Acknowledging health concerns took a back seat to keeping costs down while he was Colorado Springs city manager, Jim Mullen this week joined those calling for closing the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant as soon as possible.
When he served as city manager from 1996 to 2001, Mullen said the mantra whenever anyone asked about the cloud billowing out of Drake’s towers was, “It’s safe. There are no dangerous emissions coming out of that plant. It’s mostly just steam.”
Mullen conceded he’s not a scientist or an engineer. But he told The Gazette recent scientific evidence has proven the old disclaimer was wrong.
“There is a lot of stuff coming out of the smokestacks that’s not good for us,” he said Friday. “I’d like to see a healthy community and a city government that puts that as a priority rather than the size of my electric bill.”
Andy Pico, vice chairman of the Utilities Board, disputed Mullen’s claim, pointing out a scrubber system was installed on the coal-fired units to remove sulfur dioxide emissions.
That controversial $200 million scrubber system has been a point of contention in Colorado Springs since it began operating in 2016. While Utilities maintains the scrubbers work well, the state Air Quality Control Commission deemed the plant’s emissions “unclassifiable” in November rather than in compliance with federal standards. Even short-term exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide can be life-threatening, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
“We’ve done a lot to comply with all the emission standards,” Pico said. “The standards were different (when Mullen was city manager). People didn’t have the same information we have today.”
Mullen asked Utilities’ board of directors Wednesday to hasten the studies needed to close Drake. Already, one of the plant’s three coal-fired units has been decommissioned and the other two are scheduled to be shut down by 2035.
Mullen said that closure date is arbitrary.
“There’s no science. None,” he said. “No science in that, except the science of delay. That number means nothing.”
Mullen said he was encouraged to weigh in on Drake’s closure by people who thought his voice might carry more weight because he’s familiar with the policies and procedures used by the city and Utilities.
At play are questions of how Utilities should replace the power generated by Drake and what to do with the land the plant sits on. Some of those answers will come from a site appraisal — originally slated for completion by the end of 2019 — and an Electric Integrated Resource Plan that Utilities provides every five years.
Despite Mullen’s urging, the Utilities board voted unanimously Wednesday to delay that site appraisal until the end of 2020, to coincide with the Electric Integrated Resource Plan’s completion. As a part of a recent lawsuit settlement, Utilities also must consider 100 percent renewable energy options in that plan that could be implemented in 2030, 2040 or 2050.
Mullen said he wasn’t surprised by that decision, but questioned the rationale given to him at the meeting. The board can force change sooner, he said, wondering why the board members — who as City Council members are paid about $6,000 a year — won’t “put their necks on the line for what they know is right.”
“When elected people are committed to get solutions, they get solutions,” he said.
Pico defended the Electric Integrated Resource Plan and site appraisal’s timing. Both will help Utilities make an informed decision on Drake’s future, he said.
The appraisal will be accompanied by an environmental impact study on Drake and an estimate of the salvage value of the plant’s equipment. Completing the appraisal at the same time as Electric Integrated Resource Plan will allow Utilities staff to provide the board with the “freshest” information possible, said John Romero, Utilities’ general manager of energy acquisition engineering and planning.
In response to Mullen’s comments, Romero said the Utilities board carefully balances “their strategic focus of rates, reliability and relationships with the community in their decision-making process.”
He reiterated that health and safety of citizens and customers is always a priority.
Board member Richard Skorman said he’s still in favor of closing Drake as early as possible and that the delay in the appraisal won’t affect that.
The earliest Drake could be closed is 2023, Utilities staff has told the board.
“This is so if we decide, say, after the EIRP, that we want to retire (Drake) in 2023, then we would have the most current information about what the environmental assessment is and what the value of the equipment is,” Skorman said. “We may even find out that it’s possible to do in ’22.”
One of the most common concerns regarding Drake’s closure is the possibility of an increase in electricity rates. Using the most recent information available with the site appraisal would mean those potential increases might not be as costly, Skorman said.
“We need to (close Drake) as soon as possible,” Skorman said. “As soon as we can get replacement power, I would support it. I’m convinced that even though there may be a short-term raise in rates … it would bring a lot more … relief than rate increases in the long run.”
Mullen said throughout his career he’s often heard a familiar excuse for delay: “The longer we wait, the cheaper it gets.”
“I’ve never seen that happen,” he said. “It’s always, ‘Why didn’t we do this a long time ago? We could have saved a lot of money.’”