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Some Colorado utilities want to get to 100% emissions-free electricity by 2030, others just 80% or above. What mix of new technologies will get them there?


Spaced little more than 25 miles apart along the Yampa River, the coal plants at Hayden and Craig together constitute Colorado’s single largest center of coal-fired generation, 1,724 megawatts of capacity, compared to 1,410 at Pueblo.

Can those assets—the land but especially the electrical transmission and also water rights—be parlayed into the new energy paradigm?

In other words, can the Yampa Valley become the giant battery that is needed to achieve deep, deep penetration of renewables, above 90%?

During 2021, several sets of ideas emerged more clearly into public view. One set involves pumped-storage hydro. Even today, Colorado’s largest battery remains relatively ancient technology, Xcel Energy’s Cabin Creek project near Georgetown. The water from a reservoir along the road to Guanella Pass is released when most needed to generate electricity, then pumped back uphill when electricity is relatively plentiful and hence cheaper.

At least two, and perhaps more, specific ideas with this same concept were in the early drafting stage in 2021 in the Yampa Valley. There was some tinkering elsewhere in Colorado with the same concept. Alice Jackson, chief executive of Xcel Energy’s Colorado division, reported in a filing with state regulators that pumped-storage hydro remains among the options. It is reported to be looking at a project in Unaweep Canyon. Other utilities are also thinking at least abstractly at pumped-story hydro.

Xcel Energy, in an April meeting with Routt County commissioners, also confided that it was studying the potential for molten salt at the site of its coal plant at Hayden once the plant closes in 2028. (That produced a May story in Big Pivots: “Salt on the table at Hayden.” Later, other Colorado media outlets, including Colorado Public Radio and the Colorado Sun, picked up on the same story).

Hayden power plant

Xcel Energy says it wants to make use of the Hayden coal plant site as it reconfigures energy for a low- and ultimately no-carbon future. Photo/Allen Best

Then there’s green hydrogen (made from renewables) , another option for the Yampa Valley—and, well, a lot of places, if costs can be brought down and concerns about safety engineered. Nuclear remains part of the conversation in Colorado, if it brings with it cost and safety concerns, too.  Notable are the plans, with money from both Bill Gates and the U.S. government, for a plant in Kemmerer, Wyo., that is to demonstrate new nuclear technology.

Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries have been making inroads as costs have declined 15% a year. One example is the work conducted by Holy Cross Energy. It went forward on a solar project near Glenwood Springs that will be coupled with 5 megawatts of storage. The cooperative in 2021 also launched a pilot program of six home batteries, the better to figure out how to contour demands around supplies as it moves to 80% renewables.

In addition to storage, Holy Cross sees another necessary to achieve its 100% emissions-free goal by 2030. The task is to integrate Holy Cross and other utilities in Colorado with other utilities across the West—or, perhaps, the Midwest.

The idea is that electricity resources can be shared among utilities to best match supplies with demands. In this way, Xcel Energy does not just depend upon its generating assets in Colorado or those altogether in Colorado. Instead, the assets of Wyoming and Arizona, or Nevada – or Kansas and Nebraska – can be shared.

This is one of seven big-picture stories from 2021 identified by Big Pivots that involve Colorado.  

This is done in steps, and an important but small step occurred on Feb. 1 when an energy imbalance services market was launched with Tri-State, Western Area Power Authority, and several other participating utilities. The big step will be an organized market along the lines of a regional transmission organization.

A study adopted by the Public Utilities Commission in November, the result of a legislative mandate in 2019, found that greater participation in organized wholesale markets by Colorado utilities could deliver savings of 4% to 5%.

In December 2021, State Sen. Chris Hansen, a prime sponsor of the 2019 bill that mandated the study and an energy expert in his professional life, found that conclusion conservative. He was the prime sponsor of another bill that in 2021 became law. It tells utilities they must figure out how to be in an organized market by 2030.

In January 2021, Chris Clack, of Boulder County-based Vibrant Clean Energy, said that the electrical system will be reinvented. “We would like it to happen in 20 years, but realistically it will be 35 years,” he said. And long-distance transmission will be a big piece of that. “It makes a lot of things easier,” he said.

Goals of 100% carbon-free energy make for easy headlines, but it’s wonkish policy and infrastructure details like these that will make them attainable.


Looking into 2022

Well, this is a rapidly moving story. After this story was completed but before it was published, Xcel Energy announced it was joining the Southwest Power Pool energy imbalance market, along with Platte River Power Authority and Black Hills Electric, as other Colorado utilities have previously.


Allen Best
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