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Tri-State to add 1 GW of renewables by 2024, will not pursue Holcomb expansion

A bundle of new renewable energy projects will help to "dramatically and rapidly advance" Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc.'s transition toward a clean power-heavy energy mix, according to the utility cooperative.

The addition of those projects, along with other actions outlined as part of its "Responsible Energy Plan," will help Tri-State reach a goal of having half of the power consumed by its "cooperative family" generated by renewable resources by 2024, according to a Jan. 15 news release.

The six new projects, as well as two that were announced previously but have not yet been constructed, will bring an additional 1 GW of renewable power to Tri-State's portfolio. Tri-State's "wholesale rates [will] remain stable, if not lower," as these projects come online, the co-op said.

The projects include the 200-MW Escalante Solar project, to be developed by Turning Point Energy LLC; the 200-MW Niyol Wind project, to be developed by NextEra Energy Resources LLC; the 104-MW Crossing Trails Wind project, to be developed by EDP Renewables; and the 120-MW Coyote Gulch Solar, 110-MW Dolores Canyon Solar and 145-MW Axial Basin Solar projects to be developed by juwi GmbH's wholly owned subsidiary juwi Inc.

In 2019, Tri-State announced that juwi would develop the 100-MW Spanish Peaks Solar Project, which is scheduled to come online by 2023 after construction begins in 2022. It already has the pending 40-MW Spanish Peaks II Solar project, also to be developed by juwi, on the books.

All of the projects will be based in Colorado except the Escalante Solar project, which will be sited near the Escalante coal-fired station in New Mexico. That facility is now slated to close by the end of 2020, more than two decades earlier than the plant's planned end of life in 2045. The Axial Basin project will be sited near the Colowyo mine, which Tri-State recently announced would close by 2030.

"We're not just changing direction, we're emerging as the leader of the energy transition," said Duane Highley, Tri-State's CEO, in a statement.

What remains to be seen is whether all of Tri-State's members will agree. Tri-State has been pressured by some of its member cooperatives to more quickly incorporate renewable energy into its coal-heavy resource portfolio. In July 2019, Tri-State reached a "settlement in principle" with Delta Montrose Electric Association over the association's desire to exit the co-op and pursue cheaper, cleaner power sources.

Two other members, United Power Inc. and La Plata Electric Assn Inc, have turned to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, claiming that Tri-State will not provide them with a reasonable estimated exit charge.

But Tri-State in its Jan. 15 release said its members now will have more "flexibility to develop more local, self-supplied renewable energy," noting that it had "expanded opportunities for member community solar projects up to 63 MW system-wide, and is finalizing recommendations for partial requirements contracts." Members also will receive electric vehicle charging stations funded by Tri-State, the release said.

La Plata, for its part, tweeted that it was "supportive" of the announcements.

Holcomb will no longer expand

While the project had long been assumed to be all but dead, Tri-State also confirmed that the planned expansion of the 358.8-MW Holcomb coal-fired plant would no longer move forward. Holcomb is owned and operated by Sunflower Electric Power Corporation Inc. and falls under the planning area of both Tri-State and Southwest Power Pool.

The plant had been permitted to tack on an additional 895 MW of coal-fired generation but faced legal challenges that delayed construction by years.

Sunflower President and CEO Stuart Lowry in a statement confirmed that his utility would allow the project's air permit to expire on March 27.

"Fifteen years ago, the price of natural gas was high, and wind generation was in its infancy," Lowry said. "At that time, the expansion of Holcomb Station emerged as the best way to meet our members' long-term needs for generating reliable, affordable energy."

Highley teased this week's renewable power announcements Jan. 10 after saying that the cooperative would retire decades early its Colorado- and New Mexico-based coal-fired generation fleet. In its Jan. 15 release, Tri-State committed to not develop any new coal facilities.