Storing Sunlight: Arizona’s Largest Utility Plans to Expand Battery Capacity

PHOENIX – Arizona Public Service Co. plans to add hundreds of megawatts of battery storage by 2025 to its solar power plants so customers can keep using solar energy when the sun sets.

Arizona’s largest utility announced last week that a new plan to add 850 megawatts of battery storage and at least 100 megawatts of new solar generation by 2025.

It’s one of the largest battery storage initiatives in the country, which is why U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Friday toured one of APS’s renewable energy facilities an hour’s drive west of Phoenix.

“The holy grail in this whole renewable energy quest is in energy storage,” Perry said in a downpour after the tour.

Perry said Arizona is on the forefront of a national effort in clean energy storage.

“Today (Friday) is a great example of an all-of-the-above energy policy which this country is striving towards,” he said.

Scott Bordenkircher directs technology and innovation at APS. He said battery storage will be developed over the next six years to store solar energy. “To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about 3 million solar panels or 10,000 electric vehicles.” (Photo by Peter Gong/Cronkite News)

APS Chairman and CEO Don Brandt said on the company’s website that Arizona is a national leader in solar energy.

“The challenge is, no one has figured out how to stop the sun from setting at night,” Brandt said. “As storage technology improves and declines in cost, we will increasingly be able to store the power of the sun cost-effectively to deliver when our customers need it.”

Arizona is known for more than 300 sunny days a year, and power companies have tapped into this renewable source. The state ranks second to California, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, for generating solar energy, but it’s hard to store that power when the sun sets, a time when people often need power the most.

Scott Bordenkircher, director of technology and innovation at APS, said the storage will be developed over the next six years. “To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about 3 million solar panels or 10,000 electric vehicles.”

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If Colorado Wants Green Energy, Bigger Better Batteries are Part of the Puzzle

Bordenkircher said the company’s announcement means Arizona will be second only to California in terms of the size of batteries being used.

“Not all of their (California’s) batteries are meant to be coupled with renewable energy sources,” he said. “This is truly targeted at unlocking that renewable energy mix, that clean energy mix that we have in Arizona.”

The batteries are stored in a facility, and stacked on top of each other like building blocks. The storage system gets power from the sun during the day. Then, the energy from the solar panels gets transferred to the batteries. When the sun goes down, battery power activates allowing customers to use solar energy at night.

Patrick Graham, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Arizona, called the initiative an important step in protecting the environment.

“This really is the pathway to moving towards clean energy,” Graham said. “It’s short-term storage, so it’s not going to last for long periods of time. But it’s critical in helping balance out the reliance on renewable energy.”

Barbara Lockwood, vice president of regulations at APS, said bringing hundreds of batteries online will be an investment, but it won’t cost customers more than they already pay for electricity.

“It certainly costs money, but the great news is that energy storage costs have declined to the point where it’s competitive with sources of generation,” Lockwood said.

Arizona is second only to Nevada in solar energy potential, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But in 2016, solar accounted for only about 5 percent of Arizona’s net electricity generation.

APS plans to install six battery systems at existing solar plants in Maricopa County and Yuma by 2020. And more storage and solar power will come online by 2025.

– Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

From Kaiser to Vail Ski Resorts, Companies Doubled their Wind and Solar in 2018

DENVER – Corporate investments in renewable energy used to be symbolic. A few solar panels here, a small wind farm investment there. But in 2018 some companies became voracious green energy consumers.

Kaiser Permanente’s Denver administrative office is awash with rooftop solar and solar panels on carports.

The arrays were added in 2015, but in 2018 Kaiser wanted to make a bigger dent toward the company’s carbon neutral goal. So it inked a deal to buy 180 megawatts of new wind and solar from sites in Arizona and California. This is a tremendous amount of green power, a magnitude that only interested utilities a decade ago.

“Corporate procurement has really started to drive a lot of the market….[That] supports an incredible amount of jobs for consultants, for engineers, for contractors and construction workers. It’s definitely driving a lot of economic activity,” said Brian McCurdy, founder of Greycliff Advisors LLC, a consultant that represents renewable energy developers, utilities and large corporations.

