The majority of ratepayers who participated in an informal poll from Colorado Springs Utilities showed a preference for low electric rates over air quality and economic development when it comes to the fate of the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown.
The poll questions were part of a town hall meeting regarding Drake, which was held by phone Wednesday evening. Drake is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2035, but Utilities' board of directors, which consists of the City Council, is investigating whether it could be closed as much as a decade sooner.
Over the span of the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, 1,561 people tuned in to the conversation at some point, staying for an average of just over 10 minutes, according to data provide by Utilities spokeswoman Amy Trinidad. At the conversation's peak, 425 people were listening.
Not everyone who listened participated in the poll questions, which were scattered throughout the conversation. On average, 112 people answered each of the four questions.
The vast majority of respondents - 79 percent - said they were familiar with the board's decommissioning plan for Drake, but from there the answers began to spread out.
Fifty-six percent of respondents said their primary concern with Drake operating downtown was that it provides low-cost electricity. Thirty-one percent said the city's air quality, health and environment are their top priority, while downtown economic development and the community's image and reputation were favored by only 2 percent and 3 percent of the respondents, respectively. Nine percent of participants were either unsure or had no opinion.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they are unwilling to pay higher electricity rates to close Drake early. But 8 percent said they would be willing to pay up to 2 percent more on their electric bills, 13 percent said they were willing to pay up to 4 percent more and 18 percent said they would be willing to shoulder an increase of 5 percent or more.
Neither Andy Pico, the board's vice chair, nor board member Jill Gaebler said they were surprised by the poll results.
Pico, who favors keeping Drake open until 2035 as a way of keeping rates low, said the answers regarding potential rate increases were particularly telling and support his current position.
Gaebler said the results offer insight into what ratepayers think, other than the small but vocal few who attend board meetings and ask for Drake to be shut down as soon as possible.
The results are a little more in line with the responses the board heard while developing its Electric Integrated Resource Plan, Gaebler said. That plan was finished last year and outlines Utilities' renewable energy goals in the years to come as well as the decision to close Drake by the end of 2035. As a part of that process, board members heard a lot of feedback from ratepayers, she said.
"I don't think their views have shifted that much since then," Gaebler said. "The majority were comfortable with the direction we took at the time."
Gaebler said she might vote to close Drake sooner but needs more information. Specifically, she wants to learn more about the scrubbing systems installed at the plant, which are meant to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.
"I really want to understand what (the scrubbers are) catching and what they're releasing into the atmosphere and what that's comparable to," she said.
The main options for replacing Drake's power include building a natural gas plant at the same site, building outside of the city and buying electricity from other utilities or a combination of those routes.
Forty-one percent of the participants preferred building a new plant on-site, while 34 percent preferred building outside the city and buying power and 24 percent preferred a combination approach, the data shows.
Pico said he and other board members are still collecting information before making a firm decision this month on how to proceed with Drake's closure.
"The devil is in the details," he said.
A second, in-person town hall meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave.