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Transmission issues frustrate Holy Cross goal of 90% zero-emission power by ’24

March 18, 2024, 9:43 am

Bronco Plains wind energy in eastern Colorado (Holy Cross Energy photo).

Holy Cross Energy had hoped to surpass 90% emissions-free energy by the end of 2023. It didn’t get there.

The utility has had several setbacks as it stretches to achieve zero-emissions energy by 2030. Frustrating the near-term ambition of 90% has been the inability to deliver electricity from a new wind project in eastern Colorado to the 48,000 Holy Cross members in the Vail, Aspen, and Battlement Mesa area of western Colorado.

The transmission capacity in eastern Colorado has become as congested as Interstate 70 on a busy ski weekend. Unlike ski traffic, though, this congestion likely won’t ease until completion of the first segments of a major new transmission line in 2025.

Holy Cross has set out to dramatically shed greenhouse gas emissions from its electrical generation. Renewables grew from 39% to 50% of the Holy Cross generating mix from 2018 through 2023.

In January the proportion leaped to 68%, thanks in part to a new solar project called Hunter, southeast of Denver. It went on line in December. Holy Cross has contracted for 30 megawatts of capacity from that project.

Also contributing to the expansion of renewables was wind-generated electricity from Bronco Plains II. That wind project lies along Interstate 70 near the town of Flagler, about 125 miles southeast of Denver. Holy Cross is to get 150 megawatts of wind power during winter months and 100 megawatts during summer months.

Inverse to most electrical utilities, such as those along the Front Range, Holy Cross has higher demand from its members, a peak of 270 megawatts, during winter, owing partly to the busyness of ski season. Summer demand peaks at 150 megawatts. Air conditioning, if increasingly common, poses a lesser demand.

Full delivery of this wind-generated electricity from the Great Plains, however, will await completion of the first two segments of Xcel Energy’s $1.7 billion transmission project, Colorado’s Power Pathway.

Ground for the double-circuit 345-kilovolt Power Pathway transmission was broken last July south of Xcel’s Pawnee Power Plant near Brush. It will eventually loop 560 miles around eastern Colorado, nearly to the Kansas border, then head west to Pueblo and north to metropolitan Denver. After the first two phases in 2025, three other phases are to follow in 2026 and 2027. See more here.

“Unfortunately, until that project is completed, we will not be able to meet the 90% that we discussed last year,” said Jenna Weatherred, the vice president for member and community relations at Holy Cross Energy. ”We still hope that Xcel will have that project completed in 2025, and at that point, we will be at 90% renewable energy.”

For all its renewable aspirations, Holy Cross remains tethered uncomfortably to coal. It owns 8% of Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant, Comanche 3, and is still on the hook for property taxes of more than $1 million a year to Pueblo County. It has consigned the output of Comanche to Guzman Energy.

In 2022, coal was still responsible for 29% and natural gas 9% of its generating mix, with some of both likely in the additional 14% of power that Holy Cross buys from Guzman Energy and Xcel Energy.

Despite the aspirations of Holy Cross, Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive, said at a Vail Symposium forum in October that he expects that gas will remain part of the generating mix of Colorado utilities until at least mid-century. In theory, some utilities – most notably Aspen Electric and Glenwood Springs – have already achieved 100% renewables. They do so through purchase choices. In practice, some of their electrons almost assuredly come from coal and natural gas.

Local solar-plus-storage

While it awaits transmission on the state’s eastern plains, Holy Cross has also been building solar plus-storage projects in its service territory. The first to come on line was at the Colorado Mountain College campus near Glenwood Springs in 2022.

Now comes High Mesa, which is expected to begin delivering power from the Battlement Mesa area later this year. Mamm Creek, a project near Rifle is expected to go on line in early 2025. Both projects have 10 megawatts of solar capacity plus 10 megawatts/20 megawatt-hours battery capacity.

Somerset methane & Gypsum biomass

Also posing some challenges for Holy Cross has been the loss or decline of two small projects that have delivered baseload power. At Gypsum, the Eagle Valley Clean Energy Biomass Facility has cut production. Holy Cross was getting 11 megawatts of electricity of the plant’s output of 13 megawatts.

Production has ceased altogether at Somerset. There, methane from the now-abandoned West Elk Coal Mine was being burned to produce electricity. The abandoned mine now generates too little methane.

Another coal mine in the same region, in the Coal Basin above Redstone, continues to produce emissions. However, hopes that the methane could be combusted to produce electricity continues to be frustrated by a variety of reasons, most notably the fact that the mine entrance lies in a wilderness study area.

Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect the percentage of ownership by Holy Cross Energy of the Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant to 8%.

Editor’s note: Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots, where this post first appeared. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 720.415.9308.

One Response to Transmission issues frustrate Holy Cross goal of 90% zero-emission power by ’24

  1. John Ives Reply

    April 6, 2024 at 9:20 am

    Please elaborate on “…Eagle Valley Clean Energy Biomass Facility has cut production.” How much? Why? Temporary or permanent?


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