published October 2019

Local citizens’ legal action against SLVREC moves forward

by John Rowe

A pre-hearing conference was held at the Crestone campus of Colorado College by the  Public Utilities Commission of Colorado (PUC) on August 27 at 9am for the purpose of establishing a foundation for a full formal hearing to hear complaints by Annie Pace et. al. This is a local citizens’ group numbering between 25 and 30 from the San Luis Valley Rural Rural Electric Cooperative (SLVREC) service area, mostly from Crestone/Baca (the “Citizens’ case”) and the Town of Crestone against its electric power provider, SLVREC. The Town of Crestone and Annie Pace el. al. are separate entities who have filed independent actions against  SLVREC. The cases have been consolidated for judicial efficiency because of considerable overlap in the claims, and will be heard by the PUC administrative court in the same hearing. This article will deal with the Citizens’ case, whose spokespeople and key organizers are Annie Pace and Lili Zohar; the Town of Crestone’s case will be reported on separately.

This pre-hearing conference dealt with establishing discovery deadlines (dates by which each side must make the other side aware of information to be used at the hearing), hearing dates, setting up ground rules, and other pertinent procedures. The dates of the hearing are scheduled for November 19-22 at the Crestone campus of Colorado College and the public is welcome, limited only by available seating.

One of the major contentions of Citizens’ case  is that the rate hike that has been in effect since April is considered by the Citizens to be unfair, unjust, and unreasonable. Many people’s rates have increased dramatically, this in one of Colorado’s poorest counties. Another  bone of contention concerns the lack of notice, transparency, and education given the citizenry before instituting the rate increase. These local activists don’t believe that the SLVREC supplied a tranparent or logical justification for the changes in billing that helped large commercial users and resulted in substantial increases for many small users, a/k/a ordinary folks. The Citizens also contend that the nature of the increase violates State policy on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels- it. It rewards big users, primarily businesses and large farms, and punishes small users, primarily residential customers. Large users have enjoyed a rate decrease and have no incentive to conserve energy.

Meanwhile the Citizens contend that this new policy discourages renewables such as solar and wind. Lili Zohar, a major spokesperson for the group  says, “I am a good example of this. I invested $22,000 in a solar system and use the grid connection I have primarily for backup. By SLVEC’s own estimates, I will experience a 161% cost increase for the year with the new rate hike. I used to pay a flat fee in the neighborhood of $30/month and will now be assessed a much higher usage fee based on the time of day demand charges.” Zohar says that SLVREC’s claim that this is  a “revenue neutral” rate change is only true in the sense that the utility is not collecting more revenue.  However, the largest users have seen a significant reduction in their bills while by and large residential users are paying more.

Zohar is excited over a new development in the case. The ways and means have been found to retain “a very good attorney,” Sarah Keane of Kaplan, Kirsch, and Rockwell of Denver.  More than a few expert witnesses (considered key in this sort of litigation) have expressed interest in helping the Complainants.  Zohar and company are also happy about this and are looking forward to a fair and just outcome for all.

“The judge, Melody Mirbaba, was very evenhanded, fair, and thorough,” says Zohar. The Respondents, (SLVREC) wanted the hearing dates pushed back until February or later and the Complainants succeeded in having what they and the judge agreed was a more reasonable timeframe, namely this fall.The judge also agreed to allow the Citizens to amend their Complaint, which allowed for Ms Keane to help craft a more legally sound and comprehensive Complaint on behalf of the Citizens. Judge Mirbaba not only listened to the lawyers and spokespeople for the Citizens, the Town of Crestone, and the SLVREC, but also allowed individual Complainants to make comments, ask questions, and to withdraw from the case when circumstances made their particiapation too burndomsome.  Ms. Mirbaba genuinely seemed to want to hear from all who wanted their voices heard.

Once again, the formal hearing is schduled for November 19 and 22 of this year, although a shorter hearing, and perhaps even a settlement prior to the hearing is possible.