Critics and supporters of coal power squared off Thursday during a public hearing over the future of two Xcel Energy plants in Pueblo that could be shuttered early and replaced with wind, solar and natural gas sources. A few defended coal and said the plants still have decades of useful life ahead of them. But most supported closing the plants, and many advocated for Xcel to go further and decommission all of its coal-fired plants in the state. Some of those speakers warned against Xcel shifting plant-retirement costs onto ratepayers and also argued against replacing them with natural gas plants.
“Why retire just two coal-fired plants when they could all be economically be retired?” asked Gary Norton, a Lone Tree resident and one of several people at the hearing concerned about climate change. “This transition from coal is obvious, necessary and the right thing to do,” said Denver resident Julie Lang. Under the Colorado Energy Plan agreement that Xcel reached with conservation, environmental and customer groups last summer, the state’s largest utility agreed to seek bids from other sources and to shut the coal plants down if it would save ratepayers money.
Supporters estimated abandoning the coal plants, even with accelerated depreciation, could save ratepayers $175 million. But that was before solar- and wind-power developers provided Xcel Energy with the lowest prices for electricity from renewable sources the country had ever seen. Renewable generation, including storage, came in below the cost of coal, raising the question of why not replace the entire coal fleet and save ratepayers even more money, improve air quality and lower carbon emissions. “We feel the proposal to close old and inefficient coal plants more quickly and expand renewables in Colorado just makes sense. Shifting from coal to renewable energy creates jobs, saves money on everyone’s electric bills and helps clean up our air,” said Anita Seitz, a Westminster City Council member who testified on behalf of Colorado Communities for Climate Action.
Several economic development groups, as well as representatives of farmers and rural land owners, sided with Boulder and Denver environmentalists and public health officials in support of the plan, which will funnel an estimated $2.5 billion in new investment into mostly rural areas. But several people who otherwise support the Clean Energy Plan oppose the idea of Xcel Energy’s shareholders avoiding a hit for the millions the company poured into an old technology despite mounting evidence of the harmful effects associated with burning coal. As part of its new energy plan, Xcel is weighing how much natural gas to include in its future generation mix, even though rapid advances in battery technology and renewable energy quickly could make those assets redundant and costly, critics said.
“We don’t need Xcel to build new gas-fired plants that will become the stranded assets of the future,” said Karen Conduff, an independent energy adviser. Former state legislator Greg Brophy said the money that Xcel and other utilities poured into coal plants, including for air pollution control equipment, was often done at the request of lawmakers and regulators. “Many want to punish the utilities for what we at the legislature or your predecessor at the PUC urged them to do,” he said.
State Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, made the strongest case for keeping the two units at the Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo running. The units, built in the 1970s, could run for 60 to 70 years, he said. They are among the cleanest and lowest-cost units in Xcel’s coal fleet. “I don’t see anything good in this plan,” he said, adding that reliability could suffer if renewables, which are intermittent, represent too much of the generation mix. Lakewood resident James Bunch, a former Wyoming coal worker, said the state is growing rapidly and needs all the power sources it can get.
“It is truly in the ratepayers’ interest to use those assets. The customers need it,” Bunch said. “On the coldest day, they will be calling you guys if they don’t get their power.”