Across the nation, companies doubled the amount of wind and solar purchase agreements in 2018. One driver was soon to expire federal tax credits. The key driver, however, is investor and customer preference for green energy. Even after President Donald Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, companies continued to double down on green efforts.

“Are they losing money? Hopefully not,” said Kevin Haley, a program manager at the Business Renewables Center at Rocky Mountain Institute. “These contracts are long term. Many of them are anywhere from 10 to 20 years, and over the lifetime of that contract they are projected to be revenue positive for the company.”

Here’s how these power purchase agreements work: A company like Kaiser agrees to buy green power at a fixed price for several years, typically decades. That energy doesn’t directly power company buildings, it instead goes into the electric grid. Over time, companies can make money through sales of that wholesale power on the market. The ultimate goal is for the revenue to be greater or equal to a company’s overall electric bill.

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Corporate giants like Facebook, Walmart, Microsoft and Apple made big deals in 2018, but now smaller corporate fish have waded into the pond.

“We had Etsy do a deal last year, J.M. Smucker Company that makes jellies and jams,” Haley said. “It’s a great way for them to reduce a lot of carbon all at once.”

Colorado-based Vail Resorts has joined the ranks of small companies as well. It inked a 12-year agreement to buy new wind that will be produced from a Nebraska farm starting in 2020. When the wind farm is operational, the purchased power will offset Vail’s fossil fuel use across North America.

“This is the way that a company that’s geographically diverse can make a significant impact and bring new renewable resources online,” said Kate Wilson, director of sustainability for Vail Resorts.

The ski company won’t talk about how much that’ll cost. They’ve taken other steps though, such as the installation of solar at resorts. Vail has also signed up with Xcel Energy to pay for a solar energy subscription.

That’s one small way utilities are helping companies get more renewables. Xcel’s subscription program, Renewable Connect, sold out in one day.

“That was a pretty good indicator that this 50 megawatt resource, there’s more interest out there beyond that,” said Ryan Matley, product development team lead with Xcel.

The utility wants to launch more subscription programs. Xcel also started to tailor specific projects for bigger clients. In 2018, Xcel got regulatory approval to build a 240 megawatt solar array for EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo. Matley said the project wasn’t driven by climate concerns, but by EVRAZ’s desire for cheap reliable energy.

“As renewable costs have come down, this looks like not just a great sustainability opportunity but a great economic opportunity,” he said.

Ultimately, the future of corporate investments in renewables could be about large-scale production right on site. Boulder-based Black Bear Energy helps commercial real estate owners add large solar arrays to office parks, apartment buildings and industrial sites. As battery technology evolves, CEO Drew Torbin said companies are opting for larger and larger installations.

“If you think about how many buildings don’t have solar and don’t have batteries, the fact that the industry is so new, and that’s a great thing,” said Torbin. “Because we have a long way to go and a lot of benefit we can create.”

Black Bear booked twice as many projects in 2018 compared the year before. As the price of solar continues to drop, Tobin expects 2019 to be its busiest year ever.

If Colorado Wants Green Energy, Bigger Better Batteries are Part of the Puzzle

DENVER — If you plug in an electric car today, chances are you’re drawing electricity that comes from fossil fuel sources, not renewable energy. Gas- and coal-fired power plants generate 78 percent of Colorado’s electricity. Wind, solar and hydro power make up just 22 percent.

Colorado has a long way to go in pursuit of 100 percent green energy. An important key to a future with renewables though will be storage.

“Batteries will help us integrate more clean, carbon-free renewable energy sources like solar and wind,” said Paul Denholm, a scientist who studies battery technology at Golden-based National Renewable Energy Lab.

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Colorado utilities are quietly moving to build bigger better batteries. United Power recently deployed the state’s largest battery at their facility east of Longmont. The 4 megawatt/16 megawatt-hour system can deliver power for four hours. Down in Colorado Springs, Fort Carson launched a smaller 4.25 megawatt/8.5 megawatt-hour system that can deliver power for two hours.

