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Lots of facts about nuclear, but more important was who was not there and who was not talking

 

by Allen Best

In one sense, Adam Frisch was an anomaly on the agenda of an energy conference held in Pueblo last Friday. He’s a Democrat, making a second run for Congress after narrowly losing in 2022 to Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s Republican-leaning 3rd Congressional District. The district’s largest city, Pueblo, once was reliably Democratic but has become a political toss-up.

Republican legislators, both current and former, were present at the conference, but I didn’t notice any Democratic legislators, even from Pueblo. Why that is, it’s hard to say.

Credit Frisch with knowing how to play to his crowd. He tipped his hat to natural gas several times even as he talked about how geothermal would use much the same skills sets and machinery.

He talked extensively about domestic energy mining and energy production. “There’s no green energy without mining, just none,” he said. He suggested that even now, burning wood may produce more energy than solar – although he did acknowledge Colorado has far more solar capacity than the national average. He took swipes at the “Colorado Capitol,” a reference to the Democrats who have run the show since the 2018 election and who have passed dozens of bills with the intent of pushing and pulling Colorado into a giant pivot that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For the conference on the Pueblo campus of Colorado State University, Frisch dressed in a style that suggested allegiance to his party: blue jeans, blue shirt and blue sports jacket. But he has some tip-toeing to do in this Congressional district. He’s an Aspen resident, a member of the city council when that city’s municipal utility, Aspen Electric, succeeded in achieving 100% renewables. And Frisch by no means disavows climate change.

“Whether I’m in Durango or Boulder or up in Rangely, Colorado, I would say the same thing, that there is a climate crisis,” he said at the outset of his remarks in the conference’s opening session. “It’s hotter and drier. Everybody knows this. People are planting at different times, they’re harvesting at different times, they’re hunting at different times. But we need to figure out if we truly want to try to solve this problem.”

When running as an “outsider,” it’s useful to point to perceived hypocrisies among the elites. In Colorado, the prime candidate is Boulder.

“I need to poke fun a little bit at my former zip code, because in 2019 Boulder County, of the 3,147 counties in the country, (had) on a per-capita basis the most greenhouse gas emissions per person in the country.”

ADam Frisch in Pueblo

Congressional candidate Adam Frisch explains why generation will be important. Photo/Allen Best

True? Well, not really. It wasn’t Boulder County but one zip code within the county that spawned many stories in 2020. And it wasn’t total greenhouse gas emissions per capita, but only those provoked by buildings. For that matter, the University of Michigan researchers reported that were able to include only two-thirds of the nation’s counties in the study.

With those caveats in mind, they did find that the buildings in zip code 80510 produced 23,811 pounds of carbon dioxide per person. That zip code is in and around Allenspark, along the road between Boulder and Estes Park. It’s a place of knotty-pined cabins that burn a lot of propane gas as well as newer and some very large homes that likely use electricity.

The methodology of the researchers also examined the sources of electricity, and by that measure the heavy coal in the electrical mix bumped the figures higher. That area is served by a member cooperative of Tri-State Generation and Transmission or Xcel Energy, and in 2019 both were still very heavily invested in coal — including coal burned at Pueblo.

One other detail: that same study found that a zip code in San Francisco, the bastion of woke politics, actually had the nation’s lowest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions for buildings.

Details, details, details

That was par for the day. Just as important as who was at this energy summit and the information they shared was who was not there and what was not said.

The event was sponsored by Action Colorado, formerly known as Colorado 22, a reference to the counties of southwestern Colorado and the San Luis Valley that are included. Think of it as patterned after the much older Club 20.

The morning agenda had various speakers, but most notable was a defense of natural gas in buildings. The afternoon was almost entirely about the promise of nuclear energy.

Interspersed through the day were speakers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. They told about their lives and about their work. They spoke very well, very effectively. I spent eight years in Toastmasters trying to smooth my tongue of rusted iron into moments of silver. These guys were like professionals as they talked about growing up on ranches, about the dangers of working with electricity, about building better lives for themselves and their families.

The background question for the day’s conversation was what will happen when the last of Pueblo’s three coal-burning units becomes quiet. One of the three coal-burning units at Comanche Generating Station has closed, another will in 2025, and the third is to become silent no later than Jan. 1, 2031, as per the decision by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

(In my message to Big Pivots subscribers of June 13, I vaguely and imprecisely referred to 2030. To add some confusion, Gov. Jared Polis last week said 2029.)

What will replace the tax base and jobs in Pueblo and Pueblo County?

