Dozens of citizens made impassioned pleas on both sides of the argument surrounding the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant that looms southwest of downtown at Monday’s Colorado Springs Utilities board meeting, but the board delayed a decision about when the plant might close.
The Utilities board, composed of city council members, voted 5-4 in 2015 to decommission Drake by 2035. When the makeup of the board changed with April’s election, the power plant once again became a hot topic, and the group asked staff to explore options that could close the plant as early as 2025.
Although the board chose not to vote on whether to change the timeline on Drake’s closure — several board members insist it should close by 2025 or even before — the board voted unanimously to support an infrastructure project that would allow for imported power, and to prohibit replacement generation at the Drake site and at the Birdsall Power Plant on North Nevada Avenue.
CSU put together several scenarios to close Drake earlier than planned. One of those was recommended by a staff report and approved by the board; it involves investing in that new transmission infrastructure — power lines and transformers to deliver electricity purchased from outside sources.
“I think there will continue to be discussion, because there is a lot of passion around this, on all sides of the issue,” Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte said after the nearly four-hour meeting. “The good thing is the board made a decision to advance the discovery process, if you will. There is still much we don’t know.”
Information-gathering on joining a Regional Transmission Organization that provides power over a multi-state grid isn’t due to be completed until 2019, and a five-year Electric Integrated Resource Plan study has a 2020 deadline.
“I think by the end of 2020, they’re going to have enough information to make a great decision,” Forte said. “This is very complex.”
Alternatives to Drake included a new natural gas plant on the downtown site, a new plant outside the city, buying electricity from other utilities, or a combination of those, said board member Richard Skorman. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have also been suggested.
“This is about more than utilities. This is about world views,” said board member David Geislinger. “The discussion will be ongoing. We are a split city on this.”
Rates could rise
The board voted to retain a consultant to advance transmission projects and to complete Drake site assessment studies — which include an appraisal of the land, a Phase 2 environmental study and determining salvage value of the plant.
Skorman said the land where Drake is located could be worth as much as $45 million, although board chairman Tom Strand said the environmental study is important to determine how that land could safely be used, whether it’s for a park, hotels or restaurants.
Arguments went back and forth — first among citizens, then among board members — about whether shutting down Drake earlier than 2035 would cost taxpayers, and how much, or whether the power plant is endangering people’s health and the environment.
Two El Paso County commissioners, Longinos Gonzalez and Stan VanderWerf, spoke during the public comment period, and each was in favor of Drake remaining open later than 2025, or as long as it benefits ratepayers and the community. Both stated they were representing only themselves, and not appearing in their role as commissioner. VanderWerf said he didn’t realize Gonzalez was going to speak, and it was not a coordinated effort.
“Obviously, this is a hot-button issue,” VanderWerf said. “I think the money thrown into changing our utilities could be spent elsewhere. Drake is a source of inexpensive and reliable power, and those are two aspects that attract business to Colorado Springs. If our rates go up, I think that will damage our ability to attract business.”
The Drake Decommissioning report, authored by John Romero, CSU’s general manager of energy acquisition engineering and planning, and Scott Shewey, the interim chief planning and finance officer, indicated that commercial utility rates would rise 4 percent while industrial rates would go up 4.1 percent and residential rates 4.6 percent when Drake is decommissioned.
That would amount to a total between $160 million and $200 million over 10 years if Drake were to close in 2025, Strand said.
“Right now Drake is the least expensive generation of electricity we have,” Strand said. “Adding that 4.6 percent to your electric bill each month is what we figure it will cost when we shut down Drake, based on current costs. That’s the cost of transitioning to another location, and to a format other than coal.”
Eric Tharp, chief energy services officer for CSU, said coal is cheaper than natural gas for the Springs moving forward, when specifics are considered such as the fuel’s source, quality and how it’s transported.
Emails to the board have been split, although generally favoring the 2035 timeline, board members said. More than a dozen Colorado College students were at the meeting, and many voiced their opinions, all for the early closure of Drake.
And while VanderWerf argued keeping Drake open is good for business, Skorman and others contend that eliminating the white plumes of steam from the downtown area might attract new businesses.
Board member Andy Pico reminded everyone that Utilities spent more than $200 million on a scrubber system for Drake, and that debt has not been paid.
“The scrubbers are working great and removing 95 percent of the pollutants,” he said. “We are in attainment of [Environmental Protection Agency] standards.”
Board member Jill Gaebler said she came into the meeting uncertain, and at the end still didn’t know enough to make a decision, but expressed confidence in how the power plant is performing. “The scrubbers are working and doing a really good job for our community,” she said.
Board member Merv Bennett said he doesn’t believe Drake is a polluter.
“It’s steam, not smoke,” he said of the billowing plumes that rise above Drake and the city.
Technology is moving quickly, Bennett said.
“I’m not sure anybody knows what power will look like 10 years from now,” he said. “I think we should review this every couple of years and when the date seems clear to us, then pull the trigger.”
One of Drake’s three power-generating units has already been shut down, and board member Yolanda Avila is ready to silence the other two.
“We have to move with the future,” she said. “There is new technology, renewable sources of energy, and we should make use of it.”