A Colorado Public Utilities Commission hearing Thursday on Xcel Energy’s plan to close coal-fired plants and boost renewable energy drew an overflow crowd that included a mother with a babe in arms, a middle school student, a math professor, a former Peace Corps worker and representatives of farmers and rural areas—all in favor of the plan.
More than 120 people signed up to speak at the public hearing and they filled two overflow rooms at the commission’s Denver headquarters on the proposal by Xcel, the state’s largest electricity provider, to close two coal-fired plants and raise the proportion of renewable generation to 55 percent by 2026.
“It is a momentous step toward Colorado’s clean energy future,” Gary Norton, a Lone Tree resident told the three-member commission. “The cost of wind and solar with storage is lower than coal-fired plants … retire them all.”
As part of its plan Xcel sought bids for new generation and received an unprecedented 350 proposals for projects with an average price for wind at 1.8 cents a kilowatt-hour and 2.95 cents per kilowatt-hour for photovoltaic solar.
Combined renewable energy plus storage projects came in with the lowest prices ever quoted, according to GTM Research, a clean tech marketing and research group.
“The results that PUC and Xcel were able to provide in renewable alternatives was remarkable,” said Dan Sorenson, a Lakewood electrical engineer.
Sounding concerns over the impact of coal burning on climate, 13-year-old Elena Venner told the commission, “I am standing before you today for all the young people who cannot be here today … don’t forget us.”
In addition to the issues of climate change and the potential cost savings of renewables some told the commission that reducing air emissions for health, especially for children, was also a reason to support the plan.
Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg appeared with her daughter Lumina in support of the Xcel plan and Jen Callahan, “Head Mom” of the advocacy group Colorado Moms Know Best, said “I’m fully supportive of more clean, renewable energy that helps clean our air and helps me protect the health of my child.”
While the vast majority of the people testifying favored the Xcel plan. There were critics and some who were wary of Xcel’s motives.
State Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, the Senate majority whip, told the commission, “Republicans don’t believe this is in the interest of Colorado consumers.”
He said by submitting the plan to the commission Xcel “circumvents the legislature” and that closing the two coal plants, Comanche 1 and Comanche 2 in Pueblo, prematurely was economically and operationally unwise.
“It’s like junking a perfectly good Camry with another 80,000 miles in its life-cycle,” Cooke asked.
Xcel has said it won’t go forward with the plan if it does not lowers costs, but Cooke said Xcel could “have its thumb on the scale” of the finances.
Amy Oliver Cooke, the director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center for the libertarian Independence Institute testifying as an Xcel rate payer, said “this plan will not save rate payers money.” Comanche generation is still less expensive than the prices being quoted for wind and solar, she said.
Several other people also raised concerns over who would pay for the retirement of the Comanche plants. “I am very concerned that Xcel will try to stick the people of Colorado with their stranded assets,” said Steve Ruby.
Still the plan drew support from many quarters including rural Colorado. Jan Kochis, representing the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, supported the plan and said that 30 turbines from Xcel’s Rush Creek project would located on her farm.
The estimated $2.5 billion in investment Xcel would make in rural areas offer “opportunities for economic growth and success” for eastern Colorado, said Zach Riley, a spokesman for the Colorado Farm Bureau.
Trae Miller, executive director of Logan County Economic Development Corp., said that a wind or solar farm would be “a welcome addition to any community in eastern Colorado.”
“This is a good deal for rural Colorado and a good deal for Xcel ratepayer,” Miller said.
The Xcel proposal was also supported by the Adams County Economic Development, the Aurora Economic Development Council and the Boulder Chamber of Commerce.
IBM, which as al large campus in Boulder, also endorsed the plan.
University of Colorado-Boulder math professor Martin Walter said that the state and Xcel ratepayers would save millions of dollars from being shipped out of state to pay for fossil fuels and Cameron Patterson, a former Peace Corp worker, urged the commission to make the right decision quoting “Spiderman’s uncle …with great power comes great responsibility.”
The utility commissioners—Jeff Ackerman, Frances Koncilja, Wendy Moser— is slated to make a decision in March.