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A utility worker stands atop a new transformer at the Martin Drake Power Plant in 2006. Colorado Springs Utilities is moving toward more cleaner energy production that could end coal-fired electricity production at Drake early. 

Colorado Springs Utilities is favoring energy plans that would radically cut carbon emissions and allow for the early shutdown of coal-fired generation at the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant. 

The Utilities Policy Advisory Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend an energy mix to Colorado Springs City Council that would reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and end all coal-fired production at Drake no later than 2023. The utility previously planned to close Drake no later than 2035. 

"We are certainly going down the path of the future," committee member Scott Harvey said. 

City Council, which serves as the Colorado Springs utilities board, will review the advisory committee's recommendation and other options for future energy generation later this month. The board is expected to select an energy mix that will determine the timeline for the closure of coal generation at Drake and the Ray Nixon Power Plant near Fountain on June 26. 

To comply with state law, the board must select a future energy mix that will cut the utilities' carbon emissions 80% by 2030 from 2005 levels, Utilities' Government and Corporate Affairs Manager Andy Colosimo told the advisory board in May. Through the end of last year, the utility had cut 32% of its carbon emissions from the baseline year, said Amy Trinidad, a Utilities spokeswoman.

Utilities must end coal-fired generation at Drake and Nixon by 2030 to meet the 80% carbon reduction goal and and replace the 400 megawatts of power they produce with other sources, many renewable, Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin said. However, he also expects the future energy mix will also be cost effective, innovative and reliable. 

"It’s going to be a balanced portfolio," he said in an interview.

Benyamin also doesn't foresee layoffs as a result of the closure of coal-fired generation. All of the employees in those areas will be retrained and reassigned within city Utilities, he said. 

The energy mix recommended by the advisory committee would bring on new natural gas generation first to help replace power from Drake. The natural gas generation would likely be located at Drake because Utilities transmission system is built around the power plant, Trinidad said. Gas generation would likely stay at Drake until 2025, when transmission system upgrades will allow them to be moved and the site dismantled, she said.  

In the long term, the energy mix selected by the committee would require an estimated 523 megawatts of natural gas generation, 100 megawatts of wind, 150 megawatts of solar and other smaller energy sources, such as battery storage, Utilities' documents show.

Some committee members favored energy mixes with larger amounts of natural gas generation because they require the utility to spend less on construction to build new generation and didn't rely as much on newer technology, such as large amounts of battery storage. 

"We have to be prudent and stay away from the things that are still in developmental stages," committee member Rich Kramer said. 

While natural gas could be a significant part of the future energy mix, the direction Utilities is headed is marked shift for the institution, said Mark Smith, John L. Knight professor of economics at Colorado College.

"We made this huge pivot away from fossil fuels," he said. 

When the energy planning process was started, it was not clear that Drake was going to be closed early or that carbon emissions would be cut by 80% by 2030, he said. 

"Those are huge achievements," he said.

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

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