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Colorado Springs Utilities is planning for a new 160-acre campus that will be home to new energy generation and provide space for workers to explore new energy technology.

A new 160-acre Colorado Spring Utilities campus could help pave the city's way toward electric and self-driving cars, the chief executive said, and allow new energy technology by providing space for workers to experiment and ensure they are making the right investments for the community.

For example, as electric cars gain in popularity, Utilities wants to ensure that drivers can recharge their vehicles when demand on the electric grid is lowest and the energy the cheapest through an automated system, Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin said. Such a vision requires a lab, he said.

"Electric vehicles are here. ... We need to get ahead of this wave," he said.

The city also wants to make sure that when automated cars arrive, the infrastructure is ready, and the campus could provide space for that work as well,  he said. 

The work at the new Advanced Technologies Campus east of the airport and just west of Marksheffel Road will not replace what researchers in national labs are doing, but it will provide a place for the city to undertake consumer research about major emerging technologies, he said. 

"When we buy something we want to make sure we know what we’re buying," he said "... Having that kind of backbone will give us an upper hand on getting things done faster."

The campus could cost $50 million to build out over eight to 10 years and could include office and lab space, a fleet maintenance facility, solar panel array, natural gas turbines, microgrid and a hydrogen fuel cell, he said.

Plans for the campus are in the formative stages, but the Colorado Springs City Council, which also functions at the Utilities board, approved the purchase of the property for $2.2 million in July and Utilities has submitted the land for annexation to city planners. 

"We are taking pretty aggressive steps to make this happen," Benyamin said. 

The new campus is close to electric and gas lines and is expected to start out as the home of a new electric substation. The natural gas generators that are replacing the coal-powered, downtown Martin Drake Power Plant could follow in 2024 or 2025, Benyamin said. The generators will start out on the Drake site and replace its power. The Drake coal plant will close no later than 2023. The generators are expected to be moved, to free the downtown site up for other uses. 

The closure of Drake is part of a nationwide trend toward cheaper renewable electricity generation, including wind and solar generation.

As part of the trend, Benyamin said he expects more and more homeowners to install solar panels that will feed refrigerator-sized batteries. The small microgrids make good use of the excess power produced by solar panels by storing it for later use. 

Utilities staff could set up a microgrid on the campus so they can learn about the batteries before they are put into neighborhood use, he said.

The hydrogen generation could be used to help provide complimentary power to the solar and wind generation utilities is investing in, Benyamin said. For example, stored electricity for solar and wind can be used to create hydrogen out of water, then the hydrogen can generate electricity when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, he said. Hydrogen generation creates water as a byproduct. 

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

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