How to move Colorado's energy economy and policies forward without leaving some communities and workers behind became an overriding theme of a state legislative meeting Friday in Grand Junction.

Colorado Mesa University played host to an outreach session of the Energy Legislation Review Interim Study Committee. The 10-member, bipartisan collection of state senators and representatives is meeting outside of the legislative session with the charge of eventually recommending three bills for consideration next year.

They've also been hearing from people in eastern Colorado and the Denver metro area.

But Friday's meeting put them face-to-face with representatives of energy- producing communities that have been profoundly affected by a changing energy landscape, particularly in the case of coal-based power. That has raised questions about what help these communities should get during the ongoing national transition away from coal as a chief energy resource.

"We were a coal county, until recently," Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber told the panel.

Two of the three mines operating in the North Fork Valley a decade ago no longer are, which has resulted in the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs in the county.

Fellow Delta Commissioner Don Suppes said that when it comes to transitions, "the cold hard fact is you just don't replace an $80,000-to-$100,000-a-year energy job. It just doesn't happen."

People who lose such jobs aren't going to stay in the area for ones that might pay $40,000 or $45,000, he said.

"They're not going to take a cut in pay that drastic … with a smile on their face," he said.

Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said that in addition to the one Craig Station coal-fired power generating unit scheduled to stop operating in five years, its remaining two units will close in 10 years if Colorado's renewable mandates don't change. That would have drastic impacts on jobs, including local coal mining jobs, and on the local tax base and businesses.

"The Legislature should not be picking winners and losers," he said.

Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said that while commissioners there have supported the expansion of the West Elk Mine in the county, climate issues are important as well and are affecting water, ranching and the ski industry.

He agrees that service-industry jobs won't replace coal and oil and gas jobs.

"But we can grow our economy in different ways, and we need to think about what that looks like," he said.

One effort the county has been exploring is opportunities to capture methane that's now escaping coal mines and can either be flared to reduce its greenhouse gas impacts and create carbon credits, or be used to produce energy.

"We think that's a place where we can find some opportunities that support communities and support the energy future," he said.

Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, said coal-fired power plants should be allowed to run their course based on market forces. She also called for a robust study of the socioeconomic impacts of closures, something she said must be known in order to provide proper assistance.

Suzanne Tegen with the Center for New Energy Economy at Colorado State University cited low-cost natural gas, renewable power and technological advances that have been making coal power uneconomical in much of the United States and accelerating coal plant closures.

"It feels like a crisis right now because it's happening I think sooner than we thought it would," she said.

When it comes to how affected communities move forward, "it's very important to have these local voices at the table like we've been hearing today," she said.

In terms of assistance, she cited options such as providing funds for retraining, guaranteeing pensions that workers sometimes can face losing when mines and plants close, and supplying bridge wages to help cover at least some of the income workers lose while seeking new jobs.

Still, she said, "It's going to be really hard and we can't replace those jobs."

Suppes and Roeber said that Delta County's experience has been that it doesn't benefit from funding to bring in outside consultants to tell the county what to do in transitioning economically, but instead can gain from programs that help it in providing a local response.

Mark Haggerty with the Headwaters Economics nonpartisan research group said one means of states helping local governments transition is by providing them enough autonomy in managing their budgets so they can save over multiple years and impose taxes that enable them to adjust to changes in the economy.

One concern expressed by Delta commissioners Friday pertains to legislative actions that take away the ability of local counties to decide how to tax green energy projects.

Petersen referred to bills written to provide exemptions to business personal property taxes for industries lawmakers want to support, which she said can particularly hurt western Colorado counties that already have at least half public lands that they can't tax.

Among several legislative measures that committee members proposed Friday, state Sen. Mike Foote, D-Boulder County, said he would look into one that would in part explore such concerns.

Ray Pilcher, president of Raven Ridge Resources, a Grand Junction company that works on coal methane and carbon emission reduction projects, said the energy transition going on in the region won't be easy, but he also sees bright spots for western Colorado.

"We have a world-class opportunity for solar. It's virtually untapped," he said.

Christopher Campbell, with Atlasta Solar in Grand Junction, touted the job industries provided by the solar industry.

"A journeyman electrician can make a wage comparable to oil and gas wages," said Campbell, who encouraged lawmakers to "keep doing what you're doing" and help expand workforce opportunities while protecting land, air and water.

Natasha Léger, with Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, told lawmakers the North Fork Valley already has successfully transitioned over the years to an economy based on things such as organic and sustainable agriculture, arts, tourism, renewable energy and health and wellness.

She said she thinks there need to be talks about changing revenue models that are now based on things such as energy severance taxes.

"Right now that is creating a stranglehold on how we think about how to move forward," she said.

Lawmakers on Friday also heard from representatives of area rural electric energy cooperatives, many of which are pushing forward on making more use of renewable energy.

Foote said he found what he heard Friday to be valuable.

"I think it's important to get the perspective of the entire state. I'm glad that we had the turnout that we did (Friday). I think it's going to be very valuable going forward."