Sign up for our newsletter
One year ago, the small town of Nucla, Colorado, learned that its coal-fired power plant would shut down, taking with it 55 jobs at the plant and another 28 jobs in the New Horizon coal mine, which fuels the plant.
For some communities, the loss of 83 jobs might be a bump in the road – a big bump, perhaps, but a bump nonetheless. For Nucla and its neighboring town of Naturita, the losses are potentially catastrophic. The closure could eliminate up to two-thirds of Nucla’s tax base and 20 percent of area employment.
Around the country, small coal power plants like the Nucla Station are shutting down, driven by market forces and regulatory demands. In small or frontier towns where workers have few other job prospects, a power plant closure can leave a community scrambling to maintain its vitality and, sometimes, its existence.
Troy Wallace is the editor of Nucla’s newspaper, a busy father, a college student in social work and a family development specialist at the non-profit West End Family Link. Like many people in this frontier community, Wallace puts together a piecemeal living with his boundless energy.
He remains optimistic. Like many towns in the West, Nucla knows the boom-and-bust cycles of energy industry. The community weathered the death of uranium mining in 1980 and had some boom years in the early 2000s with oil rigs in the Dry Creek Basin.
“In that sense, it’s not that big of a shocker,” he said of the power plant and mine closure. “We’ve been here before. We’ll survive.”
But in western Montrose County, the power plant and coal mine offered some of the only full-time, well-paid jobs available, especially with benefits. In the 2,000 square miles served by the Family Link, about 60 percent of children area get free or reduced lunch.
Together, Nucla and Naturita are home to about 1,200 souls. The closest commute to a bigger town is Telluride, an hour and 20 minutes away. In every other direction, the drive to a job, a clothing store, or a hospital is almost two hours.
Founded by utopians who fought over irrigation ditches, Nucla has beautiful, dry summers and relatively mild winters. The town made headlines in 2013 when it passed an ordinance requiring residents to own guns. The town is plain, but the mountains are seldom out of sight.
The power plant in Nucla will close by 2022 as a result of an agreement with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, WildEarth Guardians, the National Parks Conservation Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over regional haze reduction, stemming from a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups over pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park and other parks. A 2014 settlement required Tri-State Generation and Transmission to install emissions controls at its Craig, Colorado, plant. Last fall, the entities modified the agreement: one of the three Craig units would be shut down, as well as Nucla Station, about 300 miles away from Rocky Mountain National Park.
Another Town’s Experience
Twelve hundred miles from Nucla, the Mississippi River town of Cassville, Wisconsin, population 947, lost two power plants within a year. North of town, the closure of Alliant’s coal-fired Nelson Dewey Generating Station meant the loss of 65 jobs. At the southern end of town, the E. J. Stoneman Station used to employ about 30 people. A former coal-fired power plant, it was converted to biomass in 2010, then shut down five years later. Between the plants, the village of Cassville lost about a quarter of its employment and more than half its revenue.
Cassville Mayor Keevin Williams worked for Alliant Energy for decades, and he doesn’t have a bad word to say about his former employer. He speaks proudly of the plant’s safety protocols, camaraderie, and professionalism.
It still rankles that the state turned down a request to build a new plant in Cassville in 2008. Williams said the community was behind the build-out but that environmentalists from Wisconsin’s urban centers drowned out local voices. “We just weren’t enough voices, with 900 people,” he said. If that unit had been built, it would likely be other plants closing, not a new Cassville.
Cassville is Midwestern-isolated, not Western-isolated. It’s half an hour from a major highway and a 45-minute drive from a relatively prosperous city of 60,000. Still, it’s farther off the beaten path than other communities in the area, connected to its rural Iowa neighbors by a ferry in the summer months.
In both communities, coal’s environmental black eye is a sore spot. The Nucla Station is a pioneer in clean coal technology, the first power plant in the world to use atmospheric, circulating fluidized-bed combustion. The idea of the plant contributing to regional haze is laughable to locals who enjoy the sharp-focus atmosphere of high altitude and low humidity.
