Coal at Sunset is the winner of the 2022 National Academies Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communication for Local/Regional Science Journalism, and the 2022 National Association of Science Writers' Excellence in Institutional Writing Awards in the long-form category.
There's a popular saying in Craig: "Coal keeps the lights on."
But in 2020, the electrical utility Tri-State announced that it would close its coal-fired power plant and coal mines in Craig by 2030. The news was like an earthquake. Hundreds of jobs would be lost. The town now faces the prospect of massive economic disruption as its primary industry disappears.
In our first episode, we travel to Craig to hear from coal workers who are bracing for change and one local business owner who's already looking for ways to reinvent the town's identity. Plus, we'll talk with the CEO at the center of the decision that changed everything. What will Craig do now?Explore More
In our second episode, we travel inside the Craig coal station to learn more about the science and economics of coal amidst a rapidly changing renewable energy landscape.
In recent years, coal has been losing ground to renewables like wind and solar as the prices of cleaner, greener technologies have come way down. And now, Colorado has made greenhouse gas reductions a priority. Coal is no longer the market driver it once was.
But we know that energy is a global challenge. What will the state reasonably be able to achieve in terms of a transition over the next decade? And what will that mean for our electricity?Explore More
Climate change is here, and the effects are right in our backyard. For decades, scientific evidence has pointed to significant human influence on our climate, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Burning fossil fuels like coal releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
In 2019, the Colorado legislature took its boldest step yet toward addressing climate change. House Bill 1261 committed Colorado to a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and a 90% reduction by 2050. The bill signaled the beginning of the end for coal plants in the state.
For some, the move was a much-needed step toward addressing the urgency of climate change. But for many in Craig, the bill was seen as an overreach, another example of rural communities being out of the decision-making process. How do we balance the need to protect the planet with the need to protect livelihoods?
Transitions are nothing new, and American history is full of cautionary tales. When big industries fail or move away, bad things can happen to the small towns that rely on them.
Since the mid-2000s, coal closures have washed over the U.S. like a wave. In Appalachia, closures hit small towns hard. Muhlenberg, Kentucky. Manchester, Ohio. McDowell County, West Virginia. The list goes on. Schools, hospitals, and other public services withered. People moved away.
We wanted to get some national perspective on coal-impacted communities. We wanted to see what we've learned from other towns that are further ahead in their transitions. Most of all, we wanted to know if Craig could succeed where others failed.Explore More
There are estimated to be more than a thousand ghost towns in Colorado. Each one represents a failed economic transition. So for Craig, Colorado, the stakes are clear. Transitions require resources and support.
In 2019, Colorado created the first state-level Office of Just Transition in the nation. It was designed to help coal towns like Craig strategize for the future. But in the early going, the office didn't have any funding. It didn't have anyone to run it. And unbeknownst at the time, a global pandemic was about to begin.
In this episode, we meet Wade Buchanan, who stepped in to run the Office of Just Transition. He wanted to show that the government could deliver for Craig and other rural communities. He wanted to help. Would it be enough?Explore More
Coal enabled a way of life in Craig that many cherish. A close-knit small town community is still a draw. But for those growing up here now, knowing big changes are ahead, will that feeling be enough for them to stay?
In this episode, we look beyond coal and energy to examine some of the other opportunities that Craig will need to build out to retain and attract students and families. Education will be crucial. At Colorado Northwestern Community College, for example, new programs in aviation, cybersecurity, and paleontology might provide other career avenues.
There's new creative energy coming in to Craig already. We see it in the public art sector, and the young business owners starting to make investments here. The next generation will find very different opportunities here than their parents did. Maybe that's what it takes to move beyond what's defined the town for so long.Explore More
The Yampa River is the lifeblood of northwestern Colorado. It's one of the last wild, undammed rivers in the American West.
Nobody appreciates the Yampa's transformative power more than Tom Kleinschnitz. Now the director of Moffat County Tourism, he's spent a lifetime on the river. He knows that outdoor recreation and tourism can be an important part of Craig's post-coal future by creating jobs and driving economic activity.
But the river is also under threat. Climate change has contributed to severe drought in recent years, and the Yampa's flow has dropped significantly. What will it take to protect the region's critical lifeline and ensure that it's still thriving when Craig needs it most?Explore More
By decade's end, coal-fired energy production in Craig, Colorado will be a thing of the past. What will the town look like by then? More importantly: What do residents want their home to become? How does Craig's story help us understand the energy transition as a whole?
In our final episode, we look ahead to opportunities on the horizon as the town moves beyond what has defined it for so long. At the Trapper mine, for instance, land will be revegetated for deer, elk, and grouse. The Craig power station could become a testbed for hydrogen production. New businesses are already moving into downtown. All around, there are hopeful signs for a post-coal future.
Correction: An earlier version of this episode misstated the future dates of the Craig station unit retirements. As of December 2021, Tri-State and its utility partners (where applicable) have announced that Unit 1 will retire by the end of 2025; Unit 2 will retire on September 30, 2028; and Unit 3 will retire by 2030. This timeline has not changed and remains consistent with Tri-State's originally announced schedule.Explore More
In this special bonus episode, we wanted to share a few extended excerpts from an interview with Alice Jackson, President of Xcel Energy Colorado. In our wide-ranging conversation recorded in late summer 2021, we talked with her about our state's changing electricity needs, implementing newer technologies like hydrogen and molten salt, the practicalities of getting to a completely zero carbon system, and much more.Explore More
In our final bonus episode, Tri-State President & CEO Duane Highley shares insights about regional energy markets in the West, renewable integration, and more.Explore More
It's been almost two years since we shared the story of Craig, Colorado, and the forthcoming closures of the coal power plant. In this epilogue, you'll hear from some of our former guests reflecting on what's changed, what hasn't, and what the road ahead looks like. We’re coming back to this story to provide a firsthand glimpse into how Colorado's energy transition will ultimately affect us all.Explore More
While the plan is to retire the coal operations by 2030, there are conversations about the potential to repurpose the plant and existing infrastructure. From geothermal to hydrogen to nuclear, what could happen with the Craig station remains to be decided. In our second epilogue episode, we’ll talk about what’s next. What could happen with all the infrastructure and workforce? And is nuclear energy a potential option?Explore More
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