Tri-State quits coal projects; increasing renewables

Co-op members, business owners asking for 80 percent carbon-free electricity

By Katherine Nettles

The call for cleaner energy from its members seems to have resonated with a power supply cooperative within the state. Local energy supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission has announced it will cut back on coal and beef up on renewable  energy in the next several years, marking a major transition for the co-op although they fall short of the requests from environmental groups and co-op members to achieve 80 percent renewables.

The announcements are part of the co-op’s newly released Responsible Energy Plan which it started in July 2019. Tri-state revealed on January 9 that it would close all the coal generation and mining that it operates by 2030, and cancel plans for an additional coal plant in Kansas. On Wednesday they announced they will replace that coal power with solar, wind and hydropower, achieveing a 50 percent cleaner energy grid by 2024. Currently, almost half of Tri-State’s power is estimated to come from coal plants, and 70 percent overall comes from fossil fuels.

In Colorado, the Colowyo Mine in the northwest part of the state will close and two units at the Craig Station coal power plant in Craig will be retired by 2030. An additional unit at the Craig Station is already scheduled for 2025 retirement.

Tri-State also said it will retire its Escalante coal plant in New Mexico this year, ultimately reducing its coal emissions in both states by 100 percent. In a press statement, Tri-State’s senior manager of communications and public affairs Lee Boughey wrote, “It is significant transition in how Tri-State serves its member electric cooperatives and public power districts. We are able to make this transition rapidly and while maintaining stable rates.”

Collectively, co-op representatives estimate that the power plants and mine closures in Colorado and New Mexico will impact approximately 600 power plant and mine employees. The co-op said it is working with state and local leaders to support and transition the employees and communities affected by the closures.

Tri-State has been under pressure from many of its 43 co-op members that span Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico to transition away from coal power. The co-op provides wholesale power to Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA), which supplies all of Gunnison County except for the city of Gunnison with power, and has 17 other Colorado co-op members. Colorado has adopted a goal to reduce statewide greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 50 percent by 2030, using baseline measurements from 2005.

According to Tri-State’s second announcement on Wednesday, it will fall in line with those state goals.

“Serving our members’ clean energy and affordability needs, supporting state requirements and goals, and leading the fundamental changes in our industry require the retirement of our coal facilities in Colorado and New Mexico,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of the board of Tri-State and a director of Mountain View Electric Association in eastern Colorado. “As we make this difficult decision, we do so with a deep appreciation for the contributions of our employees who have dedicated their talents and energy to help us deliver on our mission to our members.”

Tri-State said it would account for the obsolescence of its coal assets over time through use of deferred revenue, accelerated depreciation or regulatory asset recovery. It will also build six new solar and two new wind projects by 2024.

“The low costs of renewable energy and operating cost reductions help to counterbalance the cost to retire our coal assets early,” said Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive officer.

The initial announcement came three days after 92 business owners from 10 Tri-State cooperatives delivered a letter to the board of directors asking Tri-State to commit to 80 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030. Gunnison County officials have chimed in recently about Tri-State’s energy sources and its approach to what some see as looser government regulation.

Gunnison County sustainable operations director John Cattles spoke on behalf of the county regarding Tri-State’s first announcement. “In our view it’s a good thing. We were really excited with the first announcement last week, and overall I think we just wanted to hear more about what they would replace that coal energy with,” he said.

Cattles had worked closely with the Gunnison County commissioners this fall to draft a letter to Tri-State asking that the cooperative pursue more renewable energy sources, and demonstrate willingness to comply with Colorado’s energy regulations even if they proved more stringent than federal ones. “I definitely think they [Tri-State] are responding to the fact that people are wanting more renewables. They are understanding the path that most people in Gunnison County want to see,” Cattles said.

As far as the fallout of retiring aspects of established industry and the economic impacts that will have on coal-centered communities in the state, Cattles commended Tri-State’s efforts to “soften the blow.”

“That’s obviously a hard thing. The fact is that this is being driven by economics, when in the past it was seen as a liberal agenda.” he said. “It’s a tough situation for anybody who is facing job loss.”

The final component of Tri-State’s  Responsible Energy Plan announcement is that it will increase member flexibility to develop more local, self-supplied renewable energy.

“I think the interesting thing for Gunnison County is that we have the ability to support the expansion of a cleaner grid using electric charging stations. We want to be able to expand out the rural electric charging station possibilities in our rural membership areas,” said Boughey.

Sierra Club senior campaign representative Anna McDevitt said in a press release that Tri-State should commit more effort to that concept of locally produced energy. “Tri-State’s ‘responsible’ energy plan will be irresponsible without a full transition away from all its Western coal by 2030 and a robust plan for worker and community transition. Tri-State still has far more to do when it comes to member transparency and democracy, committing to de-carbonization, and providing impacted communities with the tools needed for a just transition,” said McDevitt.

“We’re disappointed that Tri-State declined to allow for any participation by the member owners of the rural electric cooperatives, like La Plata Electric Association here in Durango, in the creation of this plan,” said Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. He expressed the “desires of cooperative members to benefit from locally owned renewable energy in communities like ours with abundant solar and renewable resources.”

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