At Colorado utilities hearing, an overwhelming plea for renewable energy

Farmer and rancher Jan Kochis knows what it’s like to live by the whims of the market. Her farm in Elbert County grows dryland corn, millet and wheat — and, as she put it, “Commodity prices are kind of in the tank right now.” Even when prices are high, natural disasters like droughts and floods create significant uncertainty for agricultural producers.

Relief, for Kochis, has come in the form of 30 wind turbines that will soon operate on her shared family farm as part of the Rush Creek Wind Project. Construction is already underway, and she says she’s looking forward to the turbines becoming operational. “Some people say they don’t like to look at them, but I’ll be able to see one right outside my kitchen window. I love them.”

In exchange for allowing the turbines on her land, Kochis will receive some supplemental income, which can be quite a blessing for those who work in agriculture. “Wind and solar investment provides certainty in our unpredictable industry,” she said.

Kochis, chair of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, was just one of many Coloradans who testified Thursday evening to support the first step in a transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

In the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) building in downtown Denver, a large crowd of moms, students, farmers and other concerned residents weighed in on a proposal by Xcel Energy to retire two coal-fired power units and develop up to 2,400 megawatts of energy in the form of solar, wind and natural gas.

The proposal, known as the Colorado Energy Plan, was brought forth by Xcel and a coalition of more than a dozen other parties including the Colorado Energy Office, Western Resource Advocates and the staff of the PUC.

They are asking that the three PUC commissioners review the costs and benefits of shuttering two of the three coal-fired power units at the Comanche coal plant in Pueblo by 2025, and replacing them with a mix of solar, wind and natural gas infrastructure.

Xcel is a private company, but under Colorado law, it’s the PUC’s job to determine how it spends its money and how much customers should pay.

This is just the start of a long process: The PUC is not expected to announce whether it will even consider the proposal until late March, and the final decision will not come until July.

Thursday’s meeting marked the public comment period before the PUC hearing on the matter next week — and Coloradans didn’t miss the opportunity, packing the hearing room and crowding the halls to await their two-minute speaking slots before the commission.

“I’m fully supportive of more clean, renewable energy that helps clean our air and helps me protect the health of my child,” said Jen Clanahan, a member of Colorado Moms Know Best. Several members of the group spoke passionately about the impacts that asthma has had on their children’s physical and mental health.

“We’re here as moms, speaking in favor of more renewable energy so that we can have cleaner air, so that our kids can be healthier,” said Clanahan.

Xcel predicts that the Colorado Energy Plan could reduce its carbon pollution by as much as 60 percent by 2025 (compared to 2005 levels), lead to up to $2.5 billion in investments statewide, and lower customers’ bills by $175 million or more. And there’s a built-in stipulation that the plan will only move forward if it is determined that rates will decrease or remain neutral, not increase.

“As an Xcel customer, I am excited about the prospect of lower electric rates,” said Clanahan. “Since that’s the only way this plan would move forward, I’m confident it will serve my family well.”

Armed with both personal anecdotes and statistics about climate change, the vast majority of speakers supported a consideration of Xcel’s proposal, mostly as a step towards more renewable energy in general. But not all agreed.

In a statement submitted to the PUC, Judy Colgan, executive director of Friends of Coal West, complained that retiring the Comanche power plants would be a waste, since the plants are still “relatively young.” According to her statement, “to prematurely retire 660 MW of power from these plants does not make sense.”

Deb Morris, a business owner from LaSalle, worried about getting reliable electricity without the Comanche units, since she already experiences power outages with Xcel as it is.

“I get all the environmental stuff — I’m putting solar on my new house,” Morris said. “But as a business owner, I need reliable electricity.” She also implied that the company’s motives were merely financial, saying, “If anyone thinks that Xcel is doing this out of the goodness of their heart or for the ecology, that is not true.”

Environmental advocate Phil Doe of the group Be the Change supports a transition to renewables, but took issue with the idea that ratepayers could be expected to cover the costs of retiring the old plants. “Don’t ask us to pay for whatever stranded costs Xcel may incur… They need to pay for their own mistakes,” he wrote in a statement.

In response, Dave Eves, a representative for Xcel, told The Colorado Independent that recent investments in the two Comanche units were undertaken in order to reduce emissions. “We have a plan that will accelerate the depreciation of the Comanche I and II plants, and it will still result in a reduced cost to customers,” he said. “We think that’s a win-win.”

The exact costs and benefits of the Colorado Energy Plan will not be finalized for several months, but Xcel already has an idea of the prices based on the first round of bids from solar and wind suppliers. And experts believe that solar and wind prices will only go down in the future.

Gwen Farnsworth, a senior energy policy advisor at Western Resource Advocates, said that the initial bids that came through in the first round of solicitations were staggeringly low. “We were surprised, Xcel was surprised, analysts around the country were amazed and astounded at the how low the bid prices were.” Technology continues to improve, she said, “and so the results could even be better.”

Farnsworth sees Xcel’s proposal as a worthy endeavor. “With each electric bill that we pay to Xcel, we are paying for the system that they operate. And we know that most Coloradans want clean energy sources,” she said. “It’s kind of like the customer investing in themselves for this renewable energy that they want.”

A spokesman for the PUC said that the commission cannot yet comment on the matter. The hearing on whether to consider the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week, and the decision will be due on March 21.

Read Xcel’s overview of the Colorado Energy Plan here.

Photo by Kelsey Ray for The Colorado Independent. Dozens of people gathered Thursday, Feb. 1 to offer public comment on Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy Plan at a meeting of the Public Utilities Commission.