Colorado’s most reliable critic of Xcel Energy on coal supplies, the Pueblo coal units, and why the company’s motivations must always be kept in mind
by Allen Best
All who have paid attention to Colorado’s energy transition during the last 20 years will likely agree that Leslie Glustrom simply cannot be ignored. She makes too much noise. She’s a constant buzz of energy, always swirling around the energy transition, but especially Colorado’s largest electrical and gas utility, Xcel Energy.
For the record, she has sometimes said nice things about Xcel Energy or at least its people. More often she uses her voice to challenge the corporate motivations, to urge state regulators to require the monopoly utility to hew to alternative paths.
Much of this argumentation can be read and occasionally heard in proceedings of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. There she’s an anomaly in three ways. She’s a biochemist whereas most of those writing arguments are lawyers. She also speaks as an individual without the foundation of a large trade organization or advocacy group. Third, and perhaps most remarkably, she does all of this and more as a volunteer.
In these proceedings, Glustrom is prone to multiple exclamation marks and other attention-getting typographic devices. Hers is the voice and style of an activist. But what also emerges is her deep research. She has spent time grappling with her topics.
Here, and perhaps elsewhere, she gives space to mainline environmental groups, with her views causing others to be seen as more moderate. What separates them somewhat is her deep distrust of the business model of Xcel. Others don’t necessarily have the same level of distrust of Xcel because of its need to show profits to investors
In describing her relationship to Xcel, I am reminded of the story of Socrates, as told by his pupil Plato. In defense of his life, Socrates described himself as being an uncomfortable goad in the Athenian political scene, like a spur or biting fly, a gadfly arousing a sluggish horse.
Today publications like the New York Times sometimes still use that word to describe a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing potentially upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities.
She was a founder of a Boulder-based group called Clean Energy Action and has formed or participated in several other citizen groups engaged in climate change advocacy and the energy transition in Colorado and elsewhere.
Big Pivots interviewed Glustrom by email.
Big Pivots: Leslie, were you born an activist? Or did you have an early mid-life epiphany? What got you to where you are now in this sphere?
Leslie Glustrom: A combination. Since I was a young child, I’ve loved the beauty of nature. One of my first memories is while walking home from kindergarten, watching a butterfly die. In my memory it was a monarch. I was too young to understand the role of death in nature and evolution, but I was deeply moved by the beauty of the butterfly. Now I am enamored with the miracle of life at every level, from the ecosystem to the sub-molecular.
In college I focused on chemistry and biochemistry, but I had a strong interest in the interface between science and society. I gave up a full-ride graduate fellowship that likely would have yielded a Ph.D. in biochemistry to instead work with a remarkable state legislator in Wisconsin, Rep. Mary Lou Munts, who crafted some of the strongest environmental legislation in the country. She had a profound dedication to consensus, and her bills often passed on 99-0 votes.
Over the last five decades I have worked on issues as diverse as radioactive waste disposal, artificial sweeteners, a hazardous material right-to-know law and public lands management. All of this was before the current chapter of climate activism.
To answer your question, I think a person’s life path is always a combination of inspiration and dedication.
Pivots: Why did you take that fork in the road in Wisconsin? What was lacking in that imagined future of Dr. Glustrom, biochemist?
Glustrom: It didn’t make sense to me to spend my life studying the molecular secrets of life when the decisions that humans have been making threaten life as we know it. I wanted to help humans make better decisions at the interface of science and society.
A career in biochemistry would have delivered more prestige and income, but I would have always felt I wasn’t doing the most important work I could. So far, we haven’t starved.
Pivots: How has your training as a biochemist influenced your work in public policy?
Glustrom: Biochemistry reinforced my deep sense of the miracle of life and of our sacred duty to take care of this incomparable planet. Biochemistry also helped me understand the importance of minimizing the flow through of energy and materials in our economy if we are to minimize the creation of entropy which we register as “pollution.” Now this is referred to as creating a “circular economy,” which I’m strongly in favor of.
Pivots: What path did you follow from Wisconsin to Boulder?
Glustrom: After working in the State Legislature in Wisconsin, my husband and I moved to a town in northern Arizona called Prescott. There we raised our two children and taught at the local community college. I also did a lot of work on national forest management and issues like mining, off-road vehicles, and livestock grazing.
