency programs.

Governor Bill Ritter is aggressively courting renewable energy investment and pushing for ambitious electricity conservation goals. Companies like Vestas Wind Systems and Ascent Solar Technologies Inc. have set up shop here, and Xcel, which now gets 10 percent of its energy from wind and solar, aims to at least double that by 2020.

Even some Colorado co-ops have used their grassroots arrangement to embrace forward-thinking measures; for example, the 27,000-member Delta Montrose Electric Association just received a national award for its energy-conservation programs. And in March, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Westminster-based electricity supplier for most Colorado co-ops (though not IREA), announced that it would bankroll one of the largest solar power plants in the world in New Mexico.

It's not surprising that many of those involved with NREL and similar new-energy endeavors choose to live in the green-topped foothills, places like Evergreen, Morrison and Conifer, or in the big-sky new subdivisions around Parker. These are the best locales to enjoy the powerful wind rippling through the trees, the year-round abundance of sunlight streaming down on the plains.

Of course, these are also places serviced by IREA. So along with their monthly energy bills, residents get the co-op's newsletter, "Watts & Volts" — which usually sports headlines like "Global Warming: Man-made or Natural?" and "CO2 Cap and Trade or Carbon Tax: The Road to Economic and Quality of Life Bankruptcy."

Lewandowski writes most of these articles himself. "When Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lets us put stuff in their publications, we will let them put information in our publications," he says with a wink.

He's softened some in his stance against climate change since 2006, when he made international headlines for having IREA donate $100,000 to prominent global-warming skeptic Patrick Michaels and somehow convincing the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to chip in another $50,000. Lewandowski now admits there's some evidence of global warming — but he sees just as much proof of subsequent global cooling. Furthermore, he believes natural phenomena such as sunspots and volcanic eruptions impact temperatures more than a trace element like carbon dioxide.

"I know that if people are concerned about carbon dioxide, eventually [fossil fuels] are going to go away," he concedes. But in his opinion, the current alternatives don't cut it — a viewpoint that's echoed by many in IREA's Sedalia headquarters, from management down to linemen. This is why the co-op has opposed Ritter's attempts to have IREA cut its emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and opted out of Amendment 37, which would have required IREA to obtain 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. (A similar requirement — 10 percent renewable energy by 2020 — was later placed on IREA and other co-ops by the 2007 passage of House Bill 1281).

The operation has been so reluctant to alter its energy policies that new legislation (House Bill 1323) has been proposed that would require all state co-ops with more than 100,000 customers to achieve 10 percent electricity savings by 2020 — and the only co-op that fits that description is IREA.

"IREA was not about to do this on their own," explains Keith Hay, clean-energy advocate for Environment Colorado, which is backing the bill. "And we felt that IREA customers deserve the energy-efficiency programs that Xcel customers and other co-op customers are already enjoying.

Lewandowski says IREA will oppose the bill, which was sponsored by Representative Claire Levy and state senator Jennifer Viega and has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee. "Conservation should take place on lots of fronts, but not to the point where it destroys our quality of life," he says. "We aren't opposed to renewable energy, just renewable-energy mandates." After all, he points out, IREA gets between 4 and 7 percent of its energy from hydro power, courtesy of Western Area Power Administration, and Xcel, which supplies the rest, has ensured that 5 percent comes from wind. IREA also performs free energy audits of members' homes and allows members to donate money, by paying extra on their energy bill, to solar or wind facilities, for which the co-op receives an administrative fee.

But IREA certainly isn't about to build a wind farm, notes Lewandowski, since he believes that type of power is ridiculously inconsistent — wind doesn't blow all the time — and requires expensive new transmission lines running to high-gust areas. He foresees a point in which all such turbines will be stripped of their rotors and left as stark white poles dotting the countryside — as he puts it, "the Stonehenge of the 2000s."

Nor does IREA offer solar rebates, since its general manager sees them as forcing IREA members to pay higher bills all around to subsidize the green flights of fancy of a few of their peers. For the same reason, the co-op doesn't offer refunds for conservation efforts like compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Likewise, when Lewandowski bought energy-efficient appliances for his Lakewood home, which is serviced by Xcel, he wouldn't hear of sending in for that power company's rebate program.

"I think we are smart enough to develop the technology that will connect a high quality of life with low-cost energy," concludes Lewandowski. But he wants scientists to get off their "dead butts and get something worthwhile people can buy into." In fact, Lewandowski believes the future may involve new types of solar power plants and geothermal technologies harnessing heat from the earth's interior, plus a return to nuclear power.

So while NREL employees and their colleagues are working to change energy policies and technologies nationwide, those who live in IREA's service territory get nearly all their electricity from fossil fuels, not to mention newsletter after newsletter detailing Lewandowski's low opinion of green-energy efforts.

Kempe became incensed by "Watts & Volts" when he moved to Ken Caryl in 2004. "I was absolutely offended by the inaccuracies," says Kempe. "He's a shill for the fossil fuel industry." When IREA opted out of Amendment 37, Kempe looked into whether he and his neighbors could switch to Xcel — a move the co-op wouldn't allow.

"It's our territory," says Lewandowski. "We are going to serve it."

Kempe and opponents of Lewandowski's in IREA Voices and elsewhere have compiled a laundry list of complaints about the man and his mission.

They point out that IREA members are discouraged from speaking at board meetings — something Lewandowski has no problem with. "If members have questions, they can contact the association. Our board meetings are not about people getting up and speaking," he says. And IREA Voices members insist that co-op members should have more say in how the operation is run. For instance, they question the $100,000 given to Patrick Michaels in 2006, as well as $337,000 paid to co-op boardmember James Dozier in February 2008 to buy three acres that will be used for a future substation. They are also concerned that IREA dropped out of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the state's electric co-op lobbying group, last December after it supported a bill that allowed co-ops to voluntarily establish tiered rate structures to encourage energy conservation.