In Cassville, the coal plant wasn’t the power plant with a reputation for being dirty. It was the biomass plant that left community members complaining of soot on their homes and cars and that paid a $150,000 fine for violating its emissions permit.
In 2015, coal power plants were America’s second-highest producers of carbon dioxide, after motor vehicles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Globally, coal produces 44 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. But that picture isn’t in focus when people who live near plants see obvious community benefits but can’t see local drawbacks.
Across America, a vocally pro-coal president and Republican lawmakers have had little impact on the accelerating closures of coal-fired power plant closures. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal use in power generation has been steadily decreasing, as natural gas and the use of renewables has increased. By 2016, natural gas had overtaken coal in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In Colorado, the Montrose-Nucla-Cahone transmission line will be upgraded from 115 kilo volts to 230 kV. The final environmental assessment of the line was released the day after the plant closure announcement. Similarly, Cassville is on the study route for a transmission line that would follow an existing route, carrying more power through the area, if not from the area.
In the world of power generation, both these plants are relatively small peanuts, even if they had an outsized effect on their communities. Nucla has a capacity of 100 megawatts, less than a quarter of the capacity of the single closed unit in Craig, and the Nelson Dewey Station could produce 200 megawatts. According to 2015 EIA research, the average size of a retired coal plant was 133 megawatts, less than half the size of plants still operating.
Neither community has an obvious, perky answer for the loss of revenue for government services, jobs, and corporate philanthropy, the ripple effect of lost income on local businesses, or the specter of a dwindling population. Individual workers often have options to retire or move elsewhere, but communities can’t turn in their geographic cards for a new hand.
In Nucla-Naturita, the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC) has rented space for a collective workspace and commercial kitchen. In nearby Paradox Valley, Energy Fuels Resources hopes to make the Piñon Ridge Mill the first new conventional uranium mine in the U.S. in decades. Volunteers with Paradox Ventures transplanted about 5,000 hemp plants this year, in the hopes of harvesting a new cash crop for the area this fall, to be processed into hemp oil and pelletized products.
For individual coal workers, much of the federal and non-profit attention to retraining has focused on Appalachia, but regional hubs near both Cassville and Nucla benefited from federal grants announced by the Obama administration to help coal communities transition. A Montrose-based agency received $1.25 million for rural broadband, but that hasn’t reached Nucla yet. An agency 90 miles north of Cassville received $50,000 for regional economic planning, but their region stops at the Grant-Crawford County line.
Wallace sees residential stability in retirees, often with specialized skills, who move to Nucla-Naturita for its beauty and low cost of living. Cassville is home to a state park and historic site, and on a hot summer weekend, the parking lot and boat ramp under the shadow of the former biomass plant is packed with boats, truck and trailers. But tourism is seasonal, and few of the jobs supported by recreation can boast the wages or benefits of work in the energy sector.
Both Cassville power plants have prime locations near rail and river transportation—the Nelson Dewey site might be a good spot for grain transfer between barge and rail, and the site of the former biomass plant could be a marina. Company plans for the former biomass facility are unknown. Alliant Energy is looking for a buyer for the former Nelson Dewey site and announced this year that it would demolish the plant to make it more attractive to potential buyers.
Williams admits that it’ll be hard to see the iconic outline of the Nelson Dewey Station disappear. He was born the same year the plant was built, and he spent about three decades of his life working rotating shifts there. “I’ve seen those smokestacks my whole life,” he said.
Both communities have business prospects, but nothing’s come through yet, and their distance from larger urban centers and interstates makes it hard for them to compete with other communities. “We’re down here at the end of the road, so we have a lot of companies who are not interested in being here,” Williams said.
The village of Cassville does have some stop-gap assistance from the state to offset its loss of power plant revenue, and Williams has hope for his community. “Hopefully there’ll be some changes when the buildings come down, something that’ll bring new jobs,” he said. “Hopefully young people come here and put down roots.”