Yampa Valley energy industry impacts unclear after Xcel announces zero-carbon plan

The stacks of Hayden Station, a coal-fired power plant in West Routt County, rise above the plant. (File photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The majority owner of Hayden Station announced last week that it plans to provide carbon neutral electricity by 2050.

According to a news release, Xcel Energy plans to deliver 100 percent “carbon-free” electricity to customers by 2050 and to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030.

”When I launched my campaign back in 2017, we had a bold agenda for our state to get to 100 percent renewable by 2040,” Colorado Governor-elect Jared Polis was quoted as saying in the release last Tuesday. “Xcel Energy’s exciting announcement today, along with the strong climate goals communities like Pueblo, Summit County, Fort Collins, Denver and others across the state have embraced, shows we are leading the way forward right here in Colorado — by committing to a renewable and clean energy future.”

Xcel owns 75.5 percent of Unit One and 37.4 percent of Unit Two at Hayden Station. The company also operates the coal-fired power plant. It is not clear how Xcel’s goal will impact Hayden Station.

Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo said the company had not filed any plans to change operations of power plants that are currently online in the eight states where it operates.

“This is laying the groundwork on ‘This is the vision that we have, and this is where we want to go,’” she said. “We don’t have anything specific that we can say about any of our plants that are online.”

Aguayo said Xcel anticipates it can reach its 2030 carbon reduction goal with existing technology.

Right now, carbon capture and storage technology are less efficient and more costly than conventional power plants, according to the World Coal Association. If that technology advances, it could change outcomes for coal-fired power plants.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be technology that’s going to be available in the next 30 years or so that would make carbon capture a viable possibility for us, so that means that if you had a new technology that came along and was able to do that, then you wouldn’t have to shutter those plants,” Aguayo said.

In 2017, Xcel Energy was Routt County’s largest taxpayer, representing 4.5 percent of the county’s total assessed value, according to data from the Routt County Assessor’s Office. Six of Routt County’s top 10 taxpayers are involved in energy production, transmission and distribution. Xcel, Union Pacific Corp., Peabody Energy, Pacificorp and Yampa Valley Electric Association’s combined assets represented 11.3 percent of the county’s total assessed valuation last year.

Hayden Station employed about 80 people in 2017, according to John Bristol, Routt County director of economic development. Hayden Station and its coal supplier, Twentymile Coal Company, employ a local workforce from Routt and Moffat counties.

“When you think of the economic impact, those are direct jobs, and then, there are the indirect jobs,” he said. “People take their salary, and they put it in a local bank, and then they spend it at the Merc (the Hayden Mercantile) or Wolf Mountain Pizza or Yampa Valley Brewing Company and other locations there. Those are the indirect jobs that are involved.”

Xcel also indirectly impacts taxing districts in West Routt, he said, including the Hayden School District, West Routt Fire Protection District and West Routt Library District.

YVEA purchases 95 percent of its power from Xcel, with the remaining coming from the Western Area Power Administration and Renewable Resources, YVEA General Manager Steve Johnson said in an email. He said the cooperative would work closely with the company as Xcel moves toward its zero-carbon goal in the next few years, to ensure that YVEA is serving members best interests.

“Xcel’s push towards 100 percent carbon-free energy does not have an impact upon how we serve our membership,” he wrote. “The effects upon long-term costs and service reliability is unknown at this time, but a move by Xcel to lower their carbon footprint does not change how we intend on serving our members with safe, reliable and affordable electricity.”

Others in the community are also waiting to see what happens.

“At this point, I think we’re just waiting for a lot of the information to still come out,” said Hayden Town Manager Mathew Mendisco.

As that information becomes available, Mendisco said he hoped the town would have a seat at the table as regional leadership worked through it.

Sarah Jones, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, said she’s glad to see the utility move away from emitting more carbon into the atmosphere, but she’s concerned by the economic impact a possible move away from coal-powered electricity could have.

“I think that we have to be moving that way globally to reduce the climate change impacts,” she said. “It scares me because of the local economic impact and the potential for Twentymile and Hayden Station to close.”

Bristol said it is important to watch how Xcel implements new technologies across the eight states in which it operates and the work the company has done in other communities.

Xcel recently announced its plan to retire two of Comanche Station’s three coal-fired units in the coming decade. Xcel plans to place solar farms and solar power storage complexes in the general vicinity of the power plant near Pueblo.

Xcel executives told the Pueblo Chieftain that the job cuts would occur through attrition as workers retire, accept other jobs within Xcel or opt for jobs with other employers. Aguayo said Xcel staff there could see retraining or options to move to another power plant.

Bristol said watching how the company retires other plants or converts them to other fuel sources can give insight to timelines and possible impacts to Northwest Colorado.

“We also have to be looking at what we can do locally. … We have to look at our economy up and down the Yampa Valley, from Yampa all the way down to Dinosaur, and how are we, as a regional economy, actively working to diversify our economy so that we do have good jobs and good employment for individuals if there are economic shocks down the road,” Bristol said.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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