Pueblo is a clean energy leader. But you might have to look close to see it.

Train tracks in downtown Pueblo are pictured on Aug. 22, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

PUEBLO — Ruben Peña welcomes visitors from all over the world to the sprawling railroad testing facility he helps manage on the shortgrass prairie of eastern Pueblo County.

“Last week, I hosted people from the Czech Republic. This week, we have a whole bunch of people from Switzerland,” said Peña, an executive at ENSCO, the contractor that operates the Transportation Technology Center on behalf of the Federal Railroad Administration. “We had a contingent from Brazil two weeks ago. They all stay in Pueblo, and I feed them sloppers,” he added, referring to a local specialty — an open-faced cheeseburger smothered in Pueblo green chile.

But while Peña is acquainting train engineers and government functionaries from across the globe with the local cuisine, he said, few people in Pueblo and other towns along Colorado’s Front Range are familiar with the TTC, where everything from electric trams and next-gen Acela trains to hydrogen-powered prototypes and highly classified government vehicles are put through their paces on 42 miles of test track.

“When I talk to people in Colorado, they don’t know,” Peña said. “Not even in Pueblo.”


That’s primarily because few if any of the state-of-the-art passenger trains tested at the TTC will ever see service nearby. Pueblo, stranded between Amtrak routes through Denver to the north and Trinidad to the south, hasn’t had regular passenger service since 1972.

It’s one of many such incongruities to be found in and around Pueblo, a city of 112,000 that is playing an outsize role in a global effort to reshape the world’s energy and transportation infrastructure, but often seems to have little to show for it here at home.

Dubbed “The Pittsburgh of the West” by its 19th-century founders, Pueblo is a coal and steel town — which is to say, it’s a railroad town. The former Colorado Fuel & Iron plant, now owned by Russian conglomerate EVRAZ, still churns out roughly half of the railroad track laid down in North America.

Today, the facility is the world’s first and largest solar-powered steel mill. Its considerable energy needs are almost entirely met by a purpose-built photovoltaic array next to a nearby coal plant, Comanche Generating Station, where the first of three boilers has already come offline as Colorado pursues an aggressive coal-retirement strategy. Shifting energy policy and falling wind and solar costs have helped make Pueblo County a burgeoning renewables hub, and not just for solar; to the south, a sprawling factory owned by CS Wind is the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbine towers.

“Pueblo is going to be, I hope, known as the renewable energy capital of the world,” said Mayor Nick Gradisar, the son and grandson of CF&I steelworkers. “It’s exciting what’s happening here.”

A worker at the CS Wind factory in Pueblo walks among wind tower segments on Aug. 25, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

There will be plenty more ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Pueblo over the next decade. The CS Wind tower factory has broken ground on an expansion that will double its output and add 850 new jobs. Utility-scale battery projects are underway, and the Colorado School of Mines has secured a $33 million U.S. Department of Energy grant with an eye towards making Pueblo a regional “carbon sequestration hub.”

By any objective measure, Pueblo is well on its way to fulfilling Gradisar’s hopes, and has already established itself as an epicenter of the global energy transition. But if the green economy is turning things around for Pueblo as a whole, it isn’t easy to see it in the pocketbooks of people around town. Incomes here are roughly 30% lower than the statewide average, a gap that hasn’t narrowed over the last decade. Population growth remains slow, and local tax revenues are mostly flat. 

Should it trouble the climate movement, and Democrats looking to capitalize on their leadership in the global energy transition, that an old-economy city establishing itself in the epicenter of the new economy doesn’t exactly feel like a boomtown? 

A test for clean energy

An aura of liberal and progressive optimism surrounds Pueblo’s foothold in the new energy economy. In 2017, then-U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, launched his bid for governor from Solar Roast Coffee on Pueblo’s Main Street, crediting the city with “leading the way” on green jobs. Now in his second term, Polis leads a Democratic trifecta in state government that has overseen an ambitious decarbonization agenda, boosted by the billions of dollars in federal investment that will flow into Colorado as a result of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

It’s a tall order to ask any emerging industry to revive the fortunes of an entire region, and heal the scars left by more than a century of boom-and-bust industrial cycles and labor strife. Around town, you can see prosperity, at least as the higher-income residents of Aspen or Boulder might define it: new boutiques, art galleries and a busy food hall serving ramen and hot chicken in a historic building downtown, part of a wave of planned renewal projects. Even the steel mill is expanding again (though construction has been bogged down by a legal dispute).

