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Colorado Springs Utilities board again delays Drake decision

December 18, 2017 Updated: December 18, 2017 at 7:55 pm
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Martin Drake Power Plant shot from Gold Hill Mesa on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

The Colorado Springs Utilities board delayed a decision Monday to change the closing date for the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown, citing a need for more information.

Drake is to be decommissioned by 2035, but the board had asked the staff to look into how the plant could be closed up to a decade earlier.

The board was expected Monday to select a new timeline or affirm the existing one, a fact that drew dozens of ratepayers and other residents.

But, board Chairman Tom Strand told the packed audience, "We need to consider the facts so we can do the best thing for you.

"I want to close Drake early. I want to use that property for other things," he said.

Virtually every board member echoed his request for more information. Some want to know more specific costs to run Drake; others want more information on the plant's environmental impacts and the site's development potential.

The board did vote unanimously to pursue a route that would eliminate generation at Drake and the Birdsall Power Plant off North Nevada Avenue.

But before a new timeline can be set, board members said, Utilities needs to complete a five-year Electric Integrated Resource Plan study scheduled to be complete in 2020.

And it must determine, by late 2019, whether joining a Regional Transmission Organization would be beneficial.

The board's delay troubled Luke Henningsen, a Colorado College senior studying economics and environmental politics.

About a dozen Colorado College students warned the board that Drake's presence discourages them from making Colorado Springs their home.

"It's disappointing that they're kicking the can down the road," Henningsen said, praising the many students at the meeting "even though it's finals week."

"What we want is a clean environment and a vibrant economy," he said. "And Martin Drake provides neither."

Henningsen said he and many other students about to graduate will move to Denver or Boulder if Drake is open past 2025.

Board member Don Knight said he understands their frustration, though he's pleased with the board's decision.

"It was up to the people on the board that wanted it closed earlier to make a motion, and they didn't do it," Knight said. "I can see where that frustration is coming from. As for me, I'm for a 2035 closure date" to keep rates low.

Board members Richard Skorman and Yolanda Avila have called to close Drake by 2025 or sooner, but they, too, said more information is needed.

Skorman said he wants to investigate more deeply how different closure dates might affect rates and what effects joining a regional transmission group might have.

The 2020 presidential election also might play a part, he said.

"There may not be subsidies of coal and natural gas like there are today," Skorman said. "There may be subsidies for wind and solar."

Avila said she wants more details on Drake's health impacts, the community's reputation and more.

"I want to say that (the students) clearly have an impact, and I am counting on them to continue to voice their ideas, concerns and visions," said Avila, a Colorado College graduate.

Board member Bill Murray, who has said he prefers a 2030 closure date, was traveling and couldn't attend Monday's meeting.

Despite the board's indecision, Strand said a 2025 Drake closing is still a possibility.

Resident and ratepayer testimony lasted for nearly two hours. And while most favored closing Drake early, some defended the plant, saying it keeps rates low and doesn't pose environmental problems. El Paso County commissioners Stan VanderWerf and Longinos Gonzalez Jr. also cited the low rates.

The board's decision to ultimately shutter Drake and Birdsall also calls for replacement power to come from new natural gas plants, power imported from other utilities in the region or both.

The board also voted to speed Utilities' already scheduled transmission infrastructure projects.

Skorman said he wants to build out Utilities' transmission lines because partnering with other utilities could offer new options and potentially reduce rates.

The board also voted unanimously to have Utilities staff complete a site appraisal and environmental impact study on Drake and to estimate the salvage value of its equipment.

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