Colorado Springs City Council candidates debated the future of the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown at a forum Thursday focusing on energy, environment and the open space.

Of the 11 candidates vying for three at-large seat, several said they would push Colorado Springs Utilities to invest in more renewable energy sources to speed up the closing of the plant, which is to be shut down no later than 2035.

“Bottom line, we need to move aggressively away from fossil fuels. We are adding to the problem,” Terry Martinez, a former elementary school principal, told a crowd of more than 100 people at Colorado College’s Packard Hall.

Two of the candidates, Gordon Klingenschmitt and Athena Roe, disagreed that there should be more urgency to shutter Drake, saying Utilities must first find an alternative that works.

“I don’t know if we need to be that aggressive,” Roe, who co-directs an organization that serves people who are financially abused during probate proceedings. She added, in response to Martinez, that the plan that Utilities has laid out for the plant’s closure is “probably right on target.”

Klingenschmitt, a former state representative, expressed concerns about a premature shutdown of the plant causing customers’ utility bills to skyrocket.

“We need to have efficient and affordable energy,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”

Utilities staff has said that 2023 is the earliest Drake could be closed.

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 CEO Aram Benyamin, who gave a presentation during the debate, said 245 megawatts of solar power and battery storage the municipal utility is adding to its energy portfolio will likely expedite the closure.

“It’s not just about Drake and the year we close Drake,” Benyamin said. “It’s about all the other thing we have to do to move us forward.”

One key hurdle is to convert Utilities’ power grid from one centered on a major, downtown generation source to one that accommodates dispersed generation facilities that allow for other types of energy to be used, said candidate Wayne Williams, the former secretary of state.

Williams said that he believes Drake can be closed “in the mid-2020s.”

Tom Strand, an incumbent councilman seeking re-election, said he thinks that one of the plant’s units could be shut down by the end of 2019, and the entire plant before 2035.

“I live one mile from Drake. I walk by there regularly,” said Strand, the Utilities board chairman. “And I want to join with you to find a way that we can close Drake earlier and at the same time ensure that (utility) rates don’t go through the roof.”

Former Councilman Val Snider, who served from 2011 to 2015, said he would push Utilities to explore “cutting-edge technology” in the realms of wind, hydro and solar power.

But candidate Dennis Spiker noted that if the council had invested in renewable energy when Snider was in office, Utilities would be in a much better position now.

“We had the chance to go to renewables, and we didn’t,” said Spiker, an Army veteran and student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The debate’s sponsors included the Colorado Springs Independent, the Trails and Open Space Coalition and Colorado College.

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