Jim Kent:

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Archive for October, 2009

Citizen Based Stewardship–The Holy Cross Energy Story at Snowmass Colorado

Posted by Jim on October 5, 2009

Citizen-based Stewardship and the Holy Cross Energy Experience In Snowmass Village, Colorado

Luncheon Speech Presented by:  Jim Kent, President, JKA Group

 Colorado Rural Electric Association, Semi Annual Meeting of Citizen Owned Electric Coops

Telluride, Colorado

October 5, 2009

 I am speaking today about how a new underground transmission line in Pitkin County and a new Gas Insulated sub-station was built in Snowmass Village by Holy Cross Energy. At the end of my talk I will show several slides so that you can see the magnificent setting and the landscape where this project is located.  A two-lane, 3.5 mile, winding road from the valley floor travels uphill past historic ranches and natural open space in a narrow valley and provides one of the most beautiful entryways to the year-round resort of Snowmass Village—near Aspen.

 Snowmass energy use had reached a point where reliability and predictability of electricity for the whole Holy Cross system was at the failure stage.  In October of 2002 the Colorado PUC ordered that the system be made safe by building a new 115kv power line into Snowmass Village with a new sub-station.

 This decision could not have come at a worse time.  The Town of SMV had before them a new Base Village Proposal to build 1 million square feet of new development.  The approval process having gone on for 3 years had created enormous conflict throughout the community.  Public hearings had citizens and elected official demonizing each other over the merits of the new projects. One of the senior members of the Holy Cross team was heard to remark:  “I had hoped to retire before we had to tackle this Snowmass project.” 

 To enter this fray at the Formal Level would have been a disaster for HCE—just another project being layered onto several disruptive projects already in the pipe line and mired in long delays and controversy.  In fact long delays and controversy is a hall mark of getting anything approved in Pitkin County.  Further, although the new substation was needed anyway based on 20 years of steady growth in the Aspen-Snowmass Village area, some opponents of constructing a new base village for the ski area thought that by defeating approval of the substation, it could stop the ski area expansion. 

 HCE had a decision to make:

They could use the power of the PUC, a faceless distant authority in Denver to force a new overhead power line and 88,000 sq. ft. air cooled substation on the people.  Essentially that decision would turn the project over to lawyers for 10 or 15 years.   The rules of the Coop allowed for all members  to be assessed for costs associated with these two activities.  However if they wanted to place the transmission line underground, there would have to be an additional assessment for the undergrounding costs—in this case $7.8 million in additional costs.

Or they could hire my company, James Kent Associates with a unique  approach to reducing the complexities of the formal approval process  where the affected community citizens become a resource and a partner.

Generally they would have started with  formal public meetings to introduce the project. In this case 3 of the key formal groups were:

Pitkin County, Snowmass Town Council, the Open Space Board.  All 3 have built in mechanisms of distrust for each other and they use new projects as fodder for “evening out grudges” from past battles won or lost.

 We needed approval of both governments since the Sub-Station was in SMV and the Transmission Line in unincorporated Pitkin County.  But we needed to get that approval without triggering the old cultural battle lines between the 3 entities.

 A key task, among many, was not to let HCE get pulled into grudge matches or the ongoing 3 year fight over Base Village.

 So how do we keep our clients out of unnecessary conflict.

There are two systems in every community– the formal, which we are all familiar with and the informal which is less visible but critically important in the decision making process.  The informal system is horizontal in nature, carries the culture of the community, operates through word-of-mouth networking and gathering places and take care of each other. There are people in these networks who resolve issues and process information 24 hours a day with their neighbors.

Project applicants who only use a formal approach often find themselves defending positions even before their project elements are fully understood by the citizens and the government. 

Formal meetings held before informal networking takes place, bring out people who have a predisposed position on the topic and are accustomed to going to formal meetings to take control of the agenda, often to the detriment of the applicant and citizens. 

The Action

Being in these informal networks allowed HCE to take the project directly to the people to work from the “bottom up” in its approval process.   Our mission was to locate these informal networks, find and engage the caretakers, communicators and story tellers in the networks.  Getting known at this level allowed Holy Cross Energy to understand local traditions, beliefs, issues and values that underpin and direct decisions eventually at the formal level.

 We know that if the citizens gain social ownership of a project, they will influence the elected officials in a manner that does not create confrontation,  thereby reducing or eliminating ungrounded attacks on the applicant—in this case Holy Cross Energy.

 JKA found 4 key values within the community that would govern Holy Cross Energy throughout the approval process.

