The Office of Just Transition (OJT), an agency operating under the purview of the Polis administration to “assist workers and communities that will be adversely affected by the loss of jobs and revenues due to the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants,” was just granted a late intervention in the proceedings surrounding Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy Plan at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Xcel’s Clean Energy Plan is currently slated to close all of the state’s remaining coal power plants by the end of the decade, aside from the Comanche 3 station in Pueblo which is scheduled for early closure in 2040. And environmental activists are still pushing to accelerate the Comanche 3 closure by another decade.
Despite its Orwellian name, the OJT’s mission is necessary, at least given the circumstances. Employees of coal plants will undoubtedly need career assistance as they see their jobs destroyed by plant closures accelerated by government diktat.
The OJT was appropriated $15 million this summer to fund its operations and programs, but that’s a drop in the bucket for what will ultimately be required. According to the Colorado Sun, its estimated to cost a minimum of $100 million to fulfill the states wishes in shuttering coal plants and assisting displaced workers across 11 affected Colorado counties.
Additionally, the agency’s current strategy for assisting affected workers, outlined in its Just Transition Action Plan, contains nothing more at this point than vague references to community investment and job training programs. There is nothing that concretely shows a replacement for lost jobs and tax revenue.
Luckily, the Office of Just Transition need look no further than one of its fellow intervenors for a truly just transition strategy.
Leaders from Pueblo County, home of the Comanche 3 power plant and a party to the proceedings surround Xcel’s energy plan, have proposed replacing the plant with a nuclear power station utilizing small-modular reactor (SMR) technology.
SMRs require substantially less initial investment than traditional large scale nuclear plants, are more efficient because they can be coupled with other energy sources, are safer to use, and produce less waste than traditional nuclear plants.
Additionally, SMR technology can be integrated with much of the existing infrastructure of Comanche 3, further reducing the costs of transitioning borne by ratepayers.
Both the OJT and Xcel have previously displayed an openness to pursuing new energy technologies as a replacement for coal jobs. Molten salt was proposed by Xcel as a potential replacement for its soon-to-be shuttered plant in Hayden. Yet unlike the proposed salt facility, which is only expected to replace half of the jobs displaced by halting coal operations, Pueblo’s nuclear proposal would be a job creator.
“Such an investment would more than replace the current tax base and employment base provided by Comanche 3 by creating 200 to 300 good paying jobs in our community,” Garrison Ortiz, a Pueblo County Commissioner, told the PUC. “It would also provide PSCO with at least 750 MW of zero emission firm dispatchable generation by 2030.”
The claims by the commissioner are supported by research. A recent report found that a small modular reactor plant could provide jobs “well in excess of a typical coal plant.” It also reported that many SMR plant jobs would require skills similar to those of a typical coal plant staff.
“These jobs would require some retraining, but they would not require wholesale repurposing of the workforce to a totally different job type,” the report found.
Additionally, SMRs provide the potential for more than 70 jobs for which there is no coal plant equivalent but that could become a development opportunity for coal workers to advance and prosper.
“Jobs, such as reactor operators or radiation protection technicians, do not have a coal plant equivalent, but they are in fact potential developmental paths for current coal workers,” the report explained. “This opens the door for the coal plant workforce to progress and develop into higher-paying jobs.”
The fact that SMRs offer job replacement to displaced coal workers, with minimal retraining, and an opportunity for career advancement should be appealing to both the OJT and Xcel. It will allow Xcel to fulfill its promise not to lay off any coal workers affected by plant closures, and it substantially reduces the mission load of the Office of Just Transition.
Successful implementation of SMR technology in Pueblo County could serve as a model for the rest of the nation for how to transition in a responsible way from coal to reliable clean energy.
Colorado is touted as being serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What better way to prove that ethos than by embracing emission-free nuclear energy?
The project has a chance to offer something to nearly every political constituency. It represents an infrastructure investment, an investment in local industrial jobs, and a step toward carbon-free energy independence.
Nuclear is the only GHG-free energy source that is both scalable and reliable for 24-hour, around the clock energy production. It will be an indispensable asset to any serious clean energy development effort.
Pueblo County should be applauded for leading the charge on this issue. Hopefully, its ideas are taken seriously by Xcel and the OJT at the Public Utilities Commission.
Jake Fogelman in an energy policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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