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Nearly 200,000 tons of orphaned greenhouse gas emissions seemed to go off the books of a coal plant when a utility sold its partial share of the power. 

Another utility made a vague promise to replace 80% of its transmission through clean resources, without revealing how that magic total will be reached. 

Maybe these Colorado utilities are trying hard to write their clean energy cookbooks, environmental advocates say. But, they add, the utilities are not writing down their full recipes, either. And they add that state regulators shouldn’t let the utilities get away with leaving so much out of the clean energy plans that are a key to Colorado’s climate change menu. 

“Unfortunately, the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division is basically rubber stamping these utility Clean Energy Plans without conducting a meaningful review of the pollution, which is required by law,” said Anna McDevitt, senior campaign representative at Sierra Club. 

The plans drafted so far by Holy Cross Energy, Colorado Springs Utilities and Platte River Power Authority are voluntary, but now must be verified by state health officials in consultation with the Public Utilities Commission. They will be followed by clean energy plans from the largest utilities, including Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, for example, should not “abandon responsibility” for more than 188,000 annual tons of carbon emissions from its small ownership share in the Comanche 3 coal unit in Pueblo, McDevitt said. “We have to get these Clean Energy Plans right in order to meet the state’s climate goals.”

Nobody’s “moving the cheese”

Holy Cross officials are adamant they are committed to generating power with 100% renewable energy by 2030 — beyond the state’s goal of 80% for that year — and in fact broadcast that pledge on their main web page. Holy Cross goes beyond that pledge to say it intends to be “net zero” for all its operations, not just its power generation sources, by 2035.

“I think our environmental intent is fairly clear. And I sort of bristle a little bit at the notion that we are trying to move the cheese here,” Holy Cross CEO Brian Hannegan said. Holy Cross sold its share of Comanche 3 generation to Guzman Energy, a wholesale power provider, to get coal out of its power portfolio and free up resources to “bring more clean energy to Colorado,” Hannegan said. The emissions went with the sale, he added.

Xcel, the majority owner, currently plans to operate Comanche 3 through 2030, and Holy Cross’s ownership share constitutes more than 188,000 tons of carbon dioxide output a year, the environmental groups argue. Coal-fired utilities in Colorado are by far the largest single points of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Guzman Energy is not required to file a clean energy plan with the state because it doesn’t serve 50,000 retail customers, said Stacy Tellinghuisen, climate policy manager at the nonprofit environmental group Western Resource Advocates. The Natural Resources Defense Council has also joined the objections. 

Holy Cross selling the Comanche 3 power to another party doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the advocates argue, it just gets the carbon off the Holy Cross ledger. And the state doesn’t appear to be requiring anyone else to take responsibility for the pollution, they add. 

“Under the submitted plans, the (Air Pollution Control Division) appears to ignore that these emissions exist at all,” according to the environmental groups’ objections to the PUC. 

“A robust review of these clean energy plans is critical — once the utilities’ plans are approved, the state essentially guarantees that it won’t regulate their climate pollution for the next eight years,” Tellinghuisen said. “This is why it’s so important that the verification is real, and that we’re confident the utilities are going to meet their emission reduction targets.” 

Guzman Energy did not respond to questions by late Tuesday. Holy Cross responded by listing the clean energy projects it plans to add to its generating portfolio in coming years as proof of its commitment to clearing the air. Whether power brokers that buy generating capacity in Colorado should file their own clean energy plans is not an issue for Holy Cross to decide, Hannegan said. 

“We are simply following the law that the legislature laid down that says, hey, we want you to report on where you’re getting all your power,” Hannegan said. “We are faithfully reporting that we’re selling some of the power that we get to another party. And how the Air Quality Control Commission chooses to account for that, that’s their methodology to decide.”

Holy Cross, which serves about 45,000 people, has three large solar generation projects scheduled for the next year, including one at Colorado Mountain College in Spring Valley, another near Parachute, and a third near Rifle, Hannegan said. They will add 45 megawatts of power and 60 megawatt hours of battery storage to the system. In Colorado, a megawatt of solar can power just under 200 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association. Holy Cross said it also has a hydroelectric expansion booked. 

Hitting a magic mark in Colorado Springs

The environmental groups objecting to the recent clean energy plans also question why the municipal Colorado Springs Utilities promises it will get to the 80% clean energy mark by 2030, without specifying what clean sources will replace coal-fired power. Colorado Springs still uses the Ray D. Nixon Power Plant, which burns coal, as well as natural gas generation to supply electricity. 

The advocates’ objections say the state is proposing to verify a clean energy plan for Colorado Springs listed literally as “TBD.” 

“This unspecified, zero-emissions resource appears to come online in 2030 and meet over 27% of CSU’s projected load in 2030,” the objection states. 

 “Furthermore, the evaluation process has really been rushed,” said WRA’s Tellinghuisen, with comments and objections being required soon after the plans became public.

For some of the Colorado Springs plan, utility spokesman Steve Barry said, “we don’t have specifics yet, we just know we’re going to get there.” Colorado Springs Utilities has already committed to the 80% reduction by 2030 as part of its required integrated energy plan, he said. The Drake plant stopped burning coal in 2021, and the Nixon plant will stop burning coal by 2030.

The utility’s big Pike solar project has been delayed by the debate over solar panel import tariffs, and other supply chain issues. The Pike project will expand CSU’s share of renewable energy by 30%, he said, and it will include battery storage backup for the power generated, to smooth out demand cycles. 

The utility is in constant communication with local officials about changing over to clean energy, Barry said. “We are confident we will exceed what’s in the clean energy plan,” he said. 

A spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission said it’s the Air Pollution Control Division that has approval power over the clean energy plans, but the PUC consults with the air regulators on verifying proposed emission reductions. The PUC has taken comments over the plans, but “has not yet determined next steps, if any,” commission spokeswoman Gail Conners said. 

“We are continuing to work with the utilities to ensure that the submissions describe how they will achieve the statutory requirements,” said Leah Schleifer, spokeswoman for the air pollution division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The state said it expects that the clean energy plans pending from all utilities in the state “will achieve a greater than 80% combined reduction in our state’s electric utility emissions by 2030.”

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