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Tri-State generates controversy as project languishes

by Bill Knowles

WALSENBURG- Tri-State Generation and Transmission has found itself up against public and private protests about its proposed Southern Colorado Transmission project.  In particular, the Smart Valley Energy coalition and Trinchera Ranch owners are showing stiffening resistance.

    The project involves the development of a 95-mile long corridor that will house hundreds of 180-foot tall metal towers set in a 150-foot wide clearcut easement.  The electrical transmission lines would stretch from solar power generation arrays in the San Luis Valley over the La Veta Pass and across the western half of Huerfano County.

    Those transmission lines will junction at the proposed Calumet substation north of Walsenburg before crossing Interstate 25.  The substation will also be receiving electrical power being generated by a wind farm located mostly in eastern Huerfano County.

    If approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the transmission project could generate over $4 million in economic impact to the county including $1.3 million in payroll.  The total value of the transmission improvement project of $193.9 million generates $1.6 million in annual property tax revenue to taxing entities in the region.

    This fiscal impact generated from taxes on the project for the region, including the San Luis Valley, Huerfano and Pueblo Counties, will begin the year after the project is placed in service and will occur annually during the active life of the transmission lines and substations.

    “The economic impacts of the transmission improvement project during construction and the ongoing tax revenues generated from operations will benefit the region and its residents,” Brad Jones, TriState Public Affairs Manager, noted in an email.  “Not only will the project provide much needed electricity transmission lines but it will also provide a portion of the infrastructure needed for growing renewable energy resources in the region, allowing this new energy source to benefit residents of the region and beyond.”

    A breakdown of the economic impact of the project for Huerfano County shows an annual county tax revenue of about $221,000.  The two school districts, La Veta and Huerfano, will receive a total of around $291,000 a year.  Special district tax revenue will be around $143,000 and municipality tax revenues will run around $35,000 annually.  This places a total property tax revenue at about $690,000 a year according to figures released by Tri-State.

    With resistance to the project by the Trinchera Ranch, Tri-State’s progress  has been slowed.  Trinchera Ranch was purchased by hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon from Steve Forbes for about $175 million in late 2007.  Bacon, an active environmentalist and conservationist, has kept the ranch as a preserve and is opposed to using any of his land to further development of the proposed transmission line project. 

    A letter from the Huerfano County Commissioners to the PUC, dated June 16, 2010 suggested that the project be split into two parts so the proposed Calumet to Comanche segment of the project could be approved thus allowing the wind farm development in Eastern Huerfano County to move forward.

    However according to Jones, that won’t work. The project, in its entirety, was originally filed under a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.  This means that it must be approached as a whole and can’t be divided.

    “Since the application was filed as a single project with the Public Utilities Commission, we have to work with it that way.  It can’t be split.” 

    Jones also said the project is necessary to answer reliability concerns and to increase transmission capacity so that the mix of renewables to coal and natural gas fired electrical power generation moves toward mandates set by state and federal governments. 

    Officials at the PUC are expecting a decision by a judge concerning the certification of need by the end of this week.  Other issues such as environmental concerns will be dealt with by the EPA at the federal level and routing issues fall under local government and will be determined according to county land use guides.