So there they are — two vast arrays of stainless-steel pipes and ductwork snaking into the sky next to the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant.
Are they strange and beautiful modernist sculptures, perhaps collaboratively designed by Jeff Koons, Rube Goldberg and Giovanni Piranesi? Or do they have some obscure scientific use, maybe accelerating particles to the speed of light and exploring the nature of the universe?
No such luck, but wait until the Drake plant closes in 2035.
Let’s hope the gleaming sculptures will remain to delight, baffle and amaze all who visit them. In the meantime, they’ll presumably do what they’re supposed to do: remove as much as 97 percent of Drake’s sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant’s smokestacks.
During a media tour of the NeuStream scrubber installation earlier this week, Colorado Springs Utilities Energy Supply General Manager Aram Benyamin confirmed that construction of the system has been completed — and that testing will continue until the end of the year.
CSU officials believe that the system will work — and then some.
“Initial testing on Unit 7’s scrubber,” a CSU release noted, “reveals that the technology is achieving results that are even better than the new air quality regulations mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which take effect December 2017.”
Those regulations call for the removal of approximately 90 percent of Drake’s current S02 emissions. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, Drake Units 6 and 7 emitted an annual average of 3,641 tons of S02 in 2012-2013, the last available monitoring period. The year of 2014 wasn’t included in the calculations because the units were out of service as a result of a fire that shut down the generators for prolonged periods.
Unit 5 has been permanently decommissioned, so its 1,000 tons-per-year emissions also aren’t included.
This is a watershed event, one that marks the end of a long, contentious process. Yet it’s fair to ask whether CSU’s decision to install scrubbers rather than decommission Drake and build new capacity was the right choice.
We estimate that the bill for the NeuStream system will come to about $210 million, a figure that includes capitalized research-and-development costs of $27 million. That’s far more than initial estimates, which pegged the total cost at around $80 million. Drake’s “nameplate capacity” is now 212 megawatts, down from 254 mw when Unit 5 was operational. That capacity is further reduced by NeuStream’s parasitic load (the amount of energy required to operate the system) of about 2 mw.
Would it have made more sense to build another natural gas-fired, combined-cycle plant instead of updating Drake? Such plants are much more energy efficient, need no S02 controls and offer the added benefit of much lower carbon dioxide emissions. Large-scale plants rated at 450 mw or more cost about $1 million per mw, but it’s not clear whether a smaller plant could have been built for the same unit cost. And CSU’s cautious managers have been reluctant to make such a large bet on gas, given that fuel’s historic price volatility.
If natural gas prices remain low for the next two decades, and if state and federal regulators adopt some form of carbon tax, CSU and its ratepayers might suffer. But if, as seems likely, natural gas edges upward, coal remains cheap and regulators cut utilities a little slack, things will be fine — except for those pesky externalities.
Concerned about carbon dioxide pollution? When all three units were in operation, Drake emitted approximately 1.6 million tons of the colorless, odorless greenhouse gas annually. Given that the EPA estimates that the average passenger vehicle emits 4.7 tons of CO2 annually, Drake’s emissions equaled those of 340,000 cars.
And if you’re a fan of our reviving downtown, it’s infuriating to contemplate the continuing economic impact of the dismal old coal-burner on the downtown economy. Nineteen years? Come on!
Walking through the power plant site, which has provided electricity to Colorado Springs for nearly a century, I took a look at Unit 7’s nameplate. General Electric in Lynn, Mass., built it to last in 1974 — and GE’s still in the business.
So guys, when you need new capacity, you know where to call — I think the phone number is on the nameplate.