Tri-State wind farm dubbed a good first step by renewable energy advocates

Sunset at a wind farm near Springfield in southeastern Colorado. (Creative Commons photo by Wavy1 via Flickr)
Sunset at a wind farm near Springfield in southeastern Colorado. (Creative Commons photo by Wavy1 via Flickr)

Green energy advocates called Monday’s announcement of a major new wind farm on Colorado’s Eastern Plains by Tri-State Generation and Transmission a great first step down the renewable road Xcel Energy first paved more than a decade ago.

Craig Cox of the Interwest Energy Alliance, a trade group representing utility scale wind and solar firms, compared the proposed 51-megawatt Kit Carson Windpower Project to Xcel’s first project, the 32-megawatt Ponnequin project in 1998.

“Like Tri-State’s new project, [Ponnequin] was not big, but it led to Xcel becoming the nation’s largest wind-energy utility within a decade,” Cox said. “Xcel took that first step and quickly grew to embrace wind, understanding its many benefits for consumers and local communities alike. I hope that Tri-State will quickly realize similar benefits as well.”

Westminster-based Tri-State, a member-owned utility comprised of 44 rural co-ops in four states — including 18 in Colorado — is the second-largest utility in the state behind investor-owned Xcel.

Xcel is subject to a 20-percent renewable energy standard by the year 2020, but Tri-State, because it’s member-owned, is only subject to a 10-percent standard by 2020. Tri-State has taken some heat from conservationists and others for being too reliant on coal-fired power plants for its base load.

In a statement issued Monday, Tri-State spelled out that its 20-year deal to purchase wind energy from the Kit Carson wind farm northwest of Burlington — which will be built and operated by Duke Energy — is being inked to meet the 10-percent renewable standard for co-ops mandated by the state Legislature in 2007.

“This wind power project is an important part of our near-term strategy to diversify our portfolio with renewable resource that complement our fleet of base-load generation,” said Ken Anderson, Tri-State’s executive vice president and general manager. “It also keeps us ahead of targets to meet renewable energy standards on behalf of our member co-ops.”

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is currently weighing whether it should take a more active oversight role with Tri-State, presumably to more closely scrutinize its base load and perhaps require a higher percentage of renewable sources. A PUC meeting on the topic is scheduled for July 16 in Denver.

“Tri-State made it clear that they were building this to meet state renewable requirements, but I hope that once the benefits of renewables become apparent to Tri-State’s members and management, they will begin building more renewables regardless of what percentages are specified in state law,” Cox said.

The new Kit Carson wind farm, scheduled to be online by the end of 2010, will be comprised of 34 1.5-megawatt General Electric turbines on a 6,000-acre site. Tri-State said no new transmission facilities will be required for the system; which will be connected to the utility’s existing 230-kilovolt line that runs between substations near Limon and Burlington.

“Being able to connect to our existing transmission system helps get the project online within 18 months,” Anderson said. “We’ll continue to invest in new transmission resources that will support further development of renewable energy projects.”

Cox and other renewable advocates have been dismayed by the slow pace of new transmission capacity being built by both Xcel and Tri-State to serve far-flung areas on the Eastern Plains and in southern Colorado that are ideal for wind and solar power development.

“Once Colorado has a electric transmission grid capable of moving significant amounts of new wind and solar power from the Eastern Plains and southern parts of the state, then we will be in a position to increase our renewable generation rapidly, and to export some of this power to other markets,” Cox said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall took some shots from the GOP on Monday for a release the lawmaker’s office issued praising the new wind project, calling it “the first-ever wind farm on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.”

A Udall spokeswoman clarified the release should have read “central-eastern plains” since there are other wind farms on the state’s Eastern Plains, according to the Denver Post, but she also fired back that Udall has done more to promote renewable energy in Colorado than any other lawmaker.