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FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 file photo, solar panel installation continues at a rapid pace at the Mesquite Solar 1 facility under construction in Arlington, Ariz.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association is contracting for a new solar power project in Moffat County and others in western Colorado as it works to end its coal-fired power generation in the state, a shift that will close a coal mine and power plant in the county.

The wholesale power provider on Wednesday announced several new renewable energy projects in Colorado and New Mexico that, along with its existing renewable power generation and two previously announced projects that have yet to be built, will result in half of the energy consumed by its local cooperatives coming from renewable sources by 2024.

These include the Axial Basin Solar 145-megawatt project that will be built on land near the Colowyo Mine between Meeker and Craig. The site is within the service territory of Tri-State member White River Electric Association.

Last week, Tri-State announced that it plans to shut down the mine and the Craig Station coal-fired power plant that the mine supplies by 2030, ending its coal-fired power generation in Colorado. Combined, the plant and mine currently employ some 470 people. The plant’s closure also is expected to result in the closure of its other supplier, the Trapper Mine near Craig, which is owned by a group of utilities and also supplies the plant, sometime between 2026 and 2030. That mine now employs some 185 workers.

Tri-State also on Wednesday announced the construction of the Coyote Gulch Solar 120-megawatt project in La Plata Electric Association’s service territory in southwest Colorado, and the 110-megawatt Dolores Canyon Solar project in Empire Electric Association’s service territory.

It has contracted with juwi Inc., a solar power developer, to build all three projects.

Tri-State also has contracted for the construction of a 200-megawatt project in New Mexico near Escalante Station, a coal-fired plant it said last week it will close by the end of this year.

These projects, along with four eastern and southern Colorado wind and solar projects that were also announced Wednesday or previously announced but not yet built, will result in more than a gigawatt of renewable power being added to Tri-State’s portfolio by 2024. Tri-State estimates that by then it and its members will have enough renewable power to serve 850,000 homes.

Some of the projects will also represent a step in offsetting some of the economic impacts to communities that will be affected by the closure of the Craig and Escalante power plants and related mining jobs. Tri-State said in a news release that the construction and operation of the solar and wind projects “will result in hundreds of temporary construction jobs and contribute to permanent jobs and tax base within Tri-State members’ service territories.”

Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive officer, said in a news release, “Axial Basin represents an early reinvestment in northwestern Colorado, in light of our recent announcement on the Craig Generating Station and the Colowyo Mine. We will continue our commitment to the local community, as we move forward with the transition of our resources.”

Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said that according to juwi, the Axial Basin will require 400 temporary jobs for six months and an average of 150 jobs over a 14-month period during construction. The project will be built, owned and operated by juwi, and is scheduled to come on line in 2023. It will generate enough power to meet the needs of about 40,000 homes.

Tri-State is moving away from coal and towards more renewables in response to state laws and goals in Colorado and New Mexico and demands from some of its local cooperatives, and also because it can take advantage of falling costs for renewables that are helping it afford the costs of closing coal-fired plants earlier than planned. Tri-State on Wednesday also said it is canceling a coal-fired power plant project in Kansas that it has spent more than $90 million on but never opened.

“Accelerating our renewable procurements as technology improved and prices dropped results in the lowest possible renewable energy cost today for our members, and likely of any regional utility,” Highley said.

Tri-State also on Wednesday announced plans to expand rural electric vehicle charging networks by funding charging stations. It’s also moving to increase the amount of power its local cooperatives can get from local renewable energy development and self-supply by those cooperatives, addressing what has been another friction point between Tri-State and some of its members.

Tri-State says it is undergoing the biggest transformation in its 67-year history through the projects it has announced under what it calls its Responsible Energy Plan.

“We’re not just changing direction, we’re emerging as the leader of the energy transition,” Highley said.

Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said Wednesday that he hopes the county will see some revenue from the Axial project.

“That is great for (Tri-State) but I don’t know what kind of revenue we’re going to see from that,” he said.

He said local officials met with Highley and others from Tri-State Friday, and there are plans to meet again in coming weeks to start discussing what Tri-State can do to help local communities prepare for the economic transition in the coming decade.

“I think it’s important that we start those conversations now,” Beck said.

He said solar projects might be a part of what can help offset the coming job losses. He’s interested in a project that perhaps the county can own, with Tri-State partnering in its construction, so that the county might get more revenue from it.

The county also has gotten $7,000 and $10,000 state Department of Local Affairs grants from oil and gas severance tax funds to do feasibility studies on two solar projects, one also involving the city of Craig and the other, Steamboat Springs, Beck said.

He said such efforts don’t change the county’s view on coal, which it thinks should remain part of an all-of-the-above energy plan.

Boughey said that according to juwi, the Axial project is on private lands and overlaps with habitat for greater sage-grouse. Federal and state agencies and others have been working to try to keep that bird from requiring protection as a federally listed species under the Endangered Species Act. Boughey said juwi indicated that based on current designs, most of the project would be on lands previously converted to agricultural lands, and, following detailed biological studies, juwi will work with state and federal wildlife agencies and other partners on ways to limit impacts to the bird.

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