And they had no input in IREA's decision to spend $366 million on Comanche 3.

"They have all the cards," says Neil Preister, a member of the IREA Voices steering committee. "They control the process, they control the budget. They take advantage of their control at every opportunity. They abuse their power."

But Preister is careful about taking his accusations further. Lewandowski can be quick to hit back. Last year the co-op threatened a cease-and-desist order against IREA Voices for using the co-op's name in its title; the issue was settled once the group added a disclaimer to its website.

And that's nothing compared to what happened to a group of IREA members who questioned Lewandowski's leadership in the 1980s. Concerned about his $125,000-a-year salary and a lack of board transparency, the group filed a 4,000-signature petition calling for a recall election; when the board rejected it, the group appealed in court. IREA responded by filing a $1.2 million lawsuit against the group and its leaders for libel and abuse of process. The suits and countersuits went on for several years until IREA finally settled the case in return for its opponents' dropping their complaints.

Part of the problem is that rural electricity co-ops are outdated, says Gary Nakarado, a former Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner and legal consultant for IREA Voices. "If you have a mind to create a dictatorship, it's more possible at a co-op than at an investor-owned utility, because if a for-profit company is badly run, takes risks or isn't communicating with its customers, its investors will figure out a way to buy it out and improve how it's run," he says. "That can't happen in co-ops, and they aren't subject to the basic oversight of a public utilities commission. The co-op's legal framework assumes good-faith and democratic processes, and when these things start to erode, all the members can do is go to court, and that's difficult, because the utility has all the money."

Have you gotten your IREA ballot yet?" Charles Bucknam, standing in the parking lot of the Sprouts Farmers Market grocery store in Parker, smiles widely beneath his graying mustache and asks this question again and again as shoppers stroll by. He's wearing an IREA Voices T-shirt with the words "Got Voice?" emblazoned across the front and holding a stack of fliers describing why he's running for a seat on IREA's board of directors.

The election has already begun. Co-op members in the three districts where representatives are up for election (around Parker, Elizabeth and Woodland Park) just received their ballots in the mail; they can either mail them back or vote in person at IREA's April 18 meeting at the Ute Pass Cultural Center in Woodland Park.

To get the word out, Bucknam and his two fellow challengers, former Jefferson County public-affairs manager John Masson and onetime Woodland Park elementary school principal Mike Galvin, have been pounding the pavement. They're joined by volunteers from IREA Voices, which is backing all three.

While Bucknam's campaign sign, taped to a light pole behind him, is emblazoned with wind turbines, this Newmont Mining Corporation scientist candidate is careful to keep his renewable-energy shtick to a minimum. "It's definitely elephant country out here," says the Democrat of his Douglas County environs; some of that green talk might be a bit much for these folks. Just take the guy who stopped by a few minutes ago who was certain all profits from new potential cap-and-trade programs would be funneled personally to Al Gore. To be safe, Bucknam's pitch is to the point: "Keep your bills low, get that big check back every year!"

"I think it's gonna be close," says incumbent boardmember Gene Sperry of the election. This seems to be an unspoken understanding that the race is less about him and the other incumbents, Bruff Shea and George Hier, and more about Lewandowski and his policies. "I don't think this election is so much about personalities," Sperry says, "but more about where customers want this association to go in the future."

Not to mention whether that future will include Comanche 3.

"I would want to explore the sale of our interest in it," says Masson, a onetime Texaco executive whose wife works at NREL. While Comanche 3 might have seemed like a good investment a few years ago, when coal prices were low and stable and alternatives like natural gas, wind and solar were far less reliable or cheap to produce, the situation is different today. Coal prices are starting to rise and could jump higher if lawmakers make good on their promise to enact hefty carbon taxes.

And while most everyone agrees that fossil fuels will be necessary in the short term, many believe they could be largely replaced by safer alternatives in just a few years — alternatives IREA can't explore because of its arrangement with Comanche 3, says Masson. "When they bought into the coal plant, they got into the business of selling electrons," he says. "Every electron they don't sell means less revenue to pay off that commitment. Every consumer who puts in a photovoltaic system means they're using less electricity from that investment. I think Lewandowski's marriage to coal has superseded his ability to see the future."

Then again, these candidates won't even get a chance to consider Comanche 3 if no one bothers to vote in the election. "Our what ballot?" one elderly woman asks Bucknam. Another chimes in: "What we really need is our water board replaced!"

Lewandowski welcomes the election. "If, for some reason, the customers say, 'This is who we want,' that's it — the customers have voted," he says. "Whatever will be will be."

But that doesn't mean he hasn't tried to influence the results, donating $3,000 in total to the three incumbents. Nor does it mean he's going to stick around if his challengers win, he notes with a flourish: "I'd be gone by the time they got seated."

To that, Gayle, who is sitting with Lewandowski in their Lakewood home, does a double-take. "You wouldn't, would you?" she asks in amazement.

"Yes, I would," he responds. He's planning to step down in 2011 anyway, but that plan could be fast-tracked depending on the election. Never mind that he wouldn't be around to see the completion of IREA's headquarters expansion or, more significantly, the commencement of Comanche 3. After all, he says, "It takes a skilled carpenter a month to build a fine barn, and any jackass can knock it down in two hours."

And in the hands of his opponents, he insists, IREA — his IREA — would be left in a shambles. Still, Lewandowski is confident in his own legacy. "I came here when IREA had 12,000 customers, and I helped it become a very successful organization," he says.

As for how else he wants to be remembered, he keeps it plain and simple: "He was his own man."

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