An organization that once used Tri-State Generation and Transmission in a study to make the case against sticking with coal has a new report saying the utility’s plan to add more solar and wind is a standout among similar power providers.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and consulting organization, says in a recently released report that Tri-State’s “forward-thinking plan” to close coal plants and a coal mine will save its member electric cooperatives more than $55 million a year.
What Tri-State calls its “Responsible Energy Plan” will add 1,000 megawatts — 1 gigawatt — of wind and solar projects across its four-state service territory. The Westminster-based wholesale power supplier has a total of 43 member cooperatives in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Mark Dyson, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a co-author on both reports, described Tri-State’s energy plan released early this year a “fairly abrupt turnaround” from its previous path.
“Amid this wave of clean energy progress from cooperative utilities, Tri-State’s (plan) stands out,” the report said, citing its yearlong development that included guidance from the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.
In the past few years, Tri-State has come under fire from some of its members and renewable energy advocates for being too heavily invested in coal. Two members that negotiated buy-outs of their contracts said the desire to take advantage of the decreasing cost of wind and solar energy was one of the reasons they wanted out.
Brighton-based United Power, Tri-State’s largest member, and the La Plata Electric Association in Durango have asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to make Tri-State propose reasonable exit fees to them. They’ve also complained about rates and said they want more flexibility to produce more of their own electricity rather than buy most of it from Tri-State.
A 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Institute said Tri-State could save its member electric associations $600 million if it closed its coal plants and boosted the use of renewables. Keeping coal plants open contributed to electric rates in the region that rose more than five times the national average between 2007 and 2016, the report said.
The cost of wind and solar energy has kept dropping since 2018 when the first report was released. Tri-State said in January that the bids it was getting for renewable energy were 85% lower than those a decade earlier.
Pressure from members and new state policies on climate change and renewable energy in Colorado and New Mexico have contributed to utilities’ move from coal, Dyson said.
“I believe, however, the most important driver is economics,” Dyson said. “You literally can’t afford not to take action.”
Tri-State CEO Duane Highley said the average, combined cost of the 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy the utility will add is 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. “That’s generally lower cost than anything else we can do, in terms of fossil fuel or anything.”
While Highley doesn’t think the utility’s transition to more renewables has been “abrupt,” he said it has been rapid.
“But it’s one the board the board was ready to make,” Highley said. “From the time I started with them in April last year, they gave me clear direction that they wanted to move toward reliable, affordable and responsible energy.”
Ttri-State expects to get 50% of its power from renewable energy by 2024, up from the current 31%. It projects that by 2030, the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by its Colorado facilities will drop by 90%.
Tri-State will close the Escalante coal plant in northwest New Mexico by the end of this year. It intends to close one coal unit in Craig in 2025 and two more by the end of 2029. It will also close the ColoWyo mine in northwest Colorado.
Last year, Tri-State closed its Nucla coal plant in western Colorado. It still has coal facilities in Arizona and Wyoming.
Highley said in addition to working with employees and the communities where the coal operations are located, Tri-State is also building new renewable energy projects in the areas to help create jobs and replace some of the lost property tax revenue. The wind and solar projects are a $1 billion investment, he said.
By 2024, Tri-State expects its wind and solar installations to produce enough electricity to power roughly 850,000 homes.
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