Guzman Energy is offering to buy and shut down three coal units in Colorado, including two at the Craig Generating Station. Credit: Allen Best

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Guzman Energy says it has the capital to make substantial shifts in Rocky Mountain co-ops’ energy supplies.

Guzman Energy burst onto the utility scene in the Rocky Mountains in 2016 as an electrical cooperative based in Taos, New Mexico, sought to get out of its contract with a coal-heavy wholesale supplier in order to develop its local solar potential.

To make that possible, Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee required by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale supplier, and began delivering electricity purchased from the energy markets to the co-op. Today, Kit Carson Electric Association is on track to develop solar resources sufficient to meet all its daytime needs by 2020. Its rates, meanwhile, have remained competitive with or less than what it paid under Tri-State.

Now, Guzman wants to do much the same for Tri-State altogether. It’s proposing to buy three of the coal-fired generating units owned primarily by Tri-State, shut them down, and replace the 800 megawatts of generation with a balance of wind and solar backed likely by natural gas generation.

Guzman, which describes itself as an energy marketing, trading and investment company, says renewables have become so cheap that it can make money — and members of the 43 electrical co-ops that together constitute Tri-State can also save money. Guzman believes the same model could be used to expedite the retirement of coal assets owned by other utilities that have become stranded by lower-cost renewables.

“We would finance the early shutdown of these coal plants, giving Tri-State a substantial cash infusion, in the vicinity of a half-billion dollars, and we would replace the portfolio (that would be lost) with in excess of 70% renewables,” said Chris Riley, president of Guzman Energy, in an interview last week at the firm’s office in downtown Denver.

The electricity Tri-State and its members would get, he added, would be at less cost than the electricity generated by the three coal plants. Two units are in the Craig Generation Station in Colorado, and the third, Escalante, is near Grants, New Mexico. The proposal also includes purchase of a Tri-State coal mine near Craig.

Guzman says it would also cover the costs of dismantling the three units as well as remediation costs, which are expected to be substantial. The remediation, however, would be subject to negotiation, Riley said. In addition, Guzman offers to assist communities that would be affected by early retirement of the coal units.

The offer, in Guzman’s telling, illustrates the availability of “flexible capital” to hurry the transition from greenhouse gas-polluting coal plants to renewable generation, doing for Tri-State what it cannot readily do itself.

“We are looking to find a return acceptable to our investors, but this is also a demonstration of how you can help facilitate a transition and do it in a creative way,” said Riley. “There is a lot of capital focused on this problem. There are a lot of people focused on solving this problem.”

An ‘inefficient’ energy system

Guzman’s proposal to buy and close coal plants also aligns with new laws adopted in both Colorado and New Mexico this year. Both states want carbon-free energy by 2050.

New Mexico’s new renewable energy standard requires rural electrical cooperatives hit 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2040. Colorado’s new laws require large utilities file to plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2030.

“The administration (of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis) will be actively engaged to advocate for rules that will support he governor’s agenda of 100% clean electricity by 2040 and the carbon pollution goals established by the Legislature,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, in an e-mail response to a request for comment.

Of Tri-State’s 43 member co-ops, 29 are in Colorado and New Mexico, with the others in Wyoming and Nebraska. More significantly, most of the largest members — constituting roughly half of Tri-State’s electrical demand — have told Tri-State they want to see a more rapid decarbonization. Tri-State has lately begun taking steps to accommodate those requests.

Riley declined to identify the source of Guzman’s money in making the offer to Tri-State. However, the company last August announced two Colorado-based funds, Zoma Capital and Vision Ridge Partners, had together invested $130 million.

Zoma Capital, started by Ben Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and his wife, Lucy Ana Walton, is focused on “accelerating energy technologies to create a more efficient, responsive and modernized electric grid,” according to Zoma’s website. The website describes Colorado’s energy system as “inefficient and too heavily reliant on conventional fuel sources. Despite growing deployment of renewables, approximately 60% of power generation is still driven by coal. Although the market and regulatory environment is evolving, progress lags and consumer options are limited, particularly in rural Colorado.”

Last October, Zoma announced it had led financing of $150 million for Amp Solar Group, a company that has grown a portfolio of more than 700 megawatts of distributed generation and utility scale clean energy projects since 2009.