United Power said its battery could offset daily energy consumption for 600 homes.

Compared to existing and planned projects in California, Denholm said these Colorado batteries are small. The stated goal in California is for batteries to replace peaker power plants, which typically run on fossil fuels when demand is highest in the summertime.

That will eventually become the goal in Colorado, too.

“With all the projections we’re seeing from battery venders in the next few years, we’ll see more and more places where batteries can straight up beat new peaking capacity,” Denholm said before he added that, “We haven’t quite reached a tipping point.”

While the Centennial State won’t see any giant battery deployments soon, Xcel Energy has three projects planned for 2022. Two systems in Pueblo County, and one in Adams County will total 275 megawatts of storage.

Even though it could take up to three years to deploy the batteries, Delholm said there are side benefits to utilities’ quest for more storage. The effort will drive down battery production costs. Bigger cheaper batteries will find their way to electric vehicles. The whole effort could make future EVs cheaper and boost their range.

That, in turn, could lead to more widespread adoption.

Gov. Jared Polis already hopes to goose the profile of electric car. He issued an executive order in in mid-January to get more electric cars and busses on Colorado’s roads.

Arizona Adopts First Rules to Encourage Electric Vehicles

PHOENIX – Tesla recently announced major layoffs across all its operations, hoping to cut costs and price its electric vehicles to be more competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles. The move came after the Trump administration pledged to end Obama-era federal tax credits for electric vehicles of up to $7,500.

Some states have policies to subsidize and encourage electric vehicle use, but Arizona only recently has taken its first steps in that direction. The transition to EVs will require major investments in incentives and infrastructure, but the price could actually be less than the environmental and health costs of the status quo.

Europe on Track

Outside the U.S., electrification technologies are more widespread and accepted, and not just in passenger cars. At Formula E races across Europe, electric cars compete for coveted international titles. There are 22 cars from nine manufacturers on the FIA-sanctioned circuit, all powered by electric motors that can propel the cars to nearly 150 mph.

ON Semiconductor of Phoenix designs and manufactures the computer chips used in these racing motors, whose whine sounds a lot like a blender with a missing blade. ON also designed chips for Tesla to develop its pilot technology.

“We’re now entering season five of Formula E racing, which is taking the race cars and electrifying them. So now it’s going from a combustion engine that’s burning gas into a battery-powered vehicle,” said David Somo, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for ON.

Racing Formula E in Europe was a natural fit for the technology, he said. Europe has enacted several environmental policies that support alternative fuels designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Somo said. In the U.S., electricity is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

It’s not like Americans aren’t buying EVs. According to Green Tech Media, 2018 was a record year for electric vehicles, with 361,307 units sold. But electrics still represent a small fraction of vehicles on U.S. roads.

“Americans are buying SUVs and light duty trucks at a much, much higher rate, where last year we sold a little less than half a million electric vehicles. We sold over 10 million SUVs and light duty trucks,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy at the ENO Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think-tank focused on transportation issues.

“Transportation has been particularly difficult to decarbonize. And in fact, vehicle-miles traveled is growing, and so are the emissions related to transportation. So we have a huge environmental challenge in front of us related to transportation.

“Having everybody drive alone in their own cars is becoming untenable and not workable in a modern economy where you need to have densities and you have lots of people being very productive working closely together. And that’s where we have to kind of think more holistically about our transportation system.”

Tourism and population growth

It’s a particular challenge for a state whose top industry is tourism.

That means as a growing number of travelers come to Arizona, more cars will be on the road. That will be in addition to the increasing number of drivers added as more people continue to move to Maricopa County each year.

“The effects of climate change are here now,” said Dan Lashof, the U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, a D.C. nonprofit that researches sustainability issues. “We have a very short window of opportunity to really transform the way we produce and consume energy, eliminate emissions of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere.”

At one time, Arizona drew people seeking relief from respiratory problems. Now, Maricopa County receives a grade of “F” almost every year from the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report. Phoenix ranks as the eighth most polluted city in the country, measured by ozone level.

