Published in the Pueblo Chieftain on January 14th, 2024
The Xcel Energy-established Pueblo Innovative Energy Solutions Advisory Committee (PIESAC) recently released their proposed recommendations for energy generation in Pueblo. Most committee members have no expertise in the electric utility field. They recommend building a nuclear or natural gas plant with carbon capture. The main requirement was to generate a significant tax base and jobs. Neither of these projects is likely to be approved by the Colorado Public Utility Commission (PUC).
The City of Pueblo’s Energy Advisory Commission’s charter is based on a 2017 resolution to make the city’s energy generation 100% renewable by 2035. This commission is all volunteer. I am currently the chairman.
Our commission studied the advanced nuclear small modular reactors (SMR) proposed by PIESAC. As part of this study, we met in 2022 with the director of Idaho’s National Labs in charge of SMR development. She concluded that SMR technology would not be production-worthy until around 2040.
Nuclear energy generation is one of the most expensive ways to generate power. Current nuclear generation has a history of failure because of long delays and cost overruns. Their track record could be better, as most projects never make it to production. Next-generation SMR technology was presented as a solution. It is experimental and expensive. Today, SMR projects are being canceled, and companies involved are having significant layoffs in this field. A commercial SMR has yet to be built. I don’t think Pueblo needs to construct an experimental SMR that would likely be shut down. This is all driven by the poor economics of the technology.
Apart from high costs, there are many other health and safety issues with nuclear fission generators. The biggest is dealing with nuclear materials and spent fuel. There are no long-term storage options for spent nuclear fuel. They stay on site and will require attention for thousands of years. If Pueblo has a nuclear reactor, we will become a nuclear waste site. Other facilities could use Pueblo to store their spent fuel.
The other option endorsed by the PIESAC team was building a combined cycle gas turbine generator (CCGT) with carbon capture. The problem is carbon capture is experimental, expensive, and not 100% effective. You would still have pollution. If built, it would likely become another stranded asset, creating another property tax dilemma for Pueblo.
Xcel Energy is an investor-owned utility (IOU), a for-profit utility regulated by the PUC. They make money for their shareholders by building infrastructure. SMR or CCGT investments would provide them with massive profits. Most of the costs and risks are passed to their customers and local government. Pueblo residents do not use the electric energy made by Xcel. It goes to the Denver area. If they fail or become stranded assets, their customers and our local agencies suffer the most. An example is the Comanche coal generator plant, closing decades earlier than planned. Xcel electric customers are paying the price. Fortunately, the PUC forced Xcel to make up lost tax revenue through 2040 for Pueblo. If they can replace these stranded assets with an SMR or CCGT, their tax burden to Pueblo from the coal plant closure goes away, too.
PIESAC dismissed renewables and storage technologies because they don’t generate massive property taxes and jobs. But solar and batteries work now, providing the lowest-cost electric power. Solar farms with batteries are being built in Pueblo. There is land available to create many more. The taxes and jobs could be substantial if you build many of these facilities in Pueblo. This is the way of the future. And the technology and economics are already proven. We can also add these systems inside our distribution system, lowering Pueblo’s electric costs and improving resilience. By the time 2040 rolls around, renewable energy will make up the vast majority of our energy generation.
Pueblo could become a renewable center for the USA. Let’s build on successes like CS Wind, providing thousands of good jobs. We must get other companies involved in these renewable industries to build their plants in Pueblo. This would help Pueblo to diversify its industries, jobs, and tax base. Jobs that can keep Puebloans and future generations working and living in Pueblo.
While there are no free rides, the Pueblo community’s future health and general welfare will be best served by embracing the cleanest, most cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and readily available renewable energy sources. These are solar and wind, backed up by several storage methods, which include batteries.
Ken Danti is a retired engineer living in Pueblo. He is focused on Pueblo’s energy future as a volunteer. Ken is the current chairman of the City of Pueblo Energy Advisory Commission. He is the volunteer President of Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America, a local non-profit. He has no financial stake in these matters.