Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association said Wednesday it will be shuttering its Nucla Station coal-fired power plant early next year, nearly three years earlier than it committed to doing under an agreement to reduce regional haze.

The nonprofit wholesale power provider said in a news release that it is making the move as part of a multi-pronged plan to transform to a new clean-energy portfolio.

Tri-State said that to help the Nucla and Naturita area through the transition of the plant shutdown, it will provide $500,000 in community support over five years.

The 100-megawatt plant employs 35 people. As part of the regional haze agreement, Tri-State already has closed a nearby coal mine that supplied the plant. It has been operating the power plant only on a backup, intermittent basis, using it as warranted to supplement its other power supplies.

Tri-State said in a news release that it will retire the plant once it exhausts its remaining coal supply at the plant site. The plant previously had been scheduled for closure by the end of 2022.

Tri-State said once the plant is shut down, its staff will do pre-decommissioning work and then a contractor will demolish and dismantle the plant.

"For decades, Nucla Station has been part of the fabric of Nucla and Naturita, and we understand the retirement of the plant impacts our employees, their families and the community," Tri-State Chief Executive Officer Duane Highley said in the release. "We will work to support the community through this difficult transition."

The early closure wasn't totally unexpected, due to Tri-State's limited operation of the plant and reliance only on remaining on-site coal.

"This is no surprise. They've been talking about (an early shutdown) for quite some time," said Deana Sheriff, executive director of the West End Economic Development Corp., which serves communities in western Montrose County.

She said she had anticipated a closing by the end of 2020.

"We're ready, and I guess that's the best way I can put it," she said.

She said her group has been developing programs involving small business development, value-added agriculture, outdoor recreation and tourism development.

The mine closure resulted in the loss of 54 jobs, Sheriff said, and she believes the power plant has cut employment from 86 at one time. Her group has worked with employees who have decided to stay in the community rather than transfer to other Tri-State positions, helping them launch businesses, improve farms, "anything else they want to do to stay in this area," she said.

"We're not going to let (the plant closure) slow us down. We're trying to come up with alternatives to enable people to continue to live out here and enjoy the lifestyle they've come to love," Sheriff said.

Under the regional haze agreement, the Craig Station Unit 1 coal-fired generating facility in Moffat County is to be retired by the end of 2025. Asked about the possibility of an earlier closure of that facility, Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said in an email that the Nucla plant's early retirement "is unrelated to the planned retirement of Craig Station Unit 1."

But he did say, "Under our Responsible Energy Plan, we will be evaluating the competitiveness of existing resources in an evolving regulatory backdrop."

Under the same haze agreement, Tri-State and partners installed new emissions-reduction equipment on a second generation unit at the Craig Station, and Tri-State did the same for a third unit there. The Craig Station is served by the nearby Trapper and Colowyo mines.

Asked about how the $500,000 in assistance for the Nucla Station shutdown might be spent, Boughey said, "As a co-op, we believe it's best to have decisions made close to home, and we will rely on local leaders to best determine how resources can be utilized to have the greatest impact within the community."

He said a previous Tri-State grant was administered through the Montrose Economic Development Corp.

Sheriff said her group has asked that it become the administrator of the new funding.

"We could do very good things with that money," she said, adding that it could be used as matching funding for grant applications.

Sheriff said her group helped some of the affected coal miners transition to jobs such as working for the road and bridge department in Montrose County, or working for San Miguel County, "really some good positions that were already out in this area."

She said finding jobs that pay close to what Tri-State jobs paid is a challenge some people are trying to meet by running their own businesses.

Despite the mine closure and power station job losses to date, "surprisingly housing is going like gangbusters out here," Sheriff said.

She said prices have gone up in a certain price range, there have been more sales in the past two years than in the previous 10 combined, and housing construction starts and building permit numbers also are on the upswing.

"Part of it is all of Colorado is really hot for housing," she said.

She said a lot of people have come to start new businesses, many retirees live in the area and some people have returned after previously leaving.

"They come back because they didn't like the big city," she said.

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