Ryan Cornell of Phoenix drives a Tesla Model 3, the latest of several electric cars he has owned. Yes, the car was expensive – prices start at more than $45,000 – but he sees it as an investment.

“Whether it’s five years, 10 years or sometime beyond that, we need to go to 100 percent, and we need to go to 100 percent renewable energy,” said Cornell, whose master’s thesis at Harvard Extension School compared the costs of EVs with the those of vehicles powered by internal combustible engines.

“Clean air is clean air. A liveable climate is a liveable climate. And I think people forget, too, that … the EPA was founded by (President Richard) Nixon. There’s no reason that everybody can’t be on board with some of these policies.

“We can’t tell someone who has health problems related to pollution, ‘Well, that’s a fake cost, that’s not a real cost.’ Like, that’s just as real as paying for car insurance or your monthly payment on the car or your electric bill.”

In December, the Arizona Corporation Commission adopted new policies to encourage Arizonans to switch to electric vehicles and utilities to invest in infrastructure to support it.

“Because of the nature of the power that electric vehicles are going to use, you have to be ahead and start developing programs and policies and tell utilities to prepare for it,” Commissioner Boyd Dunn said.

“Now, some are already doing that. The Salt River Project, that we don’t regulate, is already out there promoting electric vehicles … locating charging stations on their infrastructure. I know APS (the state’s largest power provider) has a program already, but they’re small.”

Dunn also noted the economic advantages EVs could bring to the state, such as the Lucid Motors plant planned for Casa Grande.

“We want to encourage the electric vehicle industry to locate in Arizona,” he said.

The commission received several letters objecting to the new policies.

“And I’ve heard from individuals who say, ‘Well, I don’t intend to have an electric vehicle. I don’t want to be paying a subsidy to let others have electric vehicles,’” Dunn said.

Electric cars are expensive, and building infrastructure to support those cars comes at a high cost – one residents may not be willing to pay. But at what cost to human health and the environment?

Coloradans reject setback restrictions on new oil and gas development

DENVER – Colorado oil and gas companies landed a significant victory election night as voters rejected sweeping restrictions on the booming industry.

Proposition 112 would have required any new oil and gas development that’s not on federal land to be set back at least 2,500 feet — almost half a mile — from homes and such “vulnerable areas” as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The current limit is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings.

Although natural gas production has been stable over the past decade, oil production in Colorado has doubled in the past five years – the bulk of it driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics of the well-stimulation technique say it poses dangers to public health.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said workers got involved because their livelihoods were at stake.

“What’s been amazing to me is seeing the people in this industry step forward. People who don’t like politics and don’t want to be involved in politics, but they understand you don’t get to choose your moment,” Haley said.

Oil and gas companies, including Anadarko and Noble Energy, poured millions into the political interest group Protect Colorado. Through mailers, door-to-door visits and TV ads the group trumpeted the industry’s economic success, and raised concerns about what would be lost if companies faced new restrictions.

The opponents said the measure would have banned new oil and gas activity on most non-federal land in Colorado and cost the state jobs. The industry generated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017,they said, and supported many other industries and jobs. State and local governments would also receive less in tax revenue if the measure were to pass, they argued.

Supporters of the measure said it would have reduced health and nuisance impacts — headaches, nausea, traffic and dust, for example — associated with drilling sites. They say it would have given property owners greater certainty about the location of new oil and gas sites close to their property.

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Fracking opponents are running out of avenues to challenge drilling in Colorado. In 2012 and 2013, Longmont and Fort Collins imposed short- and long-term bans on oil and gas development, but the Colorado Supreme Court rendered those efforts illegal. Efforts to impose greater setbacks through the Legislature have failed.

One of the few remaining challenges lies in another legal challenge before the same court: Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That case challenges the commission, which is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, to prioritize health and safety over resource development. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the next year.