But strip away the veneer of growth and progress and you can find struggle. The Great Recession hit especially hard in Pueblo, deepening the pain inflicted by deindustrialization in the early 1980s, when more than 6,000 steelworkers lost their jobs.

“People do feel left out and left behind here,” said state Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, a Democrat elected in Pueblo County last year by less than 3 points. “There’s some legitimate gripes there. We haven’t thrived in the way the communities further north along the Front Range have, economically.”

A former Wells Fargo bank building sits unoccupied in Pueblo County on Sept. 19, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

In formal interviews and casual conversation, few Pueblo residents cite the impact of green jobs or IRA investment without specific prompting. They’re more likely to note the proliferation of marijuana farms in the surrounding Arkansas Valley — Pittsburgh of the West, meet the “Napa Valley of cannabis” — or the county’s booming health care industry, another development Pueblo has in common with many Rust Belt cities.

“Talk about big employers in this town — Parkview (Medical Center), they are just expanding and expanding,” said Kathryn Adams, who’s called Pueblo home for decades along with her husband, John Norton, a former business reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain.

Carl Smith grew up in Pueblo during the pivotal years of the U.S. steel industry’s collapse. After a career spent hauling coal and other freight on Colorado railroads, he’s now the state legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART, and sits on an advisory committee for the state’s Office of Just Transition. It’s work that’s informed, he said, by the long shadow cast by the mass CF&I layoffs in the 1980s.

“All the foreign steel was dumped into the market, and people lost their jobs. People didn’t have any other (options) — that’s what they knew, was working at the mill. That’s what their father did,” Smith said. “I saw Pueblo suffer from that, and I don’t want that to happen again to the next set of workers.”

Simple mathematics

A slide on the projector screen at CS Wind’s Pueblo factory showed the “simple mathematics,” in the South Korea-based company’s estimation, of the Inflation Reduction Act: Producing 75,000 new wind turbines by 2030, as the Biden administration has promised, will mean manufacturing 45,000 wind tower sections per year — triple the industry’s current U.S. production capacity.

“The first time I showed this slide to the mayor, it opened your eyes, right?” James Won, head of CS Wind America, said to Gradisar, seated across the room beside Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

The company, which owns wind tower manufacturing facilities in seven countries, broke ground in April on an expansion that will double the Pueblo factory’s output. It’s already doubled its workforce in a year to more than 800 employees, with plans to hire hundreds more. Welcoming Gradisar and Bennet to the facility in August, CS Wind Chairman Gim Seong-gon and his team led guests on a tour of the factory floor where workers bevel, curve and weld together the enormous sections of steel plate that are shipped in 60- to 80-foot segments to be assembled at wind farms all over the country.

CS Wind workers weld together sections of steel wind towers at the company’s factory in Pueblo on Aug. 25, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

But first, in front of a small gathering of factory workers and a few reporters, the three VIPs performed the painstaking work of building a political coalition that they hope will help sustain CS Wind’s North American business for years to come.

“We really appreciate President Joe Biden,” Gim said. “(The IRA) will help, I think, the U.S. economy and the environment, and all our employees are very happy with that.”

To underscore the point, Gim added that he’d told employees that morning that they’d be receiving an end-of-year bonus thanks to the company’s post-IRA financial outlook. Gradisar didn’t pass up the opportunity to underscore the point one more time.

“As a result of the IRA — the Inflation Reduction Act — you’re going to be able to share that with your employees?” he asked, to approving nods.

When asked by Bennet about recent changes, workers told the senator that they’d received three raises since CS Wind’s acquisition of the plant from Danish giant Vestas in 2021 — as many, one recalled, as they’d received from Vestas in the eight years prior.

The innovation that goes on in places like Pueblo, when you add on to that the tax provisions and other incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s no country in the world that’s set to compete with us right now … And I think Pueblo is going to be right at the front of the line of that competition.