CS Wind, Pueblo

President Joe Biden visited the CW Wind factory in Pueblo, the world’s largest manufacture of towers for wind turbines, in November 2023. Photo/Allen Best

Pueblo is a river town, bisected by the Arkansas River. It’s a transportation hub for both highways and rail. It is above all a place that makes things. I am sure it has Ph.D.s among its 111,000 residents, but it has blue-collar DNA. Work gloves could be the city’s logo.

The steel mill was first and maybe even now remains foremost, hulks of rust rising above I-25 even as a new mill is now taking shape. The mill began producing rail in 1882, and that’s still the primary product, if the lengths have been extended to quarter-mile sections. It was called CF&I when I was young, and although I have no personal memories, Pueblo was still a rich ethnic stew in the mid-20th century, a cauldron of immigrants who labored under a film of coal smoke. You don’t have to go far to find people whose fathers and grandfathers and perhaps great-grandfathers had walked to the mill, lunch buckets in hand, from their houses in the Bessemer and other close-by neighborhoods.

That includes the former mayor, Nick Gradisar, and the fellow I had lunch with at the conference, Joseph Griego. Gradisar, a former board chair for Action Colorado, the organization sponsoring this conference, had a vison of pivoting Pueblo to a green-energy economy. He was handily defeated in the election last year.

Some of that pivot, however, had already started before he even became mayor.

On Saturday morning, after the conference, I awoke in our motel room on Pueblo’s north side soon after daybreak and set out to get photographs. I drove south on I-25, pausing during shift change at the gates of the steel mill, which is now owned by EVRAZ North America. Based in London, majority ownership was held by Russian oligarchs, cronies of Putin, most notably Roman Abramovich, who alone owned between a quarter and a third of the company. Evraz said in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine that it would sell its North American assets, but nothing has come of that. As best I can tell, Putin cronies still have a stake in Pueblo.

Continuing south out of the city, I turned off from I-25 at the Stem Beach turnoff, then headed northeast on Lime Creek Road, putting Greenhorn Mountain in the rearview mirror.

Greenhorn was originally Cuerno Verde, the name given by Spanish colonizers to two leaders, the father and son, of a band of Comanches. They were known for their distinctive headdress.

The younger Cuerno Verde was killed there in 1779 by the Spanish troops led by Juan Batiste de Anza and their Apache, Ute and Pueblo allies. And with the Comanche weakened, the Great Plains in Colorado with their plentiful bison became more available to some other immigrants, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe.

The alignments of what became Colorado were, in the 18th century, as convoluted as they are in the 21st century, but the conflicts for the time being now draw only figurative blood. By that measure, these disagreements about the energy transition are mild indeed even if one former legislator at the Pueblo conference described the politics he left behind at the Colorado Capitol as “toxic.”

The Lime Creek Road constitutes Pueblo’s industrial alley. First in this sequence is the former wind turbine factory formerly owned by the Danish company Vesta but purchased in 2021 by CS Wind, a South Korean company. The factory produces towers that are 90 meters tall and weigh 240 tons. President Joe Biden was there last November to give a pep talk about the clean energy agenda.

A little farther along is a turnoff to another set of gray industrial buildings rising up from the plains, the GCC cement plant and limestone quarry, one of two remaining cement plants in Colorado with the recent closure of a plant at Lyons.

The day before, a speaker at the conference – in the morning, non-nuclear session — representing a company called Carbon America, had spoken about the hopes to sequester carbon dioxide under cap rock in a geologic formation northeast of Pueblo. Two potential partners exist in the Pueblo area, this one and another near Florence. They manufacture cement from lime.

Carbon America sees carbon dioxide created in this process –none of it through combustion — as being one market for carbon sequestration along with the almost pure stream of carbon dioxide being emitted by corn ethanol plants. The company’s office is about a mile from my own in suburban Denver.

As I continued north, the three giant smokestacks of Comanche 3 rose higher. Before I got there, though, I first saw the low-rising rows of solar panels, a virtual sea of them amid the cacti.

The first solar farm, located directly east of the coal plant, was developed by Eric Blank, who has now become the chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Then, in 2021, completion of a far larger array of solar panels was completed. This project, Bighorn, was on land owned by Evraz around Comanche Station. It can generate 300 megawatts of direct current or 240 megawatts of alternating current. Through the artifice of credits, the solar production allows the steel mill to proclaim it has solar-made steel. (It also matters that the plant works with recycled steel, which requires less heat).

Still heading toward Comanche, I drove under transmission lines. whether generated by solar or for by coal units. However electricity is generated, it must be transmitted to metro Denver and wherever else. Will a nuclear plant transmit electricity at Comanche sometime in the 2030s?