Things got very tense for us in the late 1990s, as was the case with many grazing activists in rural areas of the West. We took refuge in Boulder where I worked as a research biochemist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Pivots: Was there any single thing that caused you to engage in climate change. A speech you heard? A book you read? A hurricane?
Glustrom: In the early 2000s the bark beetle was ravaging forests first in Arizona and then in Colorado. This drove me to take a hard look at the science of climate change. I learned that climate scientists had long predicted that we’d lose significant percentages of our forests and that we’d quickly pass various “tipping points.”
I decided that I was no kind of mother if I didn’t do everything I could to address our country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels. In 2004 I resigned from my biochemistry research position at the University of Colorado-Boulder to work full time on climate change and clean energy.
Big Pivots: How did you become engaged?
Glustrom: I began by putting on a conference entitled “Climate Change and the West” in June 2003.
Pivots: And next?
Glustrom: In early 2004, Xcel proposed building a big new coal plant in Pueblo, what is now Pueblo Unit 3. Xcel calls it “Comanche 3.”
I was appalled. We need to do thousands of things to address the climate crisis, but the first thing to do is to stop building big new sources of carbon dioxide like coal plants. Unit 3 was supposed to burn coal to 2070. Many citizens understood how absurd that was even then.
We organized, testified, demonstrated and used every tool we could to try to stop the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant. We took the air permit and the rate increases for the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant to court three times. Each time we lost. Unfortunately, like a head-strong child determined to run into the street in front of a bus, Xcel was able to prevail. Now they have a billion-dollar coal plant that isn’t functioning well. Now everyone has recognized that this billion-dollar coal plant will be retired long before it is paid off leaving Colorado with a very expensive stranded asset.
Pivots: You make a point of excluding the name “Comanche” from the coal-burning units in Pueblo. Why?
Glustrom: I think it is highly unlikely that Native American tribes want coal plants named after them, so I think it is more appropriate to just refer to the coal plant by the community where it is located.
Pivots: You’ve been a steady presence at the PUC in the 12 or so years that I’ve been checking in on proceedings. Like a court of law, it’s arcane. And like courtrooms, most of the talking is done by lawyers. Tell me—briefly, please—what it’s been like for you to participate as a non-lawyer.
Glustrom: The PUC has, shall we say, not been a welcoming venue. I’ve been generally appalled by the level of critical thinking that occurred at the Colorado PUC over the last 15 years. Commissioners and staff have generally deferred to Xcel—even when hundreds of citizens could see that spending close to $2 billion for new and old coal plants was a severe mistake. It has been massively frustrating to see the PUC commissioners who were generally paid more than $100,000 a year just engage in a “group think” process with little willingness to make the right decisions for Xcel’s customers, our state and our planet.
Pivots: But as a non-lawyer. What is that like?
Glustrom: Well there are some things to learn procedurally, but I just watched what the other attorneys (especially Paula Connelly from Xcel) were doing and figured I’d just do it the way they did. Way too much effort is put into the PUC on legal procedure and not enough on deep thinking on key issues like the climate crisis, how to avoid stranded fossil fuel assets, and how to make the clean energy transition as cost-effective as possible.
Pivots: Is this a paying job. Or is this volunteer?
Glustrom: I am profoundly concerned about the fate of future generations and other species, so I wanted to do the work that I felt was critical, even if it wasn’t popular. I also didn’t want to worry about getting approval from funders who, when I began, tended to support false solutions like “clean coal.” My husband, a college teacher, took extra teaching assignments to make all of this possible, so I owe him a very large debt of gratitude!
Pivots: For it seems like a decade you’ve been saying that existing coal plants are in danger because coal will not be available for the plants. What led you to that conclusion?
Glustrom: After reading Jeff Goodell’s 2006 book, “Big Coal,” a footnote led me to the U.S. Geological Survey’s studies of coal supplies. It became apparent that most of the coal left in the United States is buried too deeply to be mined at a profit.
I wrote two detailed reports, the first in 2009 and the second in 2013, and spoke at venues all over the country on coal supplies. I predicted coal companies would go through serious financial troubles in the mid-teens—and they did. All of the major coal companies and dozens of minor ones began filing for bankruptcy in the 2010 to 2017 time-frame, as I’d predicted. We are likely to see further structural decline in the U.S. coal industry in the 2020s. Once you understand the financial situation facing the US coal industry, you wonder who will be mining coal in 2030 given the geologic, economic and climate factors at play.
