Colorado Springs Utilities’ purchase of six natural gas-powered turbines signal the beginning of the end for the Martin Drake Power Plant.
The utility is investing $100 million in the turbines, which will take over power generation as CSU moves to decommission the coal-fired plant until a transmission line is built to serve Downtown Colorado Springs.
General Electric, the manufacturer of the turbines, stated in a news release that the units will be the first of their kind to be installed in North America.
Besides helping CSU power down coal generation at the Drake plant, the highly mobile turbines will also serve CSU and its customers after Drake’s closure as the utility brings more renewable energy sources onto the system.
“GE has promised delivery of the units starting at the end of this year,” CSU CEO Aram Benyamin said. “When we are all done with all six is when we can shut coal off. At that time, the Drake plant is dead and we can start with the demolition process.”
Benyamin said he expects the shutdown of the coal units by the end of 2022.
The gas turbines will generate power at the Drake plant until a high-voltage transmission line is completed in 2025. That line will tie into a substation that will remain on the Drake property.
Although the cost of the turbines is high, “overall we are saving many dollars by making this decision to go to these very sophisticated, reliable units,” Benyamin said.
The gas-powered turbines will be far less expensive to operate than the coal units at Drake, he said. The Drake plant requires 80 people to operate it, whereas the new units will take only a total of four people to run. The extra workers will be transferred to other jobs within CSU.
The new units will take only eight minutes to go from 0 to 200 megawatts, compared with an 18-hour startup time for the coal units to get to full load.
“You push a button, and these units come on,” Benyamin said.
The coal units also take eight hours to power down, while the new units can be turned on and off quickly, he said.
The utility will also save on future capital improvements at the plant and on coal purchase and deliveries by train.
All of the costs for replacing the Drake plant were accounted for in CSU’s financial forecasting and included in the utility’s energy resource plans.
When the plant is closed and the transmission line is completed, the gas-powered units will be deployed in other places within the CSU system and will help CSU to better integrate renewable energy resources and reduce carbon emissions.
USE AFTER DRAKE
The new units, which have an estimated 40-year lifespan, are not base generators that remain in operation, like the coal units at the Drake and Nixon power plants, Benyamin said. Instead, they will be used intermittently when and where they are needed.
“If cloud cover knocks out [solar] generation for a day, we have backup,” he said. “Those are the times when we need these generators. We can do that as many times as we want during the day.”
CSU has already committed to meeting the state’s climate goals for 2030, including an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by that year. The shutdown of the Drake plant in 2023 and the Nixon plant in 2029 will go a long way toward achieving the Pikes Peak region’s part in meeting those goals.
Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, it generates less than half of the carbon emissions of coal, said David Padgett, CSU’s general manager of environmental services, at a Feb. 18 meeting sponsored by the Sierra Club’s Pikes Peak chapter.
“Our plan would be to run those [gas] units to help meet our peak demands, or when renewables either may not be available, or we just need to supplement as we grow that portfolio,” Padgett said.
The utility opened its first community solar garden in 2011, according to the CSU website, and since then has brought four more solar gardens online, along with four solar arrays. Together, they produce about 115 megawatts.
“We plan to add an additional 175 megawatts and a 25-megawatt battery [by 2023] and to grow our renewable portfolio even further,” Padgett said.
“These temporary gas generators will be an important bridge for the reliability of our system as we add more increments of renewable energy,” he said.
Some of the gas units likely will reside on the 160-acre Advanced Technologies Campus that CSU will develop east of the Colorado Springs Airport, Padgett said. The campus will house an electric substation as well as facilities for research on emerging technologies.
“We’ve also been working quite a bit with the local military — in particular, Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base — on their desires to have resiliency for their generation,” Padgett said.
“We’re not thrilled that they’re replacing one fossil fuel with another, and we will continue to push for renewable energy and storage as the ultimate replacement for Drake,” said Jim Lockhart, conservation committee chair of the Pikes Peak Group of the Sierra Club.
“But we recognize that in order for that to happen, there are interim measures that have to be taken,” Lockhart said. “We are glad they did not consider the alternative of building new gas plants as part of a switchover.”
Although gas is cleaner than coal, “when you burn [gas], it’s mainly carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and therefore is a concern,” he said. “If it’s not completely burned, then you end up putting more greenhouse gases into the air than you would with other alternatives. … So we are hoping and expecting that, eventually, the natural gas will be phased out also and that we will continue to push over to renewable energy and storage as the ultimate replacements for Drake; 100 percent renewable energy needs to be the ultimate goal.”
The club is also worried about residues at the site that will have to be cleaned up.
“We know we’re going to have to mitigate,” said Natalie Watts, senior public affairs specialist at CSU. “As we are coordinating for the natural gas units, we are abiding by environmental regulations and state permit considerations for that project.”
A mitigation plan will be developed after a decision is made on the future use of the Drake campus, Watts said.
“There will have to be a different kind of mitigation if it turns into a public park than if it turns into an apartment complex,” she said.
THE FUTURE OF DRAKE
Not all of the 66-acre campus will be available for future development. The utility will retain 10-12 acres for the substation that will distribute power to Downtown, Watts said.
The gas generation purchase “shows that CSU is fully committed to moving as quickly as possible, while absolutely ensuring that we continue with the reliable energy that CSU is known for,” said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
While city council (which also acts as the Utilities board) will make the ultimate decision on the site’s future use, “we are working with the Legacy Institute and [consultant] CommuniCon to do some community listening on setting a vision for the future of the Drake property,” Edmondson said.
“We see this as almost a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink the importance of that location and what it means to the whole city,” she said. “The site is quite special. It really is a gateway to the city. It’s at the junction of I-25 and Highway 24, and it’s at the confluence of Monument Creek and Fountain Creek. That’s a pretty rare set of qualities.”
Successful urban sites have a mix of uses, she said.
“What we’ve heard in early listening is that there can be a combination of social, cultural, housing, commercial uses and recreational uses,” Edmondson said. “When you have that mix, that certainly adds to greater vibrancy and greater access and opportunity for the whole community.”
The decision to close the Drake plant “has really helped us when we talk about downtown to future potential investors,” she said. “I’ve absolutely had conversations with potential investors and developers, and they are encouraged when they know that this is moving forward.”