PUEBLO (AP) – Since the crash of the steel industry in the early 1980s, the city of Pueblo has been searching for an economic identity to help usher the Steel City into a new era of economic prosperity.
In recent years, the city has seen a steady building of momentum behind a sector of industry that’s become increasingly promising as its products become cheaper to install, produce and maintain – renewable energy.
“It’s tough to measure the direct impact of what we’ve seen in terms of green initiatives in the last few years ... because I think it’s a little early to measure that,” said Chris Markuson, Pueblo County’s economic development director.
“However, the potential economic impact could be extremely dramatic to the benefit of Pueblo.”
Markuson said one of the ways in which the city’s shifting momentum to renewable energy sources has impacted the local economy is by attracting and retaining businesses that are excited by the prospect of Pueblo’s changing economic landscape.
In the past few years, Markuson said his office has heard from 23 small businesses that cited the changing identity of the community as the reason they chose to bring or expand their businesses to Pueblo.
“They cite our renewable leanings as one of the examples of what a redefined Pueblo looks like, and I think that’s pretty positive,” Markuson said.
“Any time you get 20 businesses of 5 to 10 employees each, that’s a substantive amount of employment and significant economic impact.”
Local environmental advocate and former city planner Dave Cockrell said that because of the city’s embrace of renewable energy producers, which was punctuated by a February resolution by City Council to move the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, Pueblo has also attracted the attention of large-scale solar energy producers all across the world.
“The economic development potential is fabulous,” Cockrell said.
“To have a major solar manufacturer from India exploring the idea of moving to Pueblo, to have the state economic development commission partner with PEDCO to try to incentivize that move, those are great steps.
“So it’s not only power generation and construction. Hopefully, if everything falls in place, you’ll have probably the largest utility-scale solar installation in the middle of the country, at least – if not the entire country – right here. And, in addition to that, we will have a manufacturing plant that’s actually making the solar panels that go into this huge solar farm.”
But the solar industry isn’t the only form of renewable energy production that could benefit Pueblo.
Cockrell said that in the coming years, he expects wind farms east of Pueblo, in Prowers and Baca counties, to be expanded by a factor of at least five.
The renewable energy industry already has brought large-scale businesses – such as Vestas, the wind-tower manufacturer that operates the largest tower factory in the world – just south of town to Southern Colorado.
Vestas employs about 4,000 employees across its four Colorado facilities, but Markuson said that many of the jobs that can result from a company like Vestas coming to town aren’t even in the renewable energy industry, but rather supply the materials needed to produce renewable power.
As an example, he detailed how Vestas’ move to Pueblo also brought another European company to town, whose entire business centers on the manufacturing of massive bolts.
Vestas uses those bolts to anchor their giant wind turbines into the ground. Markuson said the bolt manufacturing company brought its business to Pueblo specifically to be a supplier for Vestas.
“We are aware of very significant economic impacts of all of the ancillary industries related to Vestas,” Markuson said.
“You can kind of think of Vestas as a heavy manufacturing industry, but also they’re in the renewable business and the supply chain. And the ancillary businesses that support Vestas are indirectly in the renewables business.”
In addition to the direct economic gains from increased employment, new businesses and a diversification of the local and state economies, Markuson said another facet of bringing renewables to town that impacts the city’s economy is the retention of local dollars.
When power is generated from carbon-based fuel, that fuel must be imported into Pueblo from outside of Colorado: typically Wyoming if the fuel source is coal or the Western Slope if the fuel source is natural gas.
“So when you think about it, when you’re spending money on your electric bill, half of it is going to a corporate entity outside of the state and half of it is going toward fuel costs that are fueling other parts of the state and country,” Markuson said.
“So we’re actually seeing a reduction of dollars staying in the local economy because of that, and utility costs are one of the largest fixed costs that businesses and residents in Pueblo have to pay.
“So we’re retaining more revenues in the local economy when renewables are employed.”