The Craig Station coal-burning power plant in Moffat County is pictured Feb. 27, 2020. Tri-State Generation plans to close the plant by 2030. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They said it couldn’t be done: Create a clean energy transition at breakneck speed, while simultaneously reducing costs to consumers. Yet, after a year of hard work, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s member cooperatives and public power districts have made that commitment, cleaner and more affordable than before.

In January 2020, Tri-State announced our vision for a clean energy transition with our Responsible Energy Plan. In the plan, we outlined ambitious but actionable commitments and challenging but attainable goals through which we could achieve a transition to cleaner power while being responsible to our employees, members, communities, and environment. 

Since then, we have made significant progress as we serve our mission to deliver reliable, affordable and responsible power across the West.  

Duane Highley

Our plan included the addition of more than 1,000 megawatts of emissions-free wind and solar resources in Colorado and New Mexico by 2024. Construction on the first of eight projects began in 2020. These additions double our clean energy generation so that by 2024, 50% of the electricity used by our members in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico will come from renewables.

We also announced the retirement dates for our remaining New Mexico coal-fired power plant by the end of 2020, and our remaining Colorado coal plants by 2030. The Escalante Station in New Mexico was retired last November, and we have committed to firm closure dates for the three generating units at the Craig Station in northwest Colorado. 

The coal plant closures will eliminate 100% of our greenhouse gas emissions from coal in Colorado by 2030.

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With these closures, we recognize the need to support our affected employees and communities that have, for decades, supported our operations through a “just transition.” We have worked closely with impacted employees to provide assistance and delivered funding to community and economic development organizations with the retirement of Nucla Station in Colorado and Escalante Station in New Mexico.

With the growing importance of beneficial electrification, we launched new tools, incentives and partnerships so that rural consumers can better utilize cleaner electricity and new technologies, like electric vehicles, to make further reductions in emissions while saving money.

Our cooperative’s board of directors, representing each utility member, committed to greater member contract flexibility that will expand local renewable energy development, by creating a partial requirements membership option. Our members collaboratively developed this approach, and it will be implemented in 2021.

As we make our rapid transition, ensuring certainty around the regulation of our wholesale rate is essential. In March 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued orders accepting Tri-State’s tariff filings, making Tri-State fully rate regulated for the first time. This ensures consistent wholesale rate regulation that benefits our members across the four states where we serve and ensures each member can have a voice in rate regulation matters.

A significant part of our transition is reducing wholesale rates to our members.  That’s why Tri-State announced in early October 2020 a goal to lower our wholesale rates for our utility members by 8% by the end of 2023, even as we continue to dramatically increase our renewable resources and reduce emissions.

In November 2020, Tri-State announced that we would submit in our Colorado Electric Resource Plan a preferred plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with Tri-State’s wholesale electricity sales in Colorado by 80% by 2030.  

On the same date, Tri-State and other regional power providers sent letters committed to evaluating the expansion of the Southwest Power Pool’s regional transmission organization (RTO) into the West. We recognize that participation in an RTO is essential for utilities in the region to continue to reliably and affordably transition to even more renewable resources.

Tri-State then submitted our Electric Resource Plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Dec. 1, 2020. Our preferred plan identifies 1,850 megawatts of additional renewable generation as well as energy storage. The CPUC will consider and act on the filing, and that process will continue this year.

Led by our members, our cooperative is making strides toward a cleaner, more affordable, more flexible, and always reliable energy future. With new market tools, ever improving technology, and by working together with our members, regulators, fellow utilities and other stakeholders, there is no end to what we can accomplish in the future.

Duane Highley is the CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Westminster-based nonprofit cooperative power supplier serving more than a million electricity consumers across nearly 200,000 square miles of the West. He joined Tri-State in 2019.

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Duane Highley is CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.