“Sense of fairness”

The overhead power line corridors were an issue from the beginning. Citizens did not want 60 foot power poles sweeping across their landscape and especially up Brush Creek which is their beautiful 3.5 mile entrance from Highway 82 to their village.  Once the community saw graphics of the various overhead options and discussed the routes, they concluded that the line should be underground up Brush Creek.  The main reason was cited as, “It would not be fair to subject a neighbor to a power line corridor that I would not want in my own environment.”  The citizens wanted to avoid any decision that would pit neighbor against neighbor. 

 “Taking care of their own issues”

Snowmass residents had a history of mobilizing to take care of their own issues.  One of the outstanding mobilizations was raising $8 million over the years for visual enhancement in the Brush Creek entrance to SMV.  They proved to be independent, proud and not prone to asking for outside help. The strong caretakers in the informal networks had many stories of how people helped each other out with everyday issues of survival—and loss of reliability of their energy source was a new issue, but one they could handle.

 “A passion for facts” 

HCE made it clear informally and formally that all rate payers in their coop would share the cost for a new substation and standard above ground transmission lines, as it would increase reliability for their entire system.  If the local valley governments asked for all or part of the line to be placed underground, then they would have to impose a rate increase to fund the additional cost of $7.8 million required to bury the line—something neither of the elected bodies were willing to risk on their own.  This meant that the residents would have to decide to cover this cost above and beyond their current monthly bills if this underground project was to happen. 

To engage the citizens in discussions about the surcharge, we held numerous “chat sessions” in private homes where neighbors were invited. This produced discussions about the project and why a surcharge was necessary.   In every session, there were participants with calculators.  Whenever we discussed numbers, we found ourselves being scrutinized, corrected and called to refine the numbers.  This project eventually had its own Citizen-Based Authenticators who took ownership of the project!!

Authenticators, with the rest of the residents, helped HCE decide on a surcharge percentage.  Citizens decided that they could manage a 15% increase in their monthly bill over 33 years as a tolerable threshold.   20% was considered the breaking point. 

Because of this citizen commitment, HCE went to work to come in under the 15% mark.  HCE announced in April of 2006, to everyone’s delight, that the actual surcharge was 11.447%.  To date, there have been no complaints of the added amount on the monthly bill, once again confirming that people have ownership when  they are a main part of the decision making process.

“Relationship to Geographic Place” 

It was also clear that an air-cooled substation requiring two acres of land was not going to fit Snowmass.  It is a resort community and two acres of land is a rare premium.  Besides, no one wanted an “ugly” substation. There was one of those in neighboring Carbondale on the way into town.  Our team conveyed this to HCE and concurring with the citizens, proceeded to do extensive research in Europe on Gas Insulated Systems, which is what they built.  In a Gas Insulated System,  transformers could be housed in two small structures that look like ranch barns.  They occupy only 8,500 square feet instead of 88,000 sq. ft. that the air-cooled system would have required.   This system came from Europe, along with engineers to build the station.

 Additionally, HCE had 5 alternative substation sites selected, all of them controversial.  The final site, not part of the original HCE 5 sites, was identified by several citizens who were familiar with the terrain and geography.  They took into account that the T of S owned land next to the town Cemetery.  This was the ideal site both from the community viewpoint (very quite NIMBYS)  and in a very efficient place physically for HCE.


With the citizens taking social ownership of the project, all disruptive issues were avoided or resolved and there was no opposition at any of the formal hearings.  We went through each governing unit separately although there was pressure to do a more efficient “joint review process” which was a trap given the past conflicts that could have been fought out between the two entities. Situations that look efficient usually are not.


  • The underground power line runs 3.5 miles to the GIS sub-station.  The project was completed in December of 2005 when the sub-station and transmission lines were energized. From beginning to physical completion was 3 years. By the way conflict over Base Village still rages on.


  • Pitkin County Open Space an early adversary collaborated with HCE and built a $900,000 bike path on top of the underground corridor connecting Snowmass to Aspen and Glenwood Springs. 


  • A local company did the underground corridor work and a local architect designed the Sub-station.


  • Citizens of Snowmass currently take visitors to see their small and attractive sub-station next to the cemetery and by one of the main hiking trails.


As Richard Brinkley of the HCE team said after the approvals from both governments were final, “In the end, legally we could have persisted and could have been the last one standing in a terribly lengthy and costly fight.  But this way, we all feel good about each other and the project, and we have built long term relationships and learned from each other that trust can develop and collaboration can take place among the —citizens, governments and HCE as long as mutual benefits and equity are respected.”

Thank you.

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