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Lights out

Ironic blackout hits as Utilities talks about energy concerns starting in 2013


City Council members, along with an audience of environmentalists, energy wonks and concerned residents, listened silently.

Tom Black, Colorado Springs Utilities' chief energy services officer, was explaining to the audience that the city's coal plants, hydropower purchases and other sources should be able to keep up with demand until about 2013.

Then the lights went out.

"That was sooner than you thought," a woman called, drawing a burst of nervous laughter.

The Sept. 19 power outage did not, in fact, have anything to do with increased demand, or the efforts of city residents and staff members to assemble an energy roadmap called an Electric Integrated Resource Plan. Instead, a backup electrical system went down while workers were repairing the primary system, cutting power to nearly 20,000 Colorado Springs homes and businesses.

It took about 24 minutes before the Plaza of the Rockies' lights came back on and the Sept. 19 meeting could resume.

"We were talking about capacity, I think," Black said, to more laughter.

Utilities buys hydropower from the Western Area Power Administration, and is thus required by law to complete a detailed energy plan every five years. The plans forecast energy demand 10 to 15 years out and suggest a mix of coal plants, wind farms and other electricity sources to meet that demand.

When the plan was amended in 2004, a proposed new coal plant for the city took center stage, as the least expensive idea. It maintained a leading role when a revised plan was rolled out earlier this year. But looking only at cost brought a chilly reception, and Utilities officials were charged with looking at alternatives.

At the September board meeting, Black and a colleague were widely praised as they described possible alternatives and scenarios that would push back the need for a new plant, and possibly head it off altogether. They're as basic as using compact fluorescent lights, and killing power to appliances that suck electricity even when their switches are turned off.

On the energy-production side, a tax on carbon emissions, if one is enacted, could suddenly make a coal plant quite expensive. And Utilities customers have said in surveys they would willingly pay more for energy from alternative sources, such as wind.

Several residents told the board about their priorities when it comes to energy, with some urging a move away from coal.

Said Jane Ard-Smith, chair of the Pikes Peak chapter of the Sierra Club and a member of a Utilities advisory group: "The cheapest energy we can come up with is energy we don't use."

Cynthia Pulham introduced herself to the board simply as a mom. She said her family would pay more for renewable energy and would also chip in if there were a fund to help less affluent families pay.

At issue, she suggested, is the type of world that will greet her grandchildren.

"I feel so much hope coming out of this room today, that you guys are really smart and you'll figure a way out of this," she said.

Utilities officials will discuss options for the city during a public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Leon Young Service Center, 1521 Hancock Expressway. For more information, call Gail Conners at 668-8012.

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