 

The Pueblo area has Colorado’s two remaining limestone quarries and cement kilns, including this one along Lime Creek Road. Photo/Allen Best

The tone for the conference was set by the panel that followed Adam Frisch.

The panel consisted of representatives of three of Colorado’s four privately-owned utilities that sell methane, the primary constituent in natural gas, to consumers for building heat and water cooling.

Curbing methane emissions from Colorado’s buildings may be Colorado’s most difficult nut to crack. We don’t swap out buildings the way we do cars or cell phones.

Ken Fogle is a marketing vice president for Atmos Energy, one of Colorado’s two regulated gas-only utilities, meaning that they don’t also sell electricity. Black Hills Energy does sell both electricity and gas, but not necessarily in the same place. It was represented by Tom Henley, the senior public affairs director. And there was Michael Sapp, the state public affairs director for Xcel Energy, with sells both gas and electricity, and in largely the same areas.

The Monday prior to the conference, the Colorado PUC commissioners had issued their formal 141-page decision about Xcel’s proposed clean heat plan. The PUC commissioners rejected a lot of Xcel’s ideas.

The plan was in response to legislation adopted in 2021 that said that the gas utilities needed to figure out how to start reducing emissions from the natural gas they delivered to their customers for heating of space and water. It’s one of maybe a half-dozen bills taking aim at methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that the Environmental Defense Fund says is responsible for about 30% of today’s global warming driven by human action.

“For those of you don’t know, natural gas has been kind of under the microscope, shall we say, for a number of years now down at the state capitol,” said Black Hills’ Henley.

The panelists in Pueblo said they thought the clean-heat legislation adopted in 2021 required too much, too soon. A major grievance is that the legislation required a 4% reduction in emissions by 2025 compared to a 2015 baseline – but ignoring the role of population growth. In effect, said several panelists, this means a 20% reduction.

Nobody argued whether climate change is real or the role of greenhouse gas emissions in causing climate change. That debate has, at least formally, passed. The argument is whether the reduction goals are realistic.

It’s a legitimate question. But this was not a panel created to further the dialogue. Instead, aided by softball questions, the remarks drifted toward preserving the status quo. These are companies who don’t want to change their business models in light of the evidence of climate change.

“How do we support legislators who favor an all-of-the-above energy mix,” they were asked.

“We’ve  got to talk to people that are electing their officials to make sure they know what their officials are doing in Denver,” said Fogle, the Atmos representative. “I don’t think a lot of folks would agree with what’s happening in Denver when you go to these places like the Western Slope or Southeastern Colorado. I don’t think they’d agree with what’s happening in Denver. So you got to get the people involved and activate the base.”

Then another question. “Dems control the House, Senate and governor’s office, how do you navigate policies that are aimed at mandated, forced beneficial electrification, and what strategies do you try to deploy to work with that agenda?”

The key strategy that emerged in the remarks of panelists is to emphasize cost of adopting other technologies that will end the need for natural gas in buildings. Going electric is expensive, and natural gas is affordable. And there’s truth to that. Staying the course is the cheapest alternative. Cost can matter.

Ironically, along the way in this discussion about natural gas, there was a plug for nuclear. But when the agenda moved to nuclear that afternoon that cost almost entirely disappeared from the conversation.

That seems to be a pattern.

 Frances Koncilja, Pueblo Photo/Allen Best

Former PUC commissioner Frances Koncilja explains the task force perspective as to what Pueblo needs after all the units in the Comanche Generating Station close. Photo/Allen Best

While some reading this might conclude otherwise, I am actually neutral about nuclear as a long-term solution. As I’ve written before, one of the leading climate change scientists, James Hansen, has embraced the need for nuclear. I know people in Boulder County – yes, in that place that many want to see as a hotbed of cross-breeding of privilege and wokeism — who believe it is necessary.

It would certainly solve a lot of problems. Even now, 20% of U.S. power comes from nuclear power plants.

Then there’s the matter of Colorado’s declared intention of not leaving behind coal communities in this transition. Frances Koncilja, a former PUC commissioner, in 2023 co-chaired a task force created by Xcel Energy that produced a report in January. The Pueblo Innovative Energy Solutions Advisory Committee Report heartily recommended a nuclear power plant to replace Comanche.

Pueblo County has done its part to reduce emissions, she said. Pueblo County will be responsible for a 36% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by Xcel Energy and 20% statewide from the electric sector.

She emphasized the obligation of Colorado. “Just transition means that coal communities should not only be no worse off with the closure of coal facilities but also replace the coal generation with high-paying and highly-skilled jobs and lost tax base so that coal communities have an opportunity to prosper, grow and reimagine their local economies.”