Pivots: Doesn’t this just hasten the switch to renewables?
Glustrom: Yes, the geologic factors facing the US coal industry can help accelerate the transition beyond coal, but if you aren’t paying attention, then you’ll spend close to $2 billion in coal plants as we’ve done in Colorado just assuming that coal will show up for several more decades—not a good assumption.
Failing to understand the structural decline of the US coal industry risks leaving Colorado utility customers paying off poor investments in coal plants. Paying off these “stranded” coal plants is the issue currently before the PUC with respect to the big coal plants in Pueblo and Brush as well as the western Colorado communities of Hayden and Craig.
Pivots: Hayden and Craig plants are supplied by local mines. The research you delivered in your PUC filing in late January is all about Wyoming’s Powder River mines, which supply coal to the Pawnee and Comanche plants in eastern Colorado. Are the same concepts true for the Colorado coal mines?
Glustrom: Yes. There is lots of coal left in the ground everywhere, but it is generally buried too deeply to be mined at a profit. Colorado coal production has dropped from almost 40 million tons in 2005 to under 15 million tons in recent years.
While coal production is always the result of the complex interplay of the forces of supply and demand, the clear drop off in productivity (tons/person-hour) is an indication that the easily mined coal has already been mined and that now the mines are starting to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” of easily accessible coal.
This is true for the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and it’s also true for Colorado coal mines like the Twentymile/Foidel Creek mine that serves Hayden and the Trapper and ColoWyo coal mines that serve the Craig coal plants. Below is a graph of the production and productivity for the Foidel Creek/Twentymile mine that serves the Hayden Coal plant. Clearly, both mine production and productivity started falling off dramatically in the early 2000’s. There are similar curves for the other Colorado coal mines as well as all the Powder River Basin mines—which are also playing out.
Foidel Creek/Twentymile Mine
From Appendix F to Volume II of Xcel’s 2021 Electric Resource Plan, Proceeding 21A-0141E
Pivots: In your testimony to the PUC, you use the word “boneheaded” frequently to describe decisions made by PUC commissioners of the past. But Xcel will be out of coal by 2034 at the latest and with much reduced demand within the next three years. So why does this matter?
Glustrom: My point is that it is “boneheaded” to just assume that coal will mine itself and show up for as long as Xcel or the Colorado PUC thinks it should without taking a hard look at the mines supplying Colorado’s coal plants and the structural decline of the U.S. coal industry.
Pivots: I believe you now or at least formerly owned stock in Xcel Energy. To what purpose?
Glustrom: Owning stock allows you to attend Xcel’s annual meetings, where you can speak to the board of directors and often have side conversations with top Xcel executives. I’ve travelled to lots of obscure places like Amarillo, Texas, and Becker, Minn., to attend Xcel’s annual meetings to try to accelerate their thinking about the climate crisis and their still heavy reliance on fossil fuel generation.
Pivots: In your recent testimony to the PUC, you say that the coal-burning unit you call Pueblo Unit 3 approved by PUC commissioners in 2005 was never really needed. Tell us your theory about why this plant was built.
Glustrom: There are many reasons to believe that Xcel built the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant, not because this was the best decision for Colorado, but that it was a good way to boost Xcel’s profits.
Xcel began planning to build a coal plant in Colorado about a year before they submitted their 2004 resource plan. That is the wrong sequence. Utilities are supposed to do the resource plan first and then go out to bid for resources and decide based on those bids what to build.
Xcel’s stock price dramatically dropped in 2002 after an unregulated subsidiary went bankrupt, which cost the company more than $700 million. The way to increase earnings after something like that is to make a big capital investment—like a coal plant.
All of this has been extensively documented in my 2009 report, “Colorado’s Billion Dollar Mistake,” which is based on Xcel’s own documents and other PUC filings. The report details how the coal plant was never really needed to meet Colorado’s demand. It was excess capacity on top of a generous reserve margin.
Rather it is clear that the coal plant was designed to drive up Xcel’s profits which it has done very effectively. Xcel’s Colorado load has increased less than 10% since 2006 while their Colorado profits have more than tripled from $211 million after taxes in 2005 to $660 million in 2021. These profits were driven in large part by rate increase after rate increase that was granted while the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant was being built and brought into service.
