In eight months, Colorado Springs Utilities could have built a new gas-fired power plant. In two years, it would start to see a return on its investment.
So why did CSU’s board of directors pick 2035 as the closing date for Drake Power Plant? It’s a short-sighted decision for a city-owned utility that prides itself on thinking for the long term, as it did with the Southern Delivery System to secure future water resources.
Drake has its challenges: Its footprint is constrained; there’s no way to plan for peak times and down times; burning coal means investing more money to mitigate pollution from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide — and nothing CSU does offsets the coal plant’s carbon footprint.
Drake’s business model does not match economic reality. Costs for providing renewable energy have dropped and are competitive with fossil fuels, according to sources from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Lazard, a financial advisory firm. They forecast that in a decade it will be cheaper to retrofit a plant for wind and solar than it will be to continue to burn fossil fuels.
As alternative energies drop in price, it make sense to invest more money in new technologies and less in maintaining an outdated means of producing electricity. A new plant won’t demand the capital outlay and maintenance costs associated with downtown’s aging coal-fired plant. Drake is 80 years old, and experts say it is far past its prime and no longer a money-maker for Utilities.
And that’s where a new natural gas plant could play a huge role. Unlike coal or nuclear energy, natural gas plants have the ability to ramp up during peak times and ramp down when there’s less demand — making way for utilities to add more renewables to its mix. The problem: Drake’s aging infrastructure and limited space don’t allow for much — if any — innovation.
Some experts claim CSU clings to coal because it makes money from Drake, making investing in natural gas seem like a losing proposition. Others say the board is slow to move because the Springs enjoys some of the cheapest electricity in Colorado — and that’s a major benefit to businesses.
But Drake inhibits investment in the city’s downtown core. It’s an eyesore, its plume of smoke visible from most of the city and from the summit of Pikes Peak. Cities can’t thrive without a vibrant, robust core — and Drake is keeping the downtown business corridor from fully realizing its growth potential.
It’s time to embrace diverse energy production — build a natural gas plant that can be retrofitted in a decade to use wind or solar as well as natural gas. Wind and solar can provide energy during low load times, while natural gas could handle peak load periods. The city’s pollution problem is vastly reduced; its downtown has new room to build apartments, businesses, technology groups and laboratories — creating an engine for the rest of Colorado Springs that can stand as a bulwark against future economic downturns.
Colorado Springs Utilities: Don’t wait until 2035 or even 2025. Invest in the future now.