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Science & Environment

Debate Brews In Pueblo Over The Balance Of Coal And Renewable Energy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is expected to roll back regulations today on coal-fired power plants. It's a reversal of Obama-era efforts to slow climate change and promote clean energy. And it gives climate-conscious states, like Colorado, a lot to think about. The state's largest utility has big plans, including a future defined by less fossil fuels. That could mean changes at Xcel Energy's coal plant in the small blue-collar town of Pueblo in south central Colorado. Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio has more on a city at the crossroads.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Pueblo's skyline is defined by the three smokestacks at the Comanche coal-fired electricity plant, the largest owned by Xcel in the state. For the last 15 years, that's been the destination for Dave McKenzie's morning commute.

DAVE MCKENZIE: We're very well-paid for what we do, but we work in a dangerous situation.

HOOD: Coal plant workers can make up to $100,000 a year. But a proposal by Xcel seeks to draw half of its electricity for Colorado from renewable sources in the next few years. That would mean two of the three smokestacks disappear by 2025. About 80 jobs hang in the balance. McKenzie's two sons-in-law also work at the plant.

MCKENZIE: I don't want to see my grandkids have to leave. You know, it's fun having them run around the house. But if these jobs go away, so do they.

HOOD: Xcel says, by 2025, workers will either retire or be placed in new jobs. But McKenzie says the company has shared few specifics. He's worried. The transition away from coal jobs here is not unique. It's happening nationwide because more utilities are turning to natural gas and renewables, even under President Donald Trump.

That transition is visible a few miles away. At the Vestas wind tower construction plant, giant steel plates roll down a large conveyor belt. Xcel's plan would call for 1,100 additional megawatts of wind in Colorado. Plant manager Tony Knopp says it could be more orders. Business for the 800 workers here is strong.

TONY KNOPP: We're fully booked all the way through '21 at this factory. I mean, how many companies can look forward and say, you know, my production forecasts are that high?

HOOD: This Vestas plant didn't just land in Pueblo by accident. Chris Markuson of the county economic development office says it's part of a careful strategy, laid out over years to attract renewable energy firms.

CHRIS MARKUSON: If you think about it, Pueblo has long been in the energy conversion business. We started with smelting steel, converting coal into energy to make steel.

HOOD: Markuson says, even if the coal plant shrinks, Pueblo still stands to gain more than $1 million in annual tax revenue. That's because Xcel Energy has also proposed a big solar farm in Pueblo and one of the largest battery storage projects in the country. In the end, it's not job numbers that matter to Markuson. It's economic growth.

MARKUSON: Really to push people from a place of poverty into place of affluence - and that is a difficult thing to do.

HOOD: Standing on the sidelines are small businesses, like Steel City Solar. Owner Jim Brown used to be a paratrooper then an electrician. Now he owns a residential solar business. Xcel's solar farm will likely draw more experienced solar installers to Pueblo. That would help Brown, who hopes to one day double his company.

JIM BROWN: I mean, people just have to evolve. Industries change all the time.

HOOD: The town debate could get resolved next month. That's when regulators are expected to issue a written decision on Xcel's 55 percent renewable plan and the future of the town's coal-fired plant.

For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Pueblo, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUART MCCALLUM'S "SALTBURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.