Published on January 16th, 2020 | by Steve Hanley
January 16th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
Tri-State Generation & Transmission serves the needs of 43 electric cooperatives in 4 states. In all, it provides electricity for 1,000,000 customers located across 2,000 square miles of America. Last August, Tri -State’s new CEO, Duane Highley, announced his intention to move the company toward renewable energy and away from coal as soon as possible.
“I saw the need for a shift into the new energy economy before I stepped in,” Highlewey told Utility Dive. “Utilities once had almost no choice but to build coal, but now policies are different, and economics are drastically different. Our goal is a transition that lowers rates. It might be hard — but it might be beautiful.”
On January 15, Highley’s emphasis on renewable energy became official policy for the Colorado-based company. According to the Denver Post, Tri-State intends to increase the amount of electricity it generates from renewable sources to 50% by 2024. Not so long ago, utility companies were talking about 50% renewables by 2050. But the stark price advantage renewables now have (after all, once a wind or solar farm is constructed, there are no fuel costs to pay), has upset the apple cart in the industry. 2024 is less than 4 years away. Things are starting to move quickly.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis was on hand when the company made its Responsible Energy Plan public. “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 co-ops in Colorado that really drive the demand — United Power, La Plata (Electric Assocation), Delta-Montrose (Electric Association) — had been talking about finding other providers.” Thanks to Highley’s leadership, Tri-State is figuring out “how to be relevant in the 21st Century,” the Governor added.
Part of the plan is to build 8 new wind and solar installations that will provide enough electricity to power 850,000 homes. In addition, the company plans to add electric car chargers throughout its service area.
It will also close the Escalante coal generating station in northwest New Mexico by the end of this year and shut down other coal plants in Craig and at the Colowyo Mine in northwest Colorado by 2030. One unit of the Craig facility was scheduled to continue operating until 2038 and another until 2044. The Escalante plant could have continued in operation until 2045. In addition, the company has dropped plans to build a new coal-powered facility in Holcomb, Kansas. “We’re committed to not adding any new coal generation in the Tri-State cooperative,” Highley said. It has not ruled out building new natural gas generating facilities to offset closure of several coal plants, however.
Applause From Environmentalists
The new policy has drawn praise from environmental interests. “Tri-State’s coal plant retirements and increased investments in renewable energy will save its customers money and will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change and other harmful air pollution,” said John Nielsen of Western Resource Advocates in a written statement.
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.
Some 600 employees will be affected by the generating plant closures. Tri-State has committed $5 million to helping workers and communities that will be affected by the closures. Colorado Senator Bob Rankin says this is an opportunity to show the rest of the country how to do the right thing for workers affected by the transition to renewable energy.
In the end, the dramatic decline in the cost of renewables is upending traditional thinking in the utility industry — and not a moment too soon. Notice these changes are being driven by cost alone. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases has little if anything to do with. What better argument for a comprehensive carbon fee could there be?
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