Koncilja did not specifically cite the 2019 law, which in my read is a little more fuzzy than how she  summarized it. Colorado does not owe Pueblo a one-for-one replacement.

The law says the “effects of coal plant closures on works and communities have the potential to be significant if not managed correctly.” It also mentions the state’s intention to “assist workers and communities impacted by changes in Colorado’s coal economy.” It also mentions a “moral commitment.”

The Pueblo Innovative Energy Solutions Advisory Committee she co-chaired recommended nuclear because of the 300 jobs with a salary range of $60,000 to $200,000 and annual tax payments of $95 million. In 2021, Xcel and its two co-owners of Comanche 3, one of the coal-burning units, collectively paid $31 million.

She also pointed to strong comparisons in wealth to other counties in Colorado, specifically Aspen/Pitkin County, Vail/Eagle County, Boulder County and Denver.

Exploitation of fossil fuels has left Pueblo far, far behind these other locations.

Comanche Generating STation

One unit of Comanche Generating Station has ceased operation and the other two will before 2031 gets underway. Photo/Allen Best

The afternoon was rich with speakers with a wealth of information about different types of nuclear technology that are in some stage of development. There were many details, but almost entirely absent were those most useful for relevancy in Pueblo and Colorado altogether. That begins with cost.

One speaker said his company’s technology will be able to deliver electricity for 3 cents a kilowatt-hour – making it competitive with renewables. But, of course, it has not been deployed yet.

When the representative from nuclear powerhouse Westinghouse concluded, she took several questions. The first was: What is the cause of the most significant pushback you get?” Cost, she replied.

Cost infamously rose to $35 billion, more than double original projections, on the two Vogtle units that have come on line recently in Georgia.

But what about the advanced nuclear designs? True enough, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in early 2023 approved the design of small modular reactors. But NuScale, the company that had sought the approval for deployment at Idaho Falls, just a few months later cancelled the order. The problem? Escalating costs.

Can Bill Gates disprove us naysayers? He was in Wyoming on Monday to help break ceremonial ground for a nuclear plant near the site of a coal plant at Kemmerer. The company has a pending application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the plant design. Gates and company hope for completion in 2030, a brisk pace.

Gates has put in $1 billion into TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy has $2 billion promised for the project. Gates, in an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday morning (see transcript), said he expects to invest several billion more. He estimated completion price at $10 billion. He also said he hopes to 100 projects using the same nuclear technology “to really make an impact.”

Solar panels and transmissin

A sea of solar panels exists around Comanche Generation Station along with many transmission lines that export the power to Xcel Energy’s customers. Photo/Allen Best

In a seminar several weeks before, Duane Highley, chief executive of  Tri-State Generation and Transmission, said he thought the price will not be bent down until about 2035 or beyond to a point where it can be justified for his members in places like the San Luis Valley and the corn-and-millet and wheat-and-ranch country of eastern Colorado.

To be fair, Highley said the cost of geothermal for electrical production is no better at this point. The comparison may not be the most useful. The technologies compete in two different cost arenas. Simply put, nuclear is a bigger gamble, the entry bid at a higher level.

But the larger point is that we have a whole host of technologies competing to be the final answer to 100% emissions-free energy — and nuclear is just one.

So why the bandwagon for nuclear? Will Colorado really throw cost considerations out the window and became the test lab for advanced nuclear technologies?

Highley, in his interview,(which you can read elsewhere in this issue), said he wished the federal government would bankroll the next-generation nuclear technology, such as for use on military bases. That would get us over this gigantic hump of price.

It would still leave us with puddles of radioactive waste hither and thither with that huge issue unresolved. Our past recklessness in places such as Rocky Flats, between Arvada and Boulder, leaves many uncomfortable.

And finally, there is this question: Why do nuclear advocates in Colorado think they can continue to make their case without addressing these hard questions.

The best I can figure is that nuclear has become a stand-in for coal and a political statement that borders on religion. Because Aspen, Boulder  and Denver likes renewables, we need to be for nuclear. That’s why I found the talking points of the congressional candidate from Aspen so interesting. (And, to be honest, speaking to a Pueblo crowd and leading with the fact that you’re from Boulder likely would not be the wisest way to introduce yourself).

But what was Xcel Energy up to in creating this task force? What did it truly hope to accomplish? A mere distraction, a way to gain leverage against the Democratic majority at the Colorado Capitol?

I’m still scratching my head. I probably will be still until Xcel submits its proposal to the PUC in five weeks.

Allen Best
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