– U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet

For Bennet and other congressional Democrats, selling communities like Pueblo on the benefits of the energy transition is a political necessity, as the party looks to defend its climate agenda at the polls and fight off any GOP attempts, now or in the future, to roll back Biden’s signature accomplishment.

That’s not a task made easier by the structure of the climate law, even if its scope is far more ambitious than any federal effort to date. Nothing like the Green New Deal emerged from the 117th Congress. No federal agency will unfurl its banner in Pueblo to herald its green jobs boom as part of an important national public works project. When the final phase of CS Wind’s factory expansion is completed in 2028, the city will owe the impact of hundreds of millions of dollars in local investment to a few submerged tax provisions in the quixotically-named Inflation Reduction Act.

CS Wind chairman Gim Seong-gon, center, speaks with guests including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, second from right, and Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar, to Gim’s left, during a tour of the company’s wind tower manufacturing facility in Pueblo on Aug. 25, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Bennet, a Senate institutionalist who has long emphasized the need for climate policy that “will endure across American elections and administrations,” is confident the law’s popularity will carry the day.

“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for people to try to repeal this,” he said. “(Republicans) voted to repeal (the Affordable Care Act) something like 50 times in the House, and Mitch McConnell said he was going to repeal it. You don’t hear them saying the same thing about the Inflation Reduction Act.

“When you see the plans (CS Wind) showed us today, the investment they intend to make here in three different phases, to double the number of jobs — it would be a tragedy if that were unwound just because of politics, or just because somebody else got elected president of the United States,” he added.

Will the impacts of such investments be felt strongly enough that Democrats are able not just to defend the IRA, but go on offense, too? Biden’s own remarks recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he spoke at a groundbreaking ceremony for a different wind tower plant, offered a glimpse at Democrats’ efforts to pressure Republicans on the issue on the campaign trail.

“Coincidentally, CS Wind is Congresswoman Lauren Boebert — you know, the very quiet Republican lady? — it’s in her district,” Biden said. “Who, along with every other Republican, voted against this bill. It’s making all this possible. And she railed against its passage. But, that’s OK, she’s welcoming it now.”

Change and challenge

The decade in which Pueblo established itself as a clean energy leader also saw Republicans make substantial inroads in local politics, defying the trend in increasingly blue Colorado. Just four years after Barack Obama carried Pueblo County by 14 points in his reelection bid, Donald Trump won a half-point victory here in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to do so since Richard Nixon in 1972. 

Though Biden returned the county to his party’s column in 2020, his 1,500-vote margin and other down-ballot results cemented Pueblo’s shift from Democratic stronghold to one of the state’s top battlegrounds. There’s a wide-open municipal race set for November — defined, as in so many other places in Colorado, by issues of crime and homelessness.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt speaks Sept. 10, 2022, during the Club 20 Western Colorado Candidate Debates at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. (William Woody for Colorado Newsline)

Pueblo’s representative in Congress is Boebert, a Republican from Silt whose far-right politics and headline-grabbing controversies have divided the community. She won reelection to her 3rd Congressional District seat last year by just 546 votes, and is expected to face another tough and expensive reelection battle, likely against the same opponent, former Aspen City Council member Adam Frisch, in 2024. Frisch announced last week that he took in nearly $3.4 million in the third quarter for the race.

The Steel City vote could prove pivotal in deciding her fate. Pueblo is the 3rd District’s largest population center, but in many ways it stands apart: a Front Range city in a district of Western Slope mountain towns, a manufacturing hub in a district of tourist destinations and agricultural zones. Boebert hails from Garfield County in the central Colorado River Valley, which thrived during a natural gas drilling boom that peaked around 2010; the Boeberts were one of many families in the region that benefited from high-paying fracking jobs and surging tax revenues. Pueblo County, though historically coal-rich, has no oil and gas industry to speak of.

