Xcel Energy says it will start building 300 miles of transmission in eastern Colorado in 2023 to deliver new wind and solar. The difference with Wyoming?
by Allen Best
Xcel Energy has been moving fast to develop new renewable energy located on the uncommonly windy but also sunny eastern plains of Colorado. In 2023, it expects to begin construction of 300 miles of transmission line to access the renewables.
In Wyoming, though, Phil Anschutz has struggled to develop a wind farm along Interstate 80 in the Rawlins area for export to Arizona and California.
The difference? We’ll get to that.
Xcel reported that it has received land-use permits from Cheyenne, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Morgan, and Washington counties. The utility says project staff will now begin seeking construction-specific permits such as for roads. Construction on the two segments—one between Brush and Cheyenne Wells, and the second between Cheyenne Wells and Lamar—can begin once these and associated permits are secured. Also needed are land rights.
Completion is expected in 2025.
Three additional segments totaling 310 miles of transmission will connect the May Valley substation north of Lamar to Pueblo and then to metropolitan Denver-Boulder. Construction on those segments is scheduled to start in 2024 and be completed by 2027.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved the $1.7 billion transmission project in June. Still unclear is whether Xcel will build a 90-mile extension from the May Valley substation to the Springfield area in Baca County, in Colorado’s far southeastern corner. Baca County has perhaps the best winds in eastern Colorado. Xcel estimates that extension will cost $247 million, but it must prove to the PUC that it will be necessary. If it is, that would push the total cost of Xcel’s plan, called Colorado’s Power Pathway, to more than $1.9 billion.
As it adds transmission and renewables, Xcel will be closing coal plants. The first to go down in this sequence will be Comanche 1, a unit at Pueblo that was commissioned in 1973. Xcel says it will cease operations of the unit by the time champagne is hoisted on New Year’s Eve.
Comanche 2 will retire by 2025 and Comanche 3 no later than 2031. All are operated by Xcel, although two electrical cooperatives, CORE and Holy Cross, together own a third of the latter unit.
Also closing between 2025 and 2030 will be five units in the Yampa Valley, including the two that Xcel operates at Hayden.
Xcel had originally proposed the transmission lines to the PUC in March 2021. Some parties had objected to Xcel’s full plans to spend nearly $9 billion on development of new generation, mostly in eastern Colorado, arguing that Xcel needed to instead support renewable generation closer to population centers.
But why was Xcel able to move so quickly on this while in Wyoming, the wind farm remains unbuilt?
One part of the answer involves NEPA, the acronym for the National Environmental Regulatory Act, which was passed by Congress in 1969. All projects located on public land trigger the process that requires disclosure of impacts.
Colorado’s Eastern Plains are almost entirely privately owned, and the two national grasslands are well outside of renewable development plans. The wind farm in Wyoming, as well as the route of transmission line that would export the power, is partly on federal land.
In their book, “The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save our Planet,” Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis argue that the law needs to be amended. In the Wyoming case, the wind farm development has been in review for 15 years. They argue that the law does not need to be scrapped. Instead, it must be revised to do what was intended originally by lawmakers. See the Q and A with Harvey and Gillis for details.
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