With Xcel Energy Colorado’s Comanche Generating System projected to fully retire around 2040, leaders in Pueblo are bracing for economic impact.
“We don’t know what that closure is going to be just yet,” Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz said. “We know that public service filed their plan to have a 2040 closure… There is a lot of pressure which has shortened it already, but there is even some additional pressure to condense that timeline even further.”
In late February, Xcel Energy Colorado announced intentions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 by an estimated 85% by 2030 through its Clean Energy Plan.
The Comanche plant was one of three coal-fired facilities mentioned in Xcel’s plan to transition to carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.
“Achieving our vision requires retiring coal power plants that we have relied upon for years and transitioning to cleaner sources of power,” according to an Xcel Energy Colorado news release. “With our Clean Energy Plan, we are proposing a timeline for retiring our remaining coal operations in Colorado.”
The Hayden Generating System, a coal-fired plant, is slated for full retirement by 2028. Brush’s Pawnee Generating System will be converted to natural gas generation by 2028 and retired by 2041, according to Xcel Energy Colorado.
With its first unit built in 1973, Comanche currently employs 134 workers. Unit 1 is scheduled to retire in 2022 and Unit 2 will follow in 2025. The third and most recently built unit, also known as Comanche 3, is proposed by Xcel Energy to close at the 2040 date, 30 years earlier than initially planned.
“Obviously, we are going to lose some jobs, good paying jobs, at some point,” said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar. “I don’t know now whether that is going to be 2030 or 2040 but after they close 1 and 2, my understanding is there will be 77 positions still needed to operate Comanche 3.”
Comanche not only generates $30 million in tax revenue for the City of Pueblo, but also plays a significant role in funding projects in Pueblo County as a whole.
Since 2016, a “debrucing” ballot measure has allowed expired tax expenses from Comanche and two other revenue streams to be redirected to funding over 20 community projects in the county.
Community projects relying on funding from 2016 debrucing revenue streams include the Runyon Sports Complex, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo Channel Extension, the Joe Martinez Boulevard Extension in Pueblo West, and a recreation center on the St. Charles Mesa southeast of Pueblo city limits among others, Ortiz said.
With the closure of Comanche, the Pueblo Board of Water Works will be losing its “largest customer by far,” according to Alan Ward, the board’s water resource division manager. Comanche purchases 12 to 13,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Pueblo Board of Water Works.
“The other part of this, we have this potential reduction in revenue after 2035, but it also frees up a considerable amount of our water supply to do other things with,” Ward said. “We may have some opportunities to lease that water to other uses.”
In response to potential economic effects, Pueblo County Commissioners have hired Frances Koncilija, former Commissioner of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, to advocate on behalf of Pueblo as Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy plan makes its way through the Public Utilities Commission.
“This issue has not been resolved; it’s working its way through the Public Utilities Commission right now,” Ortiz said. “2040 isn’t an early closure in itself that could be; there’s some desire to push that back even further. It could stay exactly where it is. There are a lot of conversations taking place, but we have a team together.”
The City of Pueblo is responding by assembling a “Just Transition Team” to address potential economic repercussions.
“We’re in the process, the early stages now, of forming a Just Transition Team in Pueblo that will, I think, have representatives of the city and the county, of the colleges, the IBEW, and some other groups as well to help us put together a plan that can be presented to the Public Service Company and or the State of Colorado,” Gradisar said.
In announcing its Clean Energy Plan, Xcel Energy Colorado highlighted its willingness to work with communities that would be affected by closures.
“We are committed to helping our employees and communities where these plants are located as we continue to move away from coal,” according to Xcel Energy Colorado. “Early coal plant closures impact our employees and affect local economies’ jobs and tax base, and as every community is unique, each transition requires special attention and consideration.”
“We really commend Xcel Energy in their leadership in the renewable energy space and we’ve worked historically very well with Xcel Energy’s Public Service in the past regarding Comanche 1 and 2,” Ortiz said.
Ultimately, a clean energy future is something Pueblo has embraced, Gradisar said, “long before” he became mayor. Vestas Wind Energy opened its Pueblo facility, the world’s largest wind tower factory in 2010. Seven years later, the Pueblo City Council committed to running fully on renewable energy by 2035.
“I think that is an important goal,” Gradisar said. “I think we should work towards that. I am a believer that climate change is real and that we have to move away carbon fuels if we want to preserve planet earth. I think it’s important, and as I say, I think Pueblo is perfectly situated to take advantage of that.”