Vision Ridge Partners was founded in 2008 by Reuben Munger “in order to bring decades of value investing experience to bear on what he saw as the financial opportunities presented by sustainable solutions,” according to the firm’s website. He’s also a trustee of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.

The Rocky Mountain Institute last year issued a report that found that Tri-State could close all but one of its coal-fired plants before they were paid off and still save money. That lone exception is Laramie River Station in Wheatland, Wyoming, which Tri-State owns with Basin Electric, another generation and transmission association. Tri-State also owns a 400-megawatt coal-burning unit at Springerville, in Arizona.

Tri-State’s coal fleet is complicated and already in transition. In 2016, in a plan reached with state and federal regulators to reduce haze, Tri-State agreed to close the 100-megawatt Nucla station by the end of 2022 and a 427-megwatt plant at Craig by the end of 2025.

That will leave two units at Craig with a generating capacity of 876 megawatts. The two units are operated by Tri-State, which owns one unit and co-owns the other with PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority, Xcel Energy and Salt River Project. All of Tri-State’s partners have indicated plans to substantially shed generation from coal-fired units.

Expiring tax credits a factor

Guzman spent a year putting together its offer with aid of finance, energy and environmental consultants, according to Riley. But it then waited until Tri-State had a new chief executive, Duane Highly, believing Tri-State would be more amendable to the offer under his leadership than under his predecessor, Mike McInnis.

According to a fact sheet distributed by Guzman, Tri-State’s leadership informed Guzman that it did not intend to explore the proposal now, but may do so after rulemaking at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is complete. A bill adopted by the Legislature firmly puts Tri-State resource planning under the scrutiny of the state’s PUC. This rule-making could go well into 2020 or beyond, Guzman predicts.

Guzman, however, wants more rapid action, citing expiring federal solar and wind tax credits.

“Each year of delay results in an increase in costs from today’s prices of 20% to 25%, which translates to about $1.5 million to $1.8 million per year for a 100-megawatt wind project,” says a fact sheet from Guzman.

Questions remain about whether Guzman has the means to deliver what it proposes. One risk has to do with whether it can put on renewables fast enough. The expiring federal tax credits combined with plunged renewable costs have factories scrambling to meet orders. For example, the Vestas wind tower factory at Pueblo, Colorado, which Vestas says is the largest in the world, is reported to have orders for five years.

Kathleen Staks, director for external affairs for Guzman, reports that the supply chain issues don’t currently concern members of Guzman’s resource planning team. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t a legitimate concern; just that it is one that will have to be considered by developers when they bid into request for proposals.”

Transmission may pose another challenge. Tri-State has 5,665 miles of high-voltage lines assembled to transmit electricity  primarily from centralized coal plants. The same transmission system may not as easily work for large-scale wind and solar.

A test case in New Mexico

Leo Guzman, a graduate of Columbia and Stanford, founded Guzman Energy with the intent of helping “transition an outdated energy economy into a renewable age,” according to the Guzman website. Previously, in 1987, he had founded an investment bank and broker dealer, Guzman & Co., after working in corporate finance. Guzman Energy is based in Coral Gables, Florida, and has an office in Denver.

In Colorado, Guzman retained Jeff Heit, the managing director, who had previous experience at several energy companies, most significantly for almost 30 years as a senior energy trader at Xcel Energy.

Riley has the most provocative history, having grown up in Emery, Utah, the son, grandson and great-grandson of coal miners. Others – uncles and cousins – worked in a nearby coal-fired power plant. He says he also had the experience of having the lights turned off in the trailer when his mother – who was divorced from his father – could not afford to pay the electric bill.

After graduating from high school in 1995 he joined the Navy and ended up a graduate of Annapolis before setting out into the financial world. Riley and family members were profiled in March by the New York Times.

Formed in 2014, Guzman Energy began delivering power in 2016 to Aztec, New Mexico, a town of 6,500 people, and to Kit Carson Electric, which has 33,000 members/customers.

