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New questions about future of Colorado’s newest coal plant

 

by Allen Best

Troubled operations at Comanche 3, Colorado’s newest coal plant will be reviewed again by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

John Gavan, a PUC commissioner, proposed at the weekly meeting of the commissioners on Feb. 16 to require Xcel Energy, the operator and primary owner of the coal plant in Pueblo, to prepare a report about a “generator casualty” on Feb. 3.

The unit has been idle since then.

Other commissioners agreed to the order, although Eric Blank, the chair of the commission, noted that Xcel was required to submit reports monthly anyway.

Later in the day, Xcel issued a statement:

“The Comanche Generation Station’s unit 3 is offline so an equipment issue can be repaired. Crews are currently working to assess the extent of the issue and begin the repairs needed. The company will cover the potential incremental costs of any additional replacement energy needed to serve our retail customers. As work progresses, we’ll continue providing our customers with reliable, safe and affordable energy.”

The company provided no estimate of how long the coal plant will be out of commission.

Comanche 3 has had frequent operating troubles. Most notable were those of 2020, when it was closed for most of the year for repairs.

PUC commissioners on Wednesday received a recommendation from an administrative law judge that calls for Xcel to absorb the $14 million it cost to buy replacement power in 2020 instead of passing along the cost to its customers. The company’s response on Wednesday anticipates that issue.

Comanche 3  began operations in 2010 and was originally projected to continue operations until 2070. As the cost of renewables plummeted, utilities figured out how to integrate renewables without sacrificing reliability. Too, climate scientists have elevated their warnings about the risk of climate change.

Xcel, in its electric resource plan submitted to the PUC in 2021, called for the plant to close by 2040.

An agreement between Xcel and various other groups that was filed with state regulators in November pushed the scheduled closing to the end of 2034 but to be operated with more restraint beginning in 2022. By 2029, according to the plan, it essentially would become a summer-only plant, to meet air conditioning demands.

This latest news would seem to undercut that schedule as the key argument for continued operations was the presumed reliability of coal generation.

Major environmental groups have called for the plant to be retired by 2029 or even 2027.

Xcel owns 66% of the coal unit, Colorado’s largest with a generating capacity of 750 megawatts.

CORE Electric Cooperative owns 25% and Holy Cross Energy 8%.

The first two units of Comanche, their smokestacks painted red and white, are to be retired by 2025. Xcel has agreed to pay property taxes on the third unit through 2040.

At issue is also the tax base in Pueblo and Pueblo County.  Xcel paid $30.86 million in property taxes this year for Comanche, according to a letter filed with the PUC commissioners on Feb. 10 by four state legislators who represent Pueblo.

 

Photo: Comanche Generating STation as seen form a wind-tower manufacturing plant, with the smokestack for unit 3 on the left. Photo/Allen Best

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