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The stacks of the Martin Drake Plant emit steam, but stand in stark contrast to the majestic mountains that are the backdrop for Colorado Springs. Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

Colorado Springs Utilities gave its commitment Friday to closing the coal-fired portions of Martin Drake Power Plant by 2023 and investing significantly more in renewable energy in coming decades. 

"The Drake decision is unbelievably historic," Colorado Springs Utilities board member Richard Skorman said. "...This is a time for huge celebration." 

The Colorado Springs Utilities Board, which is also Colorado Springs City Council, supported closing the coal-fired generators at the downtown Drake Power Plant 12 years earlier than previously planned because it is no longer economical to operate them. 

"It costs more to operate than we can buy energy on the spot market," board member Wayne Williams said. 

Utilities plans to replace the coal-fired power at Drake with natural gas generators that will be set up on the power plant site temporarily. Employees working at Drake will be moved into other positions and no layoffs are expected, CEO Aram Benyamin said.  

"As a public utility we can’t do all these transitions and leave all these employees behind," he said in an interview Friday.

The Utilities Board looked at two plans Friday for future energy. Both set the closure of Drake at 2023; achieve 80% carbon reduction by 2030, as called for under new state rules; and set a course for 90% renewable energy generation by 2050.

The two plans differed in what energy sources will be used to replace the coal-fired generation at Ray Nixon Power Plant near Fountain by 2030, with one relying more heavily on natural gas and the other relying more on renewable energy. The board voted 7 to 2 to back the latter plan, which proposes wind turbines and battery storage.

Board members who backed the greater focus on renewable energy said it provides more flexibility and in the long-term avoids some of the risk associated with the cost of natural gas going up. In the short term, the renewable-energy focused plan is also expected to be slightly cheaper, board members said. 

"We need to really have all the other options on the table besides natural gas," Skorman said. 

The chosen plan envisions the utility relying much more heavily on wind turbines and large-scale battery storage to help meet the city's needs. 

Board members Don Knight and Andy Pico opposed the plan focused on greater renewable energy, saying they view it as risky. It depends on future technological innovations, particularly around battery storage, that haven't happened yet, Knight said.

Knight pointed out the utility is not planning to install its first 25-megawatt battery until 2024 and the plan envisions hundreds of new megawatts of battery storage. The leap to so much battery storage scares him, Knight said. 

Knight and Pico said they were more comfortable relying on natural gas generation in the future. 

"I think the idea of adding incremental natural gas really makes a lot of sense," Pico said. 

If battery storage does not develop as expected ,the utility could fall back on natural gas generation, Benyamin said. But the utility needs to be ready to implement the battery storage if it advances as expected, he said. Battery storage is key because it allows excess energy from solar and wind generation to be stored until it's needed, he said. 

Most of the residents who spoke to the board Friday backed greater renewable energy generation, citing the health and climate benefits of moving away from fossil fuels. 

"It makes sense to set our sights high and set our sights on technological innovation," resident Benedict Wright said. 

Next steps

Colorado Springs Utilities is planning to add 180 megawatts of natural gas generation produced by six modular units to the Drake power plant site where they will replace the coal-fired generation, Benyamin said. The units can be maintained by four people, instead of the 80 needed to run the coal-fired generation, thus cutting costs, he said. 

The natural gas generators need to be located at the Drake site because the electrical transmission system is set up to carry large amounts of energy from that site out to the city, he said. When the transmission system is upgraded, the new generators will be moved to another site, which could be announced in the next month.

Utilities plans to dismantle Drake completely between 2024 and 2025, if not sooner, Benyamin said. The future appropriate uses of the site are yet to be determined, he said. 

"Almost anything would be better than a coal power plant," Utilities board Chairwoman Jill Gaebler said.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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