Shared from the 1/16/2020 The Denver Post eEdition
By Judith Kohler The Denver Post
Calling it transformative, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association released a plan Wednesday to boost its renewable energy sources to 50% by 2024 and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 90% by 2030 from Colorado facilities it owns or operates.
The announcement of the utility’s “Responsible Energy Plan” follows news last week that it will close its coal plants and a coal mine in New Mexico and Colorado earlier than anticipated.
The announcement also comes after criticism had grown that Tri-State was too reliant on coal at a time when the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically and concern about climate change has intensified.
Gov. Jared Polis alluded to those concerns during a news conference with Tri-State managers and members at the Capitol.
“I want to salute their forward-looking leadership,” Polis said. “There was real question about Tri-State and its future viability because several of their largest coops in Colorado that really drive the demand — United Power, La Plata (Electric Assocation), Delta-Montrose (Electric Association) — had been talking about finding other providers.”
But thanks to the leadership of CEO Duane Highley and his team, Tri-State is figuring out “how to be relevant in the 21st century,” Polis added.
Tri-State has been adding renewable energy sources to its system that serves a total of 43 member cooperatives in four states. However, utility representatives acknowledged that plans to build eight wind and solar projects is a big step. Tri-State will then produce enough renewable energy to power 850,000 homes.
“We’re now at a point where we’re poised to become a new Tri-State,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of the utility’s board of directors.
Tri-State plans to close the Escalante coal plan in northwest New Mexico by the end of this year. It intends to close its operations at its plant in Craig and at the Colowyo Mine in northwest Colorado by 2030.
The original closing dates for the plants were: Craig Unit 2, 2038; Craig Unit 3, 2044; and Escalante, 2045. About 600 employees will be affected.
Last year, Tri-State closed its Nucla coal plant in western Colorado, ahead of an original date of 2022. It will close one unit of the Craig plant by the end of 2025. Highley said Tri-State has dropped plans to build a new coal-generating unit in Holcomb, Kan.
“We’re committed to not adding any new coal generation in the Tri-State cooperative,” Highley said.
The utility still owns parts of coal plants in Wyoming and Arizona. Spokesman Lee Boughey said Tri-State will determine whether to add new natural gas plants as it develops a new resource plan.
In 2018, Tri-State said about 47% of its electricity came from coal and 31% from renewable energy sources.
Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute said Tri-State’s new plan is consistent with a study his organization did in 2018 that mapped out how the utility could save $600 million through 2030 if it replaced coal facilities with wind and solar energy.
“Overall, I’d say that what they announced today is consistent with our own analysis with how they can move forward with a lower-cost, clean-energy future,” Dyson said.
The accelerated mine and coal plant closures mean people are faced with losing their jobs sooner than expected. Tri-State said it will commit $5 million to helping workers and communities in New Mexico, site of the first closure. The utility said it will work with state officials to help workers in western Colorado, where about 500 jobs will be affected.
Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, represents the communities that will feel the brunt of the job losses — Meeker, Craig and Hayden. Asked during the news conference about the closures, he said workers and their families are upset.
“I understand Tri-State’s decision,” Rankin said. “I think it was inevitable. I might argue with the timing, but I think it’s probably the right decision from their point of view. But what do we do now?”
Another question is what kind of effect Tri-State’s new direction will have on members exploring whether to cut ties with the utility. Disagreements between Tri-State and the members include electric rates, the pace of adding renewable energy and a 5% cap on the amount of power individual electric co-ops can generate on their own. Members have approved a change in the bylaws that would raise the cap, but the details haven’t been worked out.
The Kit Carson Electric Association in Taos, N.M., paid $37 million in 2016 to break its contract with Tri-State. The Delta-Montrose Electric Association has reached an agreement to end its contract.
And United Power in Brighton, Tri-State’s largest member, and the La Plata Electric Association in Durango have asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to direct Tri-State to specify what it would take to buy out their contracts.
“While parts of the plan sound very promising, we need to closely examine it to ensure that it meets our principles of lower rates, increased local flexibility and more sustainable energy,” Troy Whitmore, United Power’s government and regulatory relations officer, said in a statement.
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