Pivots: Most readers of Big Pivots will understand your argument here, but you need to spell it out more for those who don’t spend their late nights reading PUC filings. You are saying that Xcel built Comanche 3 to have it added to its rate base. Why does this matter?
Glustrom: Large capital expenditures like the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant are typically added to a utility’s “rate base.” The larger the rate base, the greater the profits. Colorado didn’t need the electricity from the Pueblo Unit 3 coal plant, but Xcel needed the profits from the plant to help rescue their stock price, which had plummeted in the summer of 2002.
Pivots: Is this method of determining the rates that can be assessed Xcel’s customers set up in Colorado law?
Glustrom: The details of utility rate-making is not specified in law. Colorado law just says rates need to be “just and reasonable.” The details on utility rate setting are established through precedent at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and around the country.
The key concept is that unlike other businesses, Xcel and other investor-owned utilities are allowed to have monopolies in exchange for a willingness to, in theory, be “regulated.” They are highly motivated to make capital expenditures (think things that require concrete and steel) because those go into the “rate base,” drive up the rates and allow Xcel to increase its “earnings per share” to its stockholders.
Rate-making in Colorado has now gotten so complex that even the experts that are supposed to oversee Xcel’s rates (and those of Black Hills, which serves Pueblo and surrounding areas) have a hard time following it all.
Pivots: Xcel has plans for massive investment in renewable generation and a comparable investment in transmission in eastern Colorado. You filed testimony questioning the full need. Why are you dubious?
Glustrom: Colorado and Denver’s populations have grown dramatically over the last decade, but Xcel’s load has stayed close to flat. Offsetting load growth are efficiency measures and self-generation by homes and businesses, so it is hard to say with certainty what will happen to Xcel’s future load.
Also, I believe we will be wiser to build smaller, more distributed electrical networks (like microgrids) so that we aren’t so dependent on long transmission and distribution lines that keep failing during the increasingly extreme weather events that result from a warming planet, including fires, floods, ice storms, bomb cyclones and more.
Pivots: You took issue with this statement in Big Pivots 52:
“Xcel’s plans for transmission coupled with a concurrent proposal for new wind, solar, and other resources could deliver investments approaching $9 billion in coming years. This will allow Colorado’s largest electrical utility to close coal plants and likely will slow rate increases or possibly halt them altogether. Some utilities have actually been able to lower rates as they have pivoted to renewables.”
I used the word “likely,” which admittedly is a squishy word. Even so, you believe I suggested more certainty than exists. Where do you think I went wrong?
Glustrom: You have suggested that Xcel will use the savings from renewable energy generation to benefit their customers through avoided or delayed rate increases, but Xcel has made it clear time and again that they plan to keep raising our rates no matter how cheap the cost of wind and solar generation become. Unlike an entity like Tri-State, which has no profit motive, Xcel is driven to keep increasing their shareholder earnings.
If there were market forces at work or Xcel’s customers were served by a non-profit public power entity, then your statement might have had validity. After watching Xcel drive up our rates for close to 20 years and knowing that Xcel plans to spend more than $9 billion in Colorado in the next five years alone, I think any expectation of rate relief from Xcel is poorly placed.
Pivots: Final question. Name three individuals in the climate and energy movement who you admire, in Colorado or elsewhere, and in a sentence or two, why?
Glustrom: I am so proud of the climate movement that has been built in Colorado. There are hundreds of thoughtful, dedicated people who are working to move Colorado forward in addressing the climate crisis. I am inspired by everyone that I work with. Here are a few of the most exceptional leaders in the West.
Micah Parkin, executive director 350 Colorado, has built a remarkable organization that is doing everything possible to move Colorado beyond our reliance on fossil methane and to address the many environmental justice issues facing our state, starting with the Suncor refinery. Micah is incredibly sweet and very effective—a rare combination. We are so very lucky to have her in Colorado!
Jeremy Nichols, the director of climate and energy programs at Wild Earth Guardians is wickedly smart and unbelievably hard working. He has probably done more to keep fossil fuels in the ground and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the West than anyone else I know.
Shannon Anderson is an attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming. She has waged one courageous battle after another in the midst of Wyoming, perhaps the state that is the most dependent on fossil fuel production. Shannon is a quiet heroine working under very difficult circumstances!
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Thanks for helping the public understand some of the basics of the public utilities process.