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Xcel Energy's coal-fired Comanche Generating Station, located in Pueblo, is the largest power plant in the state of Colorado. The utility wanted to pass about $12 million in repairs to Unit 3, on the right, to customers.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado regulators have signed off on clean energy plans from three utilities despite objections from environmental groups claiming the plans include vague promises of green electricity and didn’t account for  nearly 200,000 tons of dirty coal emissions.

State clean energy officials say they’re satisfied the plans from Colorado Springs Utilities, Holy Cross Energy and Platte River Power Authority are specific enough and are now enforceable should the utilities miss their marks. The plans detail how each utility will generate electricity in coming years, including what percentages will come from coal, natural gas, hydro power, solar and wind, and how many tons of carbon emissions each source will create.

“All future resource planning performed by the utility will need to achieve at least the level of reductions of the filed plans and there are backstops built into the statute if a utility fails to achieve the emissions reductions that have been committed to,” Colorado Energy Office Executive Director Will Toor said.

The environmental groups that objected say the plans don’t detail how they will meet state mandates that 80% of utility carbon dioxide emissions from power generation be erased by 2030, from a 2005 benchmark. They say they fear that if the utilities’ goals slip, there won’t be time for emissions cuts to catch up to state targets or to the rising demands posed by accelerating climate change. 

“They haven’t seriously engaged with the core question under the statute, which is that utilities have an actual plan that demonstrates emissions reductions,” said Matt Gerhart, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club’s Denver office. Western Resource Advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council also joined in the objections. 

The clean energy plans by the smaller utilities were called “voluntary,” but now that they have been verified by the Air Pollution Control Division, Colorado can hold the utilities to their commitments, state officials said. Larger utilities, including Xcel Energy, are expected to finalize their clean energy plans with the state later this year. 

The two primary objections from environmental groups focused on Colorado Springs’ municipal utility, which filed plans that included 27% of its electricity in 2030 would be generated by clean sources “to be determined.” Colorado Springs retired the coal-fired Drake generating station downtown last year, but still operates the Ray D. Nixon coal plant south of Fountain and other generating plants fueled by natural gas. 

The Air Pollution Control Division’s lead technical analyst on climate change, Josh Korth, said in response to the environmentalists’ objections that the state did go back to the utility and point out shortcomings in the plan. The original filing didn’t appear to meet the clean energy percentage by 2030. Colorado Springs Utilities moved up its commitment to add new clean energy generation before 2030, though it was not specific about wind or solar or where those projects would go. 

“Our view is the statute requires a plan, which is different than promises,” Gerhart said. “That’s the crux of the decision. I think the state’s view is, they’re going to achieve this reduction and we trust them. And we would have preferred there’d be more specificity.” 

The state’s Toor disagreed.

The verification process “did exactly what we would want it to do, which is it caused Colorado Springs Utilities to go back and modify their plans in order to ensure that they would achieve that 80% reduction,” Toor said. It is not the state’s job to tell a utility’s governing board exactly how to generate power or where, state officials said. 

For Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs, environmental groups objected that the utility appeared to them to be ducking responsibility for nearly 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide by selling electricity to a third-party power broker. Holy Cross owns a share of electricity from Xcel’s Comanche 3 plant in Pueblo. Since the broker is not required to file a clean energy plan, environmental advocates said no one appeared responsible for cutting those emissions by 2030.  

Holy Cross said it resented implications that it wasn’t all-in for clean energy, and in fact had plans to be generating with 100% clean sources by 2030. The state’s response is that whoever buys the electricity from that power broker is required to put those tons of associated emissions on their books for state regulators to see. 

Environmental groups continued to object that if the Comanche electricity is sold to an out of state utility, Colorado would have no control over those emissions, since states’ carbon reduction laws vary greatly. Toor said that is balanced in part by electricity generated in other states coming into Colorado, where the retail utility using the electricity has to put those emissions on its books. 

Besides, state regulators say, even if Holy Cross keeps the Comanche emissions on its own books in 2030, they will be generating just under 80% of power with clean sources, and state law allows them to round up to 80%. 

One last point, Toor argued: A settlement awaiting final approval from the Public Utilities Commission would close Comanche for good in December 2030, and state agencies and environmental groups back the agreement. 

“The discussion about the fate of the Holy Cross’ share of Comanche 3 in 2030 should recognize that (it) will be retired by the end of that year, and associated emissions will go to zero,” Toor said. 

The Associated Press