This year Guzman has expanded its operations. In January, it reached a swap agreement with Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that provides power to the Vail and Aspen areas primarily with a partnership with Xcel Energy. Guzman can tap the coal-fired power production owned by Holy Cross in Comanche 3, at Pueblo. Without having to consume the coal power, Holy Cross has set out to develop 100 megawatts of wind, a significant step in its ambitious goals to decarbonize its power supplies.

Guzman also has an agreement to supply Delta-Montrose Electric, one of Tri-State’s 43 members, if Delta-Montrose reaches an agreement with Tri-State about an exit fee. Delta-Montrose appealed the dispute to the Colorado PUC, which had been scheduled to hear the case in late June. That week-long hearing has been posted.

In addition, Guzman has been making its pitch to a group in Pueblo who advocate for a renewable-heavy municipal utility to replace gas-heavy Black Hills Energy, an investor-owned utility.

At Kit Carson, chief executive Luis Reyes Jr. says Guzman has delivered everything it promised. There have been no power outages since Guzman began delivering electricity to Kit Carson three years ago, and prices have been competitive or better.

Before, Kit Carson had been locked into a contract until 2040 with Tri-State that specified that Kit Carson was able to develop 5% of its own power.

Now, Kit Carson is busy developing its solar capacity, with plans — still on track — to be able to meet 100% of daytime needs of its customers by 2022, says Reyes. The solar will be coupled with some battery storage. That will give Kit Carson a 52 percent renewable component, says Reyes.

But importantly, the solar farms are distributed in Kit Carson’s service territory. “We are looking long term, not just building a renewable energy grid, but a resilient energy grid,” he says. “We don’t want all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak. And there are other member benefits by putting solar arrays in every community.”

Guzman offers a similar model for Tri-State altogether. As it shut down the centralized coal-fired units, it says it will help Tri-State’s member co-ops build smaller but more dispersed electricity generation. “In our view, that’s the correct place to be,” says Riley. It will also help local communities benefit by using local labor and resources.

In March, Guzman began presenting its proposal to five of Tri-State’s largest member cooperatives as well as communicating with several other general manager. After hearing Guzman, directors of Durango, Colorado-based La Plata Electric sent a letter to Tri-State on April urging the G&T to “hear them out” while acknowledging that “the devil is in the details.”

The view of LEPA directors, the letter said, is that “this proposal creates opportunities for Tri-State to manage future risk and mitigate costs, and potentially helps LPEA achieve the flexibility it desires.”

La Plata has been examining its options, wanting to ramp up renewables while reducing electricity costs. As part of its research, directors have studied Kit Carson. “No one was more skeptical than I was. We asked them hard questions,” says Mike Dreyspring, the chief executive at La Plata. He was persuaded. “I feel pretty comfortable. It’s working well for them.”

He’s even more struck by the ability to make it work for the town of Aztec. Making the economics work for a smaller place is actually harder than for a larger jurisdiction, because of the economics of scale.

But in sizing up Guzman’s offer, he sees need for continued fossil fuel generation, but from natural gas. “Storage offers some promise, but it’s just not there yet,” he says. Instead, he sees small natural gas reciprocating engines, small enough to minimize water needs but useful in ensuring reliability while dramatically decreasing the environmental impacts.

Dreyspring concedes there’s risk to Guzman’s offer, the potential for creating a giant wholesale provider. The risks must be evaluated.

In Taos, Reyes sees Tri-State as too big and too top-heavy. Co-ops created Tri-State, he points out, but at some point the relationship became reversed. Now, the tail wags the dog.

It’s time, he says, for “right-sizing” Tri-State.

“Tri-State is just too big, and they move to slowly, and by the time they make decision, it’s old,” says Reyes.

Kit Carson’s contract with Guzman “gives us flexibility,” he says. “As energy supplies continue to change, Guzman has put us into a position to address those changes and with technology it’s going to be more affordable to deliver power from your home into the grid than just as delivering to you,” he says. “You have to think outside the box, because technology is driving change so quickly.”

Correction: Tri-State fully owns one of the two coal units at the Craig Generating Station that are not currently slated for retirement. The other is co-owned with several partners. A previous version of this story misstated the unit’s ownership structure.

Allen Best

Allen writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He began writing about energy, the climate, and their relationship in 2005.