Lawmakers and environmental advocates have issued a sharply worded attack on the Platte River Power Authority’s efforts to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, demanding to know whether the northern Colorado utility plans to meet the deadlines in a 2023 law they wrote.
The authority, which provides power to city utilities for Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park covering 350,000 residents, “set out to be one of the state’s most ambitious pursuers of clean energy but now it feels like those were empty promises,” Colorado Sierra Club spokesperson Noah Rott said.
The club and lawmakers who sponsored a 2023 law on greenhouse gas emissions reduction said they fear Platte River Power is “overcommitted” to coal and natural gas generation, and is delaying for too long real efforts to reach 80% carbon reductions by a statewide target of 2030. Sens. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Reps. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, among others, signed a letter warning the authority to do better or risk violating their 2023 law.
The power authority, whose board is made up of the mayors of the four cities served, responded Wednesday with its own letter saying, in effect, we’re working on it, and that the utility remains committed to its ambitious climate goals despite severe limitations other major power companies don’t face.
“Platte River fully advocates for a clean energy future, but we need to do it in a way that is responsible, and that maintains the reliability that we owe the customers that we serve,” spokesperson Javier Camacho said. “We have a team of experts and we work with other experts in the field to make these trajectories, and we are absolutely confident that we are going to not just meet but surpass the 80% state mandate by 2030.”
Nevertheless, the advocacy coalition is adamant in singling out PRPA, saying the northern Colorado provider is “dead last” among the six major state utilities — including Xcel Energy — that have filed clean energy plans for reducing carbon emissions.
“We’re not aware of another utility in Colorado that gets so much of its energy from coal today,” Sierra Club attorney Matt Gerhart said. “So they need to either build new wind and solar or they need to contract for the wind and solar from other facilities. These are the things that all the other Colorado utilities are doing. It’s not rocket science.”
The 2023 law, Senate Bill 198, was written specifically to force allegedly foot-dragging utilities in the state to make real progress toward emissions reductions before the well-known, previously established target of 80% in 2030, the coalition said. Part of the law requires Platte River Power to at the very least study and model a power generation portfolio that cuts 46% of emissions from the 2005 baseline by 2027.
Another provision requires the authority to model a plan with 2027 reductions than the authority’s last filed resource plan. The law also requires the authority board to at least seriously consider implementing those interim plans.
Instead, the coalition says, Platte River Power’s currently announced plans show emissions reductions stuck at about 20% by 2028, and then the authority suddenly achieving the 80% goal in 2029, when it shuts down the high-polluting Rawhide coal plant north of Wellington. The authority plans to replace Rawhide, which some days provides 75% of electrical generation, with new wind, solar and battery arrays, and will provide necessary on-demand power through a controversial new natural gas turbine that replaces an older gas setup.
The comparison chart from the coalition shows Platte River Power “making close to no progress and then backloading all the emissions reductions right in the last year,” Gerhart said. “The idea was never to allow people with clean energy plans to defer emissions reductions. It was supposed to spur people to incremental actions over time.”
Reducing coal generation ahead of target dates saves millions of tons of carbon from joining an overload of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, experts note, as well as saving local residents from higher doses of local pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and ozone.
The lawmakers and Sierra Club said they haven’t seen evidence from public meetings that PRPA is preparing the required models or seriously considering ramping up its interim target cuts.
But that’s exactly what the power authority experts are doing, Comacho responded. “And we’re going to present those models to our board here in the spring,” before final votes on the integrated resource plan that’s in question, he added.
The power authority is also pushing back on what it sees as misperceptions of how the utility works, and what options it has in the next few years.
As a smaller utility with only a few sources of generation, Platte River Power relies heavily on the old technology of the Rawhide plant, which emitted 2 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022, according to the EPA. The coal plant on average provides more than 50% of the utility’s base load to the four city customers, Comacho said. (By contrast, Xcel said coal made up 22% of its Colorado energy in 2022.)
The utility also needs backup or “dispatchable” power that is reliable in hours when solar or wind assets are not producing electricity, Comacho noted. The PRPA staff has proposed spending more than $250 million on a new natural gas-fired plant that could in the future be switched to cleaner-burning hydrogen fuel, to supply reliable power in the transition to more wind, solar and battery backups.
At one-tenth the size of the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, Platte River Power does not have as many financial options to create renewable energy sources faster, Comacho said.
The advocacy coalition so far does not accept those arguments. In their letter to the power authority, the lawmakers acknowledged that the interim targets from the 2023 law are not requirements, instead merely a demand to draw up a realistic option for reaching them and have it debated. Still, their letter calls on the PRPA board to not just consider, but approve an option reaching 46% cuts by 2027.
Platte River Power made a big splash back in 2018 by promising 100% carbon-neutral generation, among the first utilities to set that goal publicly, Gerhart said. “I think a lot of people know of those aspirations and goals but don’t know about the reality, which is different.”
Type of Story: News
Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.