Concern over jobs, the environment, cost to ratepayers, families, and the economic future of Pueblo was evident at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission hearing in Pueblo on Thursday, December 7th. The PUC took public testimony on Xcel Energy’s plan to prematurely retire two coal-fired units of the Comanche power plant southeast of Pueblo
The proposed shutdown is a significant part of Xcel Energy’s pending Colorado Energy Plan that shifts its energy portfolio away from fossil fuels in favor of industrial wind and solar. The plan complements Governor Hickenlooper’s executive order directing the state to reduce carbon emissions. Hickenlooper’s EO channeled former President Obama’s Congress-defying signing of the Paris Climate Accord and the recently EPA-repealed Clean Power Plan, which was also the subject of an unprecedented United States Supreme Court stay in February of 2016.
Xcel’s plan isn’t without its own legislative controversy. In an August 29, 2017 article by Denver Business Journal reporter Cathy Proctor, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, (R-Sterling) is quoted as saying that Xcel is “pulling a bit of a fast one by going to the PUC for something it couldn’t get passed through the Legislature last session.” Sonnenberg added, “This proposal didn’t fly at the statehouse because Republicans don’t believe it’s in the interest of Colorado energy consumers to shut down our most affordable and dependable power plants, while subsidizing expansion of unreliable, not-ready-for-primetime alternatives.”
The meeting room at the El Pueblo Museum was filled to capacity with an overflow crowd estimated at more than 200. As the meeting began, Commissioners Wendy Moser, Chair Jeff Ackermann, and Frances Koncilja made it clear that this was a listening session for them – an opportunity for the community to speak and that they would not be taking questions. The proceeding was official and a court reporter took down all testimony for the record.
Josh Brutgeman, 36, was the first speaker of the evening. He started his job at the Comanche power plant working on emissions and air quality control systems. He and his wife have two children who are sixth-generation Pueblo residents. “I am for clean jobs, it’s just that I feel I am in a clean job right now,” he said, “The 2017 State of the Air report from the American Lung Association lists Pueblo as having some of the cleanest air in the country.”
Brutgeman is correct. The report says that the Pueblo-Canyon City area “tied for 1st for cleanest metropolitan areas in the country for 24-hour particle pollution and ranked 176 for annual particle pollution out of 184 metropolitan areas.”
Responding to Governor Hickenlooper’s idea that displaced workers should be retrained in clean energy technology Brutgeman said, “I think that’s a great idea, but there’s really nothing in this plan that details that. I’m thankful that Xcel has said that they would lose those jobs through attrition and relocation but that would mean that my sixth-generation kids would be first generation kids somewhere else.”
Zack Pittman (pictured), who works at the Comanche power station and is a union Steward for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 111 said, “Long-term jobs are important to this community.” He believes it makes no sense to shut down the generators. “They are reliable and they are within their permits, there’s nothing wrong with them,” he said, “They are the most reliable two coal-fired plants in the region, why shut them down?”
Other speakers advocated shutting the plants down in favor of green energy, which would create thousands of acres of windmills and solar panels. Pittman pointed out this consequence, saying, “150 megawatts [of wind] that’s created next to Comanche takes up 900 acres of space. The Comanche power plant, roughly 1500 megawatts, takes up 160 acres of space. The technology just isn’t there. To send all those resources we have currently there to the scrap yard doesn’t make any sense at this point until the technology catches up with renewable energy.”
This means that to replace the 1500 megawatts that the Comanche plant provides 24 hours a day 365 days a year with renewable sources would require that a minimum of 9000 acres be covered with windmills and solar panels that only work when the wind blows and the sun shines. Xcel says little about how it plans to provide electricity when renewables don’t operate.
Retiring operating, EPA-compliant coal generating facilities in favor of building new windmill and solar facilities would be a profitable endeavor for Xcel. If the PUC agrees to allow Xcel to increase its portfolio of capital construction assets, Xcel makes a government-guaranteed 10 percent return on those new capital assets and can charge ratepayers whatever it needs to achieve that return on investment.
Several speakers expressed concerns with air quality and supported the conversion to non-fossil fuel energy sources. Other speakers found themselves torn between environmental protection and the economic future of Pueblo and its citizens. They asked that the PUC protect the jobs of workers and their families, including those who don’t work directly for Xcel, such as railroad workers and those in the local service industry. They want guarantees from Xcel that any replacement gas-fired generating facilities be built at the existing site.
Supporting the plan, Jennifer Sherman, Dean of Business and Advanced Technology at Pueblo Community College said that the school is prepared to offer clean-energy technology training to Xcel workers and community members. However, skepticism that retrained employees would actually find comparable work that would allow them to remain in Pueblo was evident.
State Senator Don Coram (R-Montrose) spoke about the effects of plant shutdowns, job loss and the economic impacts currently being experienced in Nucla, where the Tri-State power plant, which the PUC does not regulate, is shutting down.
“120 of the 360 jobs in that community will be gone,” Coram said, “The plant will probably shut down, I think, within the next 18 months. What I’m going to tell you is that retraining will be relocating, there are no other options.” Coram was one of just three public commenters who received applause after speaking.
State Representative Daynea Esgar (D-Pueblo) was the last commenter and suggested that the “devil is in details”, echoing the sentiments of those who claim the plan lacks specifics, damages the local economy, displaces workers, wastes valuable existing facilities, and enhances Xcel’s profit margin at the expense of ratepayers.