Tri-State Will Close Its Last Coal Units in Colorado, New Mexico

Colorado-based power cooperative Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association on Jan. 9 announced it will retire its lone New Mexico coal-fired unit by the end of this year, and cease operations of its remaining Colorado coal units, and the company’s coal mine, by 2030.

Tri-State, which said the closures will impact about 600 workers, said state regulations, economics, and demand for cleaner energy from its members are behind the move.

“Serving our members’ clean energy and affordability needs, supporting state requirements and goals, and leading the fundamental changes in our industry require the retirement of our coal facilities in Colorado and New Mexico,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of the board of Tri-State, in a news release. “As we make this difficult decision, we do so with a deep appreciation for the contributions of our employees who have dedicated their talents and energy to help us deliver on our mission to our members.”

Tri-State, a not-for-profit power supply cooperative of 46 members, including 43 electric distribution cooperatives and public power districts in four states, will close the 253-MW Escalante Station near Prewitt, New Mexico, by year-end 2020. “The timeline to retire Escalante Station by the end of 2020 is driven by the economics of operating the power plant in a competitive power market, and by Tri-State’s addition of low-cost renewable resources,” said Duane Highley, CEO of Tri-State, in a statement.

The remaining operating units at the 1,285-MW Craig Generating Station in northwest Colorado will close by 2030, along with its associated Colowyo Mine, which has supplied low-sulfur subbituminous coal to the plant. Tri-State previously ended its coal ownership capacity in Unit 3 of San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico in 2017—a plant that could close as soon as 2022—and retired its coal-fired, 100-MW Nucla Station in western Colorado in September 2019.

Some Tri-State members have been concerned about the cooperative’s dependence on coal-fired generation. Two members, United Power and La Plata Electric Association, earlier this month said they were “weighing all options” to change their existing power procurement contract with Tri-State.

POWER Top Plant in 2018

A project to install selective catalytic reduction technology on the 410-MW Unit 2 at Craig won a POWER Top Plant award in 2018. The plant’s owners, including Tri-State and four regional utilities, in 2016 agreed to a plan in which 427-MW Unit 1, which began operation in 1980, would be retired by year-end 2025, and that date remains unchanged. The remaining Unit 2 (which came online in 1979) and 448-MW Unit 3 (which began operation in 1984) would continue to operate with installed emissions controls. Today’s announcement means those units will be retired by the end of the decade.

Tri-State, which operates Craig Station, owns 24% of Units 1 and 2, and 100% of Unit 3. The cooperative is working with the other plant owners to determine the specifics for the retirement of Unit 2.

The Craig Generating Station has operated in northwest Colorado for 40 years. Unit 1 at the coal-fired plant is set to close in 2025, with Units 2 and 3 scheduled to be retired by 2030. Courtesy: Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association

“Closing these coal-fired power plants is an important step that will help Tri-State reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful air pollutants, while also lowering electricity costs for its members,” said Erin Overturf, deputy director of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program, in an email to POWER. “Continued operation of coal plants is increasingly more expensive than shifting to cleaner resources like wind and solar. At the same time, we recognize that these closures are economically challenging for many Tri-State employees and the communities where the facilities are located. We are committed to working with Tri-State and others in support of actions and policies that will help create new economic opportunities for the people and communities impacted by today’s announcement.”

Tri-State said it will work with state and local officials to support employees impacted by the closures. “Our focus is on making these changes with the care and respect our employees and their communities deserve–easing the transition whenever and wherever possible,” said Highley. Tri-State in its news release Thursday said it plans to announce more “actions” next week “as part of its Responsible Energy Plan,” that could “fundamentally transform the cooperative power supplier, while maintaining its strong financial position.” Tri-State announced development of its Responsible Energy Plan in July 2019. Next week’s announcement will provide details of the plan, which is expected to include “significant renewable energy additions,” according to the company.

Said Highley, who took over as Tri-State’s CEO in April 2019: “We are leading to be the cleanest, most flexible and most competitive cooperative power supplier for the benefit of our members, the communities they serve and the states we live in.”

Escalante Began Operation in 1984

The Escalante Station was built by Plains Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative and came online in 1984. Plains Electric merged with Tri-State in 2000. Tri-State said it will provide $5 million in community support to Cibola and McKinley counties in New Mexico, which could be impacted by the plant’s closure. “Tri-State will provide local communities with resources they can utilize where they see fit, and we are pursuing all available avenues for additional support,” said Highley.

Craig Station, located in Moffat County, Colorado, was built by Colorado Ute Electric Association and began commercial operation in 1979. Tri-State acquired Craig Station and other assets from Colorado Ute in 1992. The Craig Station plant employs 253 workers.

Tri-State purchased the Colowyo Mine, which employs 219 people, from Rio Tinto in 2011. “With ten years until the closure of Craig Station and Colowyo Mine, we have additional time to work with the legislature, our employees and the communities in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties to plan for and support the transition,” said Highley. “Our work starts now to ensure we can continue to safely produce power while working with stakeholders to thoughtfully plan for the future.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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