It won’t be long before many electricity consumers in the Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming could be getting a majority of their power from solar and wind generation.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission last week disclosed details of their Responsible Energy Plan, which includes closing their remaining coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico over the next ten years, shutting down the Colowyo coal mine and moving their generation production goal to at least 50% coming from renewables by the end of 2024 and more in the years beyond.
Power companies and public power districts in eastern Wyoming, the Panhandle and southwestern Nebraska are members of Tri-State, and get some, if not all of their power from the Colorado-based power generation association. Nebraska Public Power District is not a part of the organization.
High West Energy CEO Brian Heithoff tells Rural Radio News over the past 20 years, the industry has been evolving, and rapidly so in the last few years, due to changes in technology driving the move away from centralized electricity production.
“The economics of wind, and solar in particular, are now below the operating costs of many of our thermal facilities, mainly our coal plants,” says Heithoff, “It’s driven somewhat, in part, for environmental and sustainability reasons, but it large part it’s driven by economics.”
Tri-State’s plan is to maintaining or reducing rates during the transition and beyond. Heithoff says there may be a slight blip in production pricing for a year or two when investment tax credits for renewables expire, but experts are still anticipating wind and solar generation costs to continue a downward trend up to and well beyond that point.
Improving technology is also a driver of the shift, with more efficient and cost-effective solar panels and wind turbines, as well as advances in battery technology that will help store electricity for use during times of higher demand and/or lower generation capacity. “Now the upper limits are anticipated to be 70-80% (instead of 10-20%) intermittency can be added into the system across the region, and still maintain reliability. So we’re pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible, and it turns out we can do some of these things.”
Heithoff says the move to renewables and a more-decentralized generation system will also bring changes to the management of those facilities, as well as operation of distribution systems. He tells us it’s a significant shift from management with thermal generation plants. “We would ramp up and down power plants based on what the load was. And this transition we’re going through is one where we will now ramp up and down load, meaning incentives, whether it’s as pricing and otherwise, to try to match load with what the resources are that are available,” said Heithoff.
In addition to seeking price stability, if not reductions, for customers, High West and other members of the TSG&T Assoc. are working to ensure reliability, keeping in mind large power consumers such as agriculture irrigators and business factories or production facilities. Heithoff says they would not have traveled down the renewable path if that wasn’t possible. “That’s all part of their (TSG&T) modeling that they’ve done in preparing for the future. And we’re doing the same thing here at the distribution level, running flow models from time to time and testing the assumptions we’re making as far as what we can do, when and at what temperature, and what month of the year, those kind of things.”
Heithoff says High West officials says they believe they’ll be able to make the transition with very little impact on retail rates. He says there may be a slight impact in a few years, but it’s anticipated those changes in electricity prices will at less than the rate of inflation.