Boebert and the conservative Western Slope voters who propelled her to Congress are a testament to the political potency of the benefits that fossil fuel extraction can bring to a community — and the backlash that can form when that prosperity is threatened. One of her first actions as a member of Congress was to introduce a bill to block the Paris Agreement, the 2015 treaty that established a framework for international efforts to fight climate change. “I work for the people of Pueblo,” she wrote on Twitter at the time, “not the people of Paris.”

Unlike the Western Slope, there are no windfall profits being made here, no flocks of job-seekers from around the country, no mineral assets soaring in value and filling up county coffers. It remains to be seen whether its new class of wind-tower welders and solar-panel technicians will form a base of political support.

On a prairie hilltop east of town, the coal is piled high beside Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station. Signs direct employees and contractors — hundreds in all, many of them unionized — to different parking lots for each generating unit. When it goes offline in 2031, 39 years ahead of schedule, Comanche Unit 3 will be Colorado’s last remaining coal plant in operation.

Comanche Generating Station is Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant and is scheduled to be the last in operation when its 750-megawatt third unit is retired in 2031. On the plains east of Pueblo, it’s now surrounded by several large solar farms. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

On multiple sides, the Comanche plant is now surrounded by Pueblo’s energy future: solar farms generating hundreds of megawatts of zero-emissions energy simply by soaking up the abundant southern Colorado sunshine. As real property assets, they’re a poor substitute for Comanche’s boilers; Pueblo County only supported early retirement of Unit 3 after a settlement with Xcel and the state that guarantees a $30 million annual property-tax payment will continue for a decade after its closure.

What’s more, the only ones at work here, beneath the shade of the solar panels on a hot August day, are the sheep, grazing on prairie grass as part of an “agrivoltaics” initiative of the kind supported by a new state grant program. Though there are already more Americans employed today by the fast-growing clean energy sector than by fossil fuels, in blue-collar towns like Pueblo, it can be easy to forget it.

Workers at CS Wind aren’t unionized. Though wages there and in the clean energy sector generally are higher than for many of Pueblo’s retail or service jobs, they are also, in many cases, lower than wages for the best union jobs at the coal plant or the steel mill. The widespread perception among fossil-fuel workers, said Smith of the SMART union, is that the energy transition will mean a step down in pay and benefits.

“The jobs in solar and wind and the renewable sector don’t pay the same as the unionized jobs at the power plant, at the railroad, at the coal mine,” Smith said. “Even the non-union coal mine in Colorado still pays significantly well, because they have to compete.”

Adam Frisch, a Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks with voters at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo on Aug. 25, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

After their tour of the CS Wind factory, Bennet and the mayor headed to the Colorado State Fair, held every year on the fairgrounds in south Pueblo. Under a tent where hundreds of state lawmakers, lobbyists and local dignitaries had gathered for an annual chamber of commerce cookout, they took the stage and tried to be heard over the din of the crowd. A sign from CS Wind, an event sponsor, bore a company slogan: “Change and Challenge.”

Boebert waited nearby, obliging a few fans who wanted photos, while Frisch milled about the pavilion pressing the flesh. Bennet spoke briefly, boasting of funding from the infrastructure law for a long-awaited water pipeline for the Arkansas Valley. Boebert followed, and seized the opportunity for a more overt bit of campaigning, touting her legislation to support the redevelopment of an old Army depot east of town, then ducked out the back.

Bennet got scattered applause. One table offered half-hearted boos for Boebert. Mostly, the crowd didn’t seem to notice either of them.

Boom and bust

Even by the standards of Gilded Age opulence, Pueblo’s Mineral Palace — where elite crowds at the turn of the 20th century dined and danced under the watchful eye of two 18-foot-tall idols, King Coal and the Silver Queen — proved excessive.

The palace was opened by some of Colorado’s leading industrialists in 1891, just before the silver crash plunged the state’s economy into a prolonged depression. After being sold to the city at auction, the Mineral Palace fell gradually into disrepair over the next few decades, as southern Colorado was rocked by a deadly series of labor wars between striking coal miners and agents of John D. Rockefeller, who bought CF&I in 1903. Before the palace’s demolition in 1942, King Coal was destroyed by vandals, and the Silver Queen melted down for scrap.

