By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is going to end up with coal in its stocking this year, that’s for sure.
The question is whether it comes from environmentalists, ratepayers, or the industry itself that produces the coal.
The PUC yesterday began discussing whether to adopt a $1.3 billion proposal by Xcel Energy to retire, retrofit or repower six coal-burning power plants along the Front Range.
The alternative proposal is being attacked by coal industry insiders and advocates for the low-income community, who say the aimed switch to natural gas will come with a hefty price tag to ratepayers and cost coal miners their jobs.
The so-called Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, House Bill 1365, requires Xcel to retire, retrofit or repower northern Front Range coal-fired power plants by the end of 2017, replacing them with facilities fueled by natural gas and other low- or non-emitting energy sources.
Following concerns that Xcel’s original August plan did not meet the 2017 deadline, the utility in October released an alternative plan that differs from its August preferred plan in that instead of retiring all of the units at the Cherokee Generating Station near Boulder, the new recommended plan would retrofit the fourth unit at the plant with state-of-the-art emission control equipment, and it would continue to operate on coal.
The plan would achieve targeted reductions of nitrogen oxides of 85 percent by 2017 — also through a combination of retirements, replacements and retrofits, said the utility in a news release. The company would continue to see additional reductions in sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury, it said.
The cost of the new recommended plan would have an average annual rate increase of 1.7 percent over the next 10 years, said Xcel.
“Our proposal today, while not our original choice, still helps Colorado make dramatic improvements in its air quality, and moves the state significantly closer to meeting the pending requirements of federal regional haze and ozone regulations,” David Eves, president and chief executive of Public Service Company of Colorado, said in an October news release.
Xcel expects that its recommended plan will result in savings of approximately $243 million when compared to the traditional approach of retrofitting all of the plants with emissions controls.
Critics of the plan, including the Colorado Mining Association, not only oppose the plan itself, but filed a motion with the PUC to disqualify two of its members — Chairmen Ron Binz and Matt Baker — over concerns that the two chairmen engaged in negotiations over HB 1365. The PUC denied the motion.
Several Republican lawmakers also asked the PUC to disqualify Binz specifically after e-mails surfaced indicating that he had been involved in negotiations over HB 1365.
Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said he does not believe Xcel’s alternative plan is any better for consumers than their earlier plan.
“The recent actions only underscore the circus-like nature of these proceedings; first the flawed and rushed process that was involved in the enactment of House Bill 1365 and now the introduction by Xcel, at the last minute, of a new preferred plan and new scenarios,” said Sanderson. “The future of Colorado’s economy — its miners and ratepayers — meanwhile hangs in the balance.”
The PUC is expected to reach a decision on which plan to adopt by Dec. 15.
Meanwhile, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has given Colorado and 36 other states a Jan. 15 deadline to develop plans for reducing “regional haze” by cutting pollution levels at power plants and large, industrial-sized boilers.
Environmentalists and their children gathered Sunday at the Denver Pavilions Mall, asking Santa to ensure that the coal-fired power plants along the Front Range are replaced. Santa delivered to the Mining Association a lump of coal.
“The key question is whether these aging coal plants will be fully replaced by cleaner resources or if at least one major unit will be put on life support and kept operating,” Dana Hoffman of Environment Colorado said referring to the Cherokee plant. “And hanging in the balance is the air quality and quality of life for 3 million Coloradans for decades to come.”
One child who attended the event on Sunday, 10-year-old Noah, said he doesn’t want the North Pole to melt away.
“When I was six, I got really worried that if we let the globe get hot and didn’t stop it, the North Pole was going to melt and then where would Santa live?” asked Noah in a statement e-mailed by Environment Colorado. “Now I know that it’s not just the North Pole that’s in danger — it’s everywhere. It’s up to us to fix it.”