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Pollution rises from a power plant.
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 clean air advocates had a swift reaction to the Environmental Protection Agency’s sweeping new rules to eliminate greenhouse gas and toxic pollution from electric power plants nationwide: 

Great idea, we’re already there. 

By the timeline the EPA set for burying carbon dioxide from coal and natural gas energy plants underground, or shutting fossil fuel generators altogether, Colorado will already have closed all its major coal plants. Colorado is ahead of its own targets of eliminating 80% of the greenhouse gases from power generation by 2030. 

The main remaining question is whether green groups can force Colorado’s most notorious coal plant, Xcel Energy’s Comanche 3, to close even sooner than the current schedule of 2031. 

Comanche’s 750-megawatt third unit in Pueblo is the one coal-fired unit that will be left operating in Colorado when the EPA’s new rule kicks in, requiring 90% capture of carbon emissions. The proposed national rules, however, allow a plant to avoid most of the regulations if it closes by 2032. Comanche 3 is set to close by 2031.

 “While roughly one-third of states still rely on coal as their primary energy source, Colorado has taken the initiative to address emissions from the power sector, and is working with utilities to shutter remaining coal plants and transition to clean, cost effective renewable energy,” Stacy Tellinghuisen, deputy director of policy development at Western Resource Advocates said in a statement.

“We expect this rule will have very limited impacts on the existing power plants in the state,” Tellinghuisen said.

National environmental groups, however, hailed the EPA proposal as the best way to force quicker change among midwestern, southern and southwestern states that are clinging to coal and natural gas plants as a large part of their base power generation.

For example, while coal provides a little less than 20% of the electricity nationwide, Ohio depends upon the fuel for 37% of its electricity. Dominion Energy, which serves Virginia and North Carolina, just filed a new resource plan including coal plant operations through 2038.

Increasingly competitive prices for wind and solar generation will continue to trim the use of coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA projects coal’s share of electricity generation dropping to 8% by 2050, while renewables rise to 44%, more than double their present share.

The EPA rules will help speed that transition, environmental groups say. 

“It is good to have the feds moving in tandem with the state,” WildEarth Guardian climate policy director Jeremy Nichols said. “Colorado can’t solve the climate crisis on its own.”

Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electricity provider, declined to comment on how the proposed rule would affect Comanche 3, but said it was studying the overall policy for its operations in Colorado, Minnesota and other states. 

“As the first major U.S. energy company to commit to providing our customers with 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, we are steadfast in our commitment to achieving a net-zero energy future while ensuring affordability and reliability,” Xcel said in a statement to The Colorado Sun. “We will continue to work with EPA and other state and federal policymakers to ensure that this rule and all climate and energy policies meet this goal.”

Comanche 3, which is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in Colorado and which has been plagued by a series of operational failures, will remain a target. 

“Comanche 3 just underscores there is a need for this federal floor,” Nichols said. “All the problems are coming home to roost. There will be no choice except for Xcel to face reality.”

Colorado accelerated the closures of fossil fuel plants in a series of legislative bills and negotiations at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Xcel and other utilities are building large solar and wind farms throughout the state, and allowing medium-size community solar gardens and tens of thousands of individual homeowners to connect solar panels to the grid. 

Some utilities, including Xcel and municipal utilities like Colorado Springs, will retain large natural gas-fired power plants as the coal plants close. 

How the EPA rules will affect operations at those plants depends on whether they are considered part of the base load for statewide power, or are seen as fill-in or “peaker” power on hot afternoons with high electricity demand, or cloudy and still days when solar and wind are not effective.

“The rule could impact power plants located in other states that serve Colorado customers,” WRA’s Tellinghuisen said. “For example, while Tri-State Generation and Transmission has committed to reducing its emissions in Colorado by 80% by 2030, Tri-State retains coal-fired power plants in neighboring states, which serve Colorado customers.”

Tri-State, Colorado’s second largest electricity provider, has a coal-fired plant in Arizona and one in Wyoming that would fall under the new EPA rule, Tellinghuisen said.

The bottom line for Colorado: From 2022 to 2031 a total of 4,300 megawatts of coal-fired capacity at nine coal-fired units have closed or are slated to close. (Some plants have multiple units, treated individually for closures.) That followed the shutting of 1,100 MW at 10 units between 2010 and 2019.

Here are the Colorado coal-fired plants recently closed or scheduled to close by 2031: 

  • Comanche 1: Closed 2022, Pueblo, 325 MW, owned by Xcel
  • Martin Drake: Closed 2022, Colorado Springs, 207 MW, owned by Colorado Springs Utilities
  • Pawnee Station: To close 2025, Fort Morgan, 505 MW, owned by Xcel. (Closure of the coal-fired portion, with some of the plant retrofitted to burn natural gas.)
  • Craig Unit 1: To close 2025, Craig, 42 MW, operated by Tri-State and co-owned by PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority, Salt River Project, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Xcel
  • Comanche 2: To close 2025, Pueblo, 335 MW, owned by Xcel
  • Hayden Unit 2: To close 2027, Hayden, 135 MW, owned by Xcel, Salt River Electric Cooperative, and PacifiCorp
  • Hayden Unit 1: To close 2028, Hayden, 98 MW, owned by Xcel, Salt River Electric Cooperative, and PacifiCorp
  • Craig Unit 2: To close 2028, Craig, 410 MW,  co-owned by PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority, Salt River Project, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Xcel
  • Craig Unit 3: To close 2030, Craig, 448 MW, owned by Tri-State 
  • Rawhide: To close 2030, Wellington, 293 MW, owned by Platte River Power Authority
  • Comanche 3: To close 2031, Pueblo, 750 MW, owned by Xcel

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Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver