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Public, officials debate early closure of Colorado Springs power plant

November 29, 2017 Updated: November 30, 2017 at 6:26 am
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The Martin Drake power plant just southwest of downtown Colorado Springs Thursday, January 24, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Members of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board of Directors assured ratepayers Wednesday that their comments will be considered regarding the eventual closure of the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown.

The idea of closing Drake earlier than its already-scheduled 2035 decommission date is partially due to ratepayers' wishes, board members said during a telephone town hall held on that topic.

"Many of our ratepayers ... are asking us to relook at this issue," said board member Jill Gaebler in response to one man who questioned whether the public's comments would have any effect. "We are obligated to at least have this conversation."

Earlier this year, the board directed Utilities staff to investigate options for closing the plant a decade earlier. Those include opportunities to replace the power when the plant closes and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Board President Tom Strand said accelerating Drake's closure came from the many people who feel the plant isn't the best introduction to the Olympic City and its downtown location could be used for development.

Others, like environmental activist Amy Gray, have health concerns tied to Drake's emissions. She asked what type of plan the board has to involve renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Immediately replacing Drake's power with wind or solar generation would be problematic for ratepayers because they're unreliable, said John Romero, Utilities' general manager of energy acquisition, engineering and planning.

Battery technology doesn't currently exist that would allow Utilities to store wind or solar energy until it was needed, Romero said. And the electricity generated from those sources doesn't coincide well with Utilities' peak demand times.

Instead, replacing Drake with a natural gas plant, either at the same location or outside the city, would allow Utilities' to generate as much electricity as it needs on demand, he said.

On health concerns, Strand spoke of scrubbing systems installed at Drake which are meant to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant.

"All of the data we've received indicates the emissions that come out of those towers are not a health risk to our community," Strand said.

Board member Dave Geislinger's thoughts differed.

"There is not 100 percent clean coal," Geislinger said. "There are going to be emissions. There will be health impacts from emissions." Responding to Strand's assurances, Gray noted a sulfur dioxide report by AECOM Technical Services Inc., which reportedly showed sulfur dioxide emissions from Drake exceeded federal standards. The report is not available to the public and, earlier this month, the state Air Quality Control Commission deemed the plant's emissions "unclassifiable" rather than in compliance with federal standards.

"If it's so damn safe release that AECOM report you are hiding," Gray said.

Others, however, questioned the need to close Drake earlier than the original target date of 2035. They argued that ratepayers will absorb the costs, which will be significantly higher if the closure is accelerated.

"I don't want to undertake an expense of this type any sooner than it should be because that saves all of us money in the long run," said Andy Pico, the board's vice chair.

The longer Utilities waits, the better battery storage and renewable energy generation technology becomes, Pico and others argued.

By no means is Drake's future a "done deal" at this point, Pico said.

A second, in-person town hall meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 5 at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave.

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