Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission received an earful from Pueblo residents at this week’s public hearing over a proposed 4.8 percent rate hike by Black Hills Energy.
While Pueblo’s local electric utility provider seeks the rate increase mostly to pass along to consumers the cost of building a new $65 million, 40-megawatt natural gas turbine, others argue the cost of energy continues to go up — not only for Black Hills customers, but across the state — as a result of state and federal environmental regulations.
At a time when jobs and economic opportunities are hard to come by and many Puebloans feel they must struggle to make ends meet, any increase in their monthly electric bill is the last thing local residents want or need.
As part of a 2004 ballot initiative, Colorado voters passed the nation’s first Renewable Energy Standard, which requires electricity providers to generate a certain minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy sources. The Legislature has since acted three times to increase the requirements for renewables.
Moreover, the Colorado General Assembly in 2010 enacted the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which mandated emissions reductions from coal-fueled power plants and for at least 900 megawatts of coal-fired generating units to be retired by January 2015.
Supported at the time by lawmakers from both political parties and by many power companies, energy-industry representatives and environmental-advocacy organizations, the law is a big part of the reason Colorado is projected to have reduced its CO2 emissions by 3.6 million metric tons annually by 2018. That’s a good thing.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty regarding federal mandates and ongoing litigation regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s role and authority in regulating carbon emissions, what’s clear is that the state has and can exercise such authority.
But missing from the conversation about how best to lower emissions, improve public health, and lower costs associated with providing reliable energy to Colorado consumers is an alternative energy source that also has the potential to become a driver of technological innovation, jobs and economic development opportunities for Pueblo and our state: safe, reliable and clean nuclear power.
While the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act was principally viewed as a mandate to shift from coal-fueled power generation to natural gas, the law also explicitly calls on policymakers and utilities to consider “other low emitting resources” that would help meet state or federal renewable energy requirements, improve energy efficiency and reduce pollution and CO2 emissions.
Not only do nuclear plants already produce nearly 20 percent of our nation’s electricity, but they are the lowest-cost generators of base-load electricity measured by their operating, maintenance and fuel costs, and they emit no carbon or other greenhouse gases.
It may surprise some to know that nuclear power is not new to Colorado. The Fort St. Vrain power generation plant in Weld County employed a unique high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactor design (one of two in the nation) that was in operation from December 1976 until 1989, producing more than 178,000 net megawatt hours per month at the plant’s peak production.
While successful and more efficient than some of the light-water reactors more prevalent at the time, maintenance and repair costs associated with the unique design did not prove as economical to operate as the board of directors of Public Service Co. had hoped. In late August 1989, the decision was made to decommission the nuclear reactor and the Fort St. Vrain plant was later converted to natural gas-fired turbines.
Pueblo County would be an ideal location for a new nuclear power plant. Preliminary discussions about building a nuclear power plant near Pueblo were set aside in the spring of 2011. This was partly the result of a lack of investors and an energy company partner, partly a lack of details presented to the local planning commission and partly because emotions and community concerns were still running high in the wake of the accident at Japan’s Fukushima power plant following the major earthquake and tsunami in March of that year.
Fortunately, Pueblo faces very little risk of major earthquakes and one hopes a tsunami in Southern Colorado is equally unlikely.
Colorado stands to benefit not only from the jobs and opportunities for technological innovation that building a state-of-the-art nuclear-generating facility would bring, but building a new nuclear plant could also foster renewed interest in uranium mining in the state.
Colorado ranks third among the states for its uranium reserves, right behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Colorado’s Uravan mineral belt is not only the oldest uranium mining area in the United States, it also historically has been one of the most productive uranium and vanadium regions in the country. The belt has an estimated 1,200 historic mines that produced more than 63 million pounds of uranium from 1948 to 1978.
The shift away from coal-fired power plants has already put many coal miners out of work and further threatens the future of coal mining in the state. Helping to encourage renewed interest in uranium mining as a corollary to nuclear power generation in Colorado is a no-brainer.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment granted a license to start construction on the first new uranium mill in the country in more than 30 years, located at Pinon Ridge in Montrose County. State policymakers could further signal their willingness to encourage a shift to nuclear power by including nuclear — along with solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and new hydroelectric power generation — as part of Colorado’s Renewable RES mix.
Nuclear energy can and should be included as an important part of the “all of the above” energy strategy needed to move beyond politicians’ sound bites to a reality that helps protect consumers’ pocketbooks and reduces carbon emissions in an honest effort to protect our environment.
If we are serious about addressing climate change and helping our state continue to be at the leading edge of technological innovation, nuclear power can and should be a part of the conversation.