Pueblo’s Mineral Palace, built by some of Colorado’s leading industrialists in 1891, is pictured in this undated photo taken shortly after its opening. The palace’s two 18-foot-tall statues, King Coal and the Silver Queen, are visible in the background. (Courtesy of Pueblo City-County Library District)

From their gold-rush days to Rockefeller’s coal empire to the oil and gas bonanzas of more recent years, Pueblo and other Colorado towns know that all too often, the boom times are followed by the busts. Trade in precious commodities can give way to rampant speculation, enriching the few and leading many to ruin. Thriving industries can become powerful monopolies. Communities that prosper from a single abundant resource can be immiserated by price crashes caused by events on the other side of the globe.

Even the world’s largest wind tower factory isn’t likely to ever employ a huge plurality of Pueblo’s workforce, the way the CF&I plant once did. But in a city that has seen the pitfalls of that kind of economic development, maybe that’s not all bad.

“We know we need to diversify because of that,” said Joy Morauski, a longtime resident and 20-year city employee.

Horses graze on the plains east of Pueblo on Sept. 19, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Around town, electricians and HVAC companies have begun to advertise IRA rebates for home energy upgrades, another multibillion-dollar tranche of the law’s decarbonization funding. When Adams and Norton had rooftop solar installed on their home last year, their contractor filled out all the forms to make sure they got the proper tax credits.

“It was very easy,” said Adams. “He did everything. He went through all of the paperwork, he went through all of the permits.”

The installation is quickly paying for itself, reducing their electricity bill to $10 a month from over $100. Benefits like these may not be the way American communities have been conditioned to experience energy prosperity, and they may depend heavily on atomized masses of consumers and small businesses to navigate complicated federal tax incentive systems. But the IRA’s boosters are confident that it will get the job done.

“The innovation that goes on in places like Pueblo, when you add on to that the tax provisions and other incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s no country in the world that’s set to compete with us right now,” said Bennet. “And I think Pueblo is going to be right at the front of the line of that competition.”

What labor and environmental leaders hope for in Pueblo is a more resilient version of the robust, broad-based growth the city experienced in the postwar years. The wealth generated in the community in those decades didn’t build any lavish temples to worship coal — just tens of thousands of homes and businesses, vibrant middle-class neighborhoods and secure livelihoods for workers and their families.

Norton, the former Chieftain business reporter, saw firsthand the devastating impact of the steel mill’s decline in the 1980s — not only the layoffs themselves but the fallout in the years that followed, as city leaders tried desperately to lure new businesses to replace the lost jobs.

“Those pay scales never came back, in the volume that we had with CF&I,” Norton said.

Large steel plates are beveled, curved and welded together into 60- to 80-foot wind tower segments at CS Wind’s tower factory in Pueblo. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Pueblo’s lower cost of living, and the lower wages that employers could offer as a result, became a key selling point.

“In fact, if anybody came in wanting to pay more, (the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation) didn’t want to talk to them,” he added. “PEDCO didn’t want a union call center in town. Same way with (what’s) now Kroger, Dillons stores had a warehouse that they wanted to build out at the airport industrial park, they had a Teamsters contract, and it just went nowhere. They wound up building it in Colorado Springs.”

State and federal policymakers are resolved to make sure the clean energy economy takes a different approach. Colorado Democrats this year passed a bill establishing a range of labor requirements and prevailing-wage standards for renewable energy projects, codifying and extending similar provisions in the IRA. With bipartisan support, Colorado’s first-in-the-nation Office of Just Transition, created in 2019, is entering a critical phase, putting plans developed over the last several years in motion and beginning to distribute tens of millions of dollars in state funding directly to workers and impacted communities like Pueblo.

“The country is watching Colorado,” said Elena Santarella, Colorado policy organizer for the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups. “We have all this theory, we have lots of literature reviews, we understand what we should be doing. But Colorado is one of the first states to actually be doing something, actively rolling out grant programs, creating worker support programs.”

“The plants are closing. It’s not abstract anymore,” said Carl Smith. “In Colorado, I think we have an opportunity to be the gold standard for the rest of the nation. But if we don’t get it right, there’s definitely a potential for a serious backlash for future green jobs.”

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