Oil production has doubled in the state since 2013, and as of 2017, the state had 54,000 producing wells. Natural gas production has been stable for the past decade. But an increase in population along the northern Front Range means more people now are living near oil and gas facilities.

Renewable energy proposition electrifies supporters and opponents

PHOENIX – More than $40 million has been spent to fight for and against a ballot initiative that would change the future of Arizona’s energy mix. Proposition 127 has also been the subject of an Arizona Supreme Court lawsuit and a battle over claims that language from the Attorney General’s Office undermined the initiative.

If approved by voters Nov. 6, it would mandate the state’s regulated utility companies to get more of their energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

Supporters say it’s time to take advantage of one of the state’s most abundant resources: sunshine. Opponents say new energy mandates will result in higher costs for ratepayers.

In an interview with Fox News, Dr. Paul Bracken, a Yale University political science and management professor, said the state could be a testing ground for how other states deal with renewable energy standards.

“People who would like more sustainable energies are using the threat of a ballot initiative to put pressure on the state institutions of government and on the power companies themselves to change,” Bracken said. “I think one of the arguments in Arizona, is that for a state with its position in sustainable resources like solar it’s gone very, very slow in terms of particular solar but also wind—it hasn’t done as much as it should – so it could really influence Arizona Public Service and others to move in this direction.”

What the two sides say

Prop 127 would mandate that Arizona utility companies get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The Arizona Corporation Commission sets the current standard at 15 percent by 2025; if the initiative passes, the mandate will be included in the state Constitution.

Arizona ranks second behind Nevada in solar energy potential. Yet in 2016, solar accounted for about 5 percent of the state’s net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wind energy supplied less than 1 percent.

The group Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to get Prop 127 on the ballot to change that mix.

However, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court in July, claiming a number of signature-gathering violations by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. Lawyers for the group also said the initiative’s language about “clean” energy was misleading to petition-signers.

Judge Daniel Kiley in August rejected arguments for removing Prop 127 from the ballot. The lawsuit was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which also sided with the defendants, effectively keeping the initiative on the ballot and giving Arizona voters a say in the state’s renewable energy makeup.

“Most Arizonans understand that solar could be a really huge resource here,” said DJ Quinlan, a spokesman for Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. “And right now, we’re just not doing it.”

However, Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity – also known as No on Prop 127 – said Arizonans can expect a hefty increase in utility costs if the measure passes.

“For the typical Arizona family, that means a $1,000 or more in added utility costs over the course of the year,” he said, arguing that low income families and seniors living on fixed incomes would be hit the hardest.

In September, Prop 127 was again mired in controversy. Initiative supporters argued that language added by Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office to the initiative’s explanation in the voter ballot guide, which the Secretary of State’s Office creates, could make the measure less likely to pass, according to

The language involves the potential costs to consumers. The phrase “irrespective of cost” was added by the Attorney General’s Office regarding utilities meeting the new energy standards. One official from the Secretary of State’s Office called the added language “eyebrow raising,” according to the article, because that language is not part of the ballot measure itself.

Supporters of Prop 127 also contend Brnovich is in the pocket of Pinnacle West Capital Corp. – the Phoenix-based parent company of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility – because the company donated $425,000 to use against Brnovich’s opponent in the 2014 elections. The money was donated to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which spent $1.8 million to attack Democrat Felecia Rotellini in that election cycle.

Opposing views

Millions of dollars for campaign signs and radio and television ads have been raised by the two groups – and the messages are polar opposite.

For example, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity contends that Prop 127 would force the closure of the nation’s largest nuclear power plant, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah, just west of Phoenix. Palo Verde supplies at least 27 percent of Arizona’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration, and employs more than 2,500 people, according to APS, which is one of the operators of the facility.

“Closing current power plants, bringing online new resources and all of these costs get passed along to guess who? Ratepayers,” Benson said. “That’s the reason ratepayers will see their costs go up drastically if this becomes part of the Constitution.”

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona refutes the idea that Palo Verde would shut down.

