By - Jim Vess

Tri-State clean energy plan includes 1 GW of utility-scale solar, more local co-op projects

Energize Weekly, January 22, 2020

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the wholesale power provider for 43 Western electric cooperatives, said it will add 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar generation and open the way for its co-ops to add more of their own renewables.

Under Tri-State’s “Responsible Energy Plan,” the association aims to reach 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2024, reduce its Colorado carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2030 and be carbon-neutral on its entire system by 2050.

The association has been the target of criticism from some member co-ops because it gets about half its power from coal-fired plants, for limiting members to just 5 percent local generation, and for wholesale prices above those in the open market.

Two co-ops – the Kit Carson Electric Association, in Taos, N.M. and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, in Delta, Colo. ­­– have bought out their Tri-State contracts and two other Colorado cooperatives – United Power and the La Plata Electric Association – are exploring leaving.

Tri-State executives are pitching its energy plan and a change in its long-term contracts as measures addressing the issues raised by its members. The association serves co-ops in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

“Membership in Tri-State will provide the best option for cooperatives seeking a clean, flexible and competitively-priced power supply, while still receiving the benefits of being a part of a financially strong, not-for-profit, full-service cooperative,” Duane Highley, Tri-State’s CEO, said in a statement.

On Jan. 9, Tri-State announced that it would close the last two coal-fired plants it operates – the Craig Station in Craig, Colo. and the Escalante Station in Prewitt, N.M. – as well as the Colowyo coal mine that serves the Craig units.

In all, more than 600 jobs and 1.5 GW of capacity will be lost with the closures. Escalante will close by the end of this year. The Craig units will be shuttered by 2030.

Tri-State said it will build six solar facilities in Colorado and New Mexico which will be online by 2024. These include:

  • Escalante Solar, a 200-megawatt (MW) project located near the closed coal-fired plant in Continental Divide Electric Cooperative’s service territory in New Mexico.
  • Axial Basin Solar, a 145-MW project in the White River Electric Association’s service territory in northwest Colorado. The project is located on land near the Colowyo Mine, which will close by 2030.
  • Niyol Wind, a 200-MW project located in eastern Colorado in Highline Electric Association’s service territory.
  • Spanish Peaks Solar, a 100-MW project, and Spanish Peaks II Solar, a 40-MW project, located in southern Colorado in San Isabel Electric Association’s service territory.
  • Coyote Gulch Solar, a 120-MW project located in southwest Colorado in La Plata Electric Association’s service territory.
  • Dolores Canyon Solar, a 110-MW project located in southwest Colorado in Empire Electric Association’s service territory.

Tri-State it will also build a 104-MW wind farm in eastern Colorado in K.C. Electric Association’s service territory.

Since 2009, Tri-State has contracted for 15 utility-scale wind and solar projects, in addition to small hydropower projects. By 2024, Tri-State said it will have more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable capacity on its 3,000-megawatt peak system.

One of the fractious issues between the association and its members has been the 40-year contracts that require cooperative to buy 95 percent of their power from Tri-State, effectively limiting the amount of local power development to 5 percent.

Several co-ops have said they want to develop more local and renewable resources. In November 2019, Tri-State expanded opportunities for member community solar projects up to 63 megawatts system wide.

A members committee is now drafting a new, more flexible contract with partial requirements, the association said.

“Our membership has moved quickly over the past six months to advance recommendations for flexible partial requirements contracts, which will be considered by our board by April 2020 and which Tri-State will implement upon the board’s approval,” Rick Gordon, chairman of Tri-State and director at Mountain View Electric Association in eastern Colorado, said in a statement.

The other source of complaint has been Tri-State’s blended wholesale rate, currently about 7.5 cents a kilowatt-hour is about 29 percent higher that of Xcel Energy, Colorado’s biggest electricity supplier, according to the Center for the New Energy Economy.

In announcing the closing of the coal-fired units, Highley said that the cost of wind and solar were now below the operating costs for coal and in some cases, even natural gas plants, providing a “green dividend.”

“The low costs of renewable energy and operating cost reductions help to counterbalance the cost to retire coal generation early, keeping our wholesale rates stable with even cleaner electricity,” Highley said.

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