Martin Drake Power Plant’s days appear to be coming to an end, and probably sooner rather than later.
The second of three units at the coal-fired power plant whose stacks dominate the skyline of the developing southern end of downtown Colorado Springs should be shut down by the end of 2019, says municipal Utilities Board Chairman Tom Strand.
Other board members agree, although Colorado Springs Utilities’ new CEO Aram Benyamin said the end of next year might be too ambitious. He would, however, like to shutter Unit 6 as early as possible. The remaining Unit 7 could be shut down as early as 2024, he said.
Strand’s hopes for closing Unit 6 were echoed by Richard Skorman and Jill Gaebler, who also serve on the Utilities Board.
“The sooner we take it offline, the better,” Skorman said.
Pressure to close the plant has increased in recent years, primarily because of pollutants some suspect the plant is emitting and the catastrophic effects of global warming. Utilities needs to invest in renewable energy allowing it to close Drake sooner than 2035, Skorman says.
Multiple projects, each in varying stages of development, would add 245 megawatts of solar power and battery storage to Utilities’ portfolio.
Those projects need to be complete and running before a more definitive timeline can be set for Drake’s closure, Benyamin said.
“Before I unplug something, I need to see how the new systems work,” he said.
Plus that decision is ultimately up to the Utilities Board, Benyamin noted.
The board had been expected to reconsider the 2035 deadline a year ago, possibly shortening the timeline, but the group delayed that decision, citing a need for more information.
And preliminary information is showing a likely economic benefit to closing Unit 6, Benyamin said. Unit 5 was essentially finished by late 2016.
An up-front investment in renewable energy and battery storage might be more expensive, but it would cushion Utilities against volatile coal and gas markets dictating rates in the future, Benyamin said.
Two solar projects, totaling 95 megawatts, are expected to be finished by the end of 2019. And another, totaling 150 megawatts, is expected to be finished and operational by 2022 with battery storage following in 2024, said Utilities spokeswoman Amy Trinidad.
One megawatt is enough to power about 315 homes for a year.
Strand is more conservative with his hopes for Unit 7, the largest power generator left at Drake.
“I think anything earlier than 2027 is optimistic, but again we have to look at the numbers. I’m shooting for something earlier than 2030,” he said.
The concern, Strand said, is the potential cost of closing Drake, which ratepayers would ultimately shoulder.
“I would love to do it as soon as it makes good economic sense and we’re not going to hurt people more than we’re going to help them,” Strand said.
Skorman said he wants Drake closed by 2023, the earliest Utilities staff said it would be feasible. It will take that long to install necessary transmission infrastructure.
Drake’s closure also is seen as an integral piece in the redevelopment of the south downtown area, which is becoming a hub of urban living, tourism and a centerpiece of the City for Champions initiative.
The City Council on Tuesday designated a new urban renewal site in south downtown and revised an existing one in southwest downtown to spur development there. Both urban renewal sites are expected to bring new apartments, businesses, hotels, restaurants and upgraded sidewalks and streets to the area, among other things.
The U.S. Olympic Museum, one of four City for Champions projects, is under construction at Vermijo Avenue and Sierra Madre Street and slated to open to the public in 2020.
A 10,000-seat stadium for the Switchbacks minor league soccer team is planned for CityGate, a vacant block southwest of Cimarron and Sahwatch streets. The stadium would be accompanied by a seven-story building to the south with apartments and businesses.
The Switchbacks’ new home, also part of City for Champions, would be “right in the shadow of Drake,” Skorman said, and removing it would benefit the sports team and its patrons.
In the meantime, Skorman said he wants Unit 5 to be disassembled and removed, along with everything else that can be taken away.
“I’d like to see the footprint taken down there,” he said. “As many of the towers and the cookers, the big eyesores, that can be taken away, the better it is for the whole region.”
Many agree. The plant has long drawn the ire of residents and environmentalists who say its emissions are hazardous and the generation method is inefficient, particularly at Drake.
Disagreements over the plant even resulted in high-profile and expensive lawsuits between Utilities and clean air advocate and attorney Leslie Weise, who claimed in 2016 that sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant exceeded federal standards.
Weise remains embroiled in a defamation lawsuit she filed against the Utilities Board and others over the dispute.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign falls in line with Weise. Robin Izer, a volunteer with that campaign, praised Utilities’ efforts and said the time is right to capitalize on new, low-cost renewable energy resources.
But considering recent warnings surrounding global warming “even a 2024 date to close Drake is too late when it comes to the realities of climate science, public health and safety, and economics,” Izer said.
“Global climate chaos is in our face every evening on TV. We need to wake up, face our new challenges immediately, and close Drake as soon as possible.”
Andy Pico, Utilities Board vice chairman, remains a holdout for the 2035 shut down date.
“I know that there are other members of the board who would certainly like to close it tomorrow,” he said.