“Palo Verde, we believe, is here to stay for its whole life cycle, and we’re supportive of that,” Quinlan said. “Having 50 percent renewable energy sitting next to 30 percent clean energy is a very compatible and healthy thing for our state.”

Nuclear energy emits lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, making it comparatively “cleaner” than such sources as coal or natural gas, according to Lincoln Davies, a law professor at the University of Utah who studies renewable energy policy in the U.S. and on a global scale.

The group also argues that new infrastructure would be needed to bring more renewable energy to the electrical grid, and that means jobs.

“What would happen is a pretty substantial and markable increase in our solar industry right away, which could really bring in a lot of good jobs and actually cut down on costs,” Quinlan said.

Where the money comes from

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has raised more than $18 million to support Prop 127, according to campaign finance reports. NextGen Climate Action, an environmental advocacy organization founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, provided more than 99 percent of funds for the group.

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity is largely backed by Pinnacle West Capital Corp., and has raised more than $22 million to oppose Prop 127, according to campaign finance reports.

Davies said it’s not surprising to see large utility companies spending millions of dollars to oppose mandates like Prop 127.

“As the grid has started to evolve,” he said, “as solar has become a really powerful influence in terms of how electricity is getting produced in the United States, you’re starting to see pushback from a lot of utilities and other political constituencies in different states against some of these measures, especially as they become more stringent.”

Similar initiatives are on the ballot next month in Nevada and Washington. Twenty-nine states have renewable portfolio standards that mandate electric utilities generate a certain amount of total energy from renewable sources. California and Hawaii share the highest future requirements: 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Arizona renewable energy standards are currently set at 15 percent by 2025.

“The idea of these laws was to drive down the cost of renewables over time so that they could be scaled up as technologies and be used across the grid,” Davies said.

The last day to mail in ballots is Oct. 31.

–Video by Rachel Carlton

Coal-fired past or green-powered future?

PUEBLO, Colorado – This small city 115 miles south of Denver has been a Western hub for steel production since the late-1800s. And like many steel towns in America, it’s attempting to make steel without relying as much on non-renewable energy like coal.

Now, Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel, wants to increase the amount of energy generated by renewable sources, which would mean shutting down two of its three coal-fired plants. The goal is to reduce coal-fired power and boost wind and solar production to 55 percent of the company’s energy mix.

During its heyday, Colorado Steel and Iron in Pueblo had more than 60 mines and quarries across Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, Wyoming and New Mexico. It eventually became the state’s largest private landowner.

The steel industry here got hit hard in the 1970s and ’80s, but for Pueblo, there was a bright spot. The city of a 100,000 has plentiful sun, and it now is one of the biggest producers of the enormous wind turbines used to produce energy.

If Colorado regulators approve Xcel’s proposal, it will mean two of the three Comanche Power Plant smokestacks that define Pueblo’s skyline would go away.

The proposed change makes long-time Comanche Power Plant workers like Dave McKenzie nervous. He’s been at Xcel’s largest coal-fired power plant in the state for 15 years.

“We’re very well-paid for what we do. But we work in a dangerous situation,” he said.

Here’s the rub: Comanche employees can earn up to $100,000 a year. That’s a big deal in a town where the average salary is about $20,000 less compared with the rest of the state.

Eighty jobs are on the line, and by 2025, workers either will retire or be placed in new positions, Xcel says. But for McKenzie and his two sons-in-law — who also work at the plant — there are more questions than answers.

“I don’t want to see my grandkids have to leave” he said. “It’s fun having them run around the house. But if these jobs go away, so do they.”

Regulators are expected to decide on Xcel’s renewable-energy plan and the future of Pueblo’s Comanche plant in September.

Transitioning from a coal-based economy isn’t unique to Pueblo. It’s happening nationwide as more utilities turn to renewables. And that’s despite President Donald Trump’s effort to bolster the industry.

In Arizona, for example, the West’s largest coal-burning power plant, the Navajo Generating Station, is scheduled to shut down in 2019, as natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper options for utility companies. That plan has spawned protests by workers and members of the the Native American communities that will be affected by the closing.

In Colorado, the Xcel plan to rely more on renewable energy is buoyed by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recently declared climate-action goals.

The Xcel proposal would add 700 megawatts of new solar. Pueblo specially stands to benefit greatly from one of the largest solar-battery storage projects in the country. The utility also wants to add 1,100 megawatts of wind power, generated by the city’s booming Vestas Wind Systems plant, the largest wind-tower manufacturer in the world.

Orders Vestas are fully booked through 2021, spurred by the expiration of a production tax credit for wind energy.

“I mean, how many companies can look forward and say, ‘My production forecasts are that high,’” asked Tony Knopp, Vestas Pueblo plant manager.

Inside Vestas Wind Systems’ production building, large sections of wind towers are molded from flat slabs of steel. (Photo: Grace Hood, Colorado Public Radio).

Chris Markuson, director of Pueblo County Department of Economic Development, said the community is “poised to become the renewable-energy hub for Colorado and likely the region.” Overall in Pueblo County, the Xcel plan is expected to bring an additional $1.4 million in tax revenue.

Beyond Vestas, he said, ample sunshine and the transmission lines that crisscross Pueblo put it in a sweet spot for large-scale solar. Last fall the Denver Post reported that the city is in the running to be the home of “the largest build-to-suit solar-cell and solar-panel manufacturing center in the United States.” That could provide nearly 800 jobs.

“All of those things add up to making Pueblo prime for renewable development,” said Markuson, who adds he’s talking to six other renewable-energy companies that could relocate because of the Xcel proposal.

A new economy of wind power

Wind-tower sections are stored outside the Vestas plant until they can be shipped to customers across the country. (Photo: Grace Hood, Colorado Public Radio)

Spend any amount of time with Markuson and you get the sense that the renewable boom isn’t happening by accident. Pueblo County recruited Vestas a decade ago by touting strong rail line connections, community college training programs and a plethora of experienced steel workers.

An economic analysis prepared for Xcel said the renewable transition would bring 133 new jobs to Pueblo over a 23 year period, with a real Gross Domestic Product increase of nearly $10 million. Personal income could increase by $8.6 million.

In the end, it’s not job numbers that matter to Markuson, although he does keep a careful eye on them. He cares about economic growth, the GDP increase and giving the once down on its luck southern manufacturing hub a new heyday.

“Really, to push people from a place of poverty to a place of affluence,” he said. “And that is a difficult thing to do.”

Closing down coal plants won’t necessarily make energy cheaper for residents

The irony of all these renewable plans is that while it will benefit the city economically, residents won’t reap the rewards on their energy bill. For most in town, Xcel isn’t their utility – Black Hills Energy is. Rebecca Vigil with citizen’s group Pueblo’s Energy Future said one challenge for residents with less disposable income are the higher-than-average utility rates. The city is exploring breaking away from Black Hills Energy in search of better rates — and with a goal of getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

“It has a big impact here with people trying to get ahead, and also with businesses,” Vigil said of the impact of high power bills.

Black Hills said recently redesigned electric rates will shrink utility bills by as much as 5 percent. Tensions between residents and Black Hills are high.

Steel City Solar’s Jim Brown knows these pluses and minuses better than most. He built his business two years ago around customers fed up with high utility bills.

“It’s eating into their budgets, eating into the other things they like to do,” Brown said of Black Hills’ customers.

He tells potential solar customers he could save them 30 percent on their electric bill. As a former paratrooper and electrician, he actively sought out work in the solar industry. The Xcel plan could bring more experienced solar installers to town. That would help Brown. He hopes to double the size of his company. Today he has 20 workers, many of whom he’s trained.

“I mean, people just have to evolve,” Brown said. “Industries change all the time.”

Renewable energy state by state

PHOENIX – Environment America released a report on Tuesday that focuses on how well the nation is utilizing renewable energy. Several states in the west top the lists, including California, and Arizona.

Arizona has dramatically increased renewable energy production since 2008, the report said, and ranks high in several categories. California leads the way in solar power and battery storage.