- Courtesy Colorado Springs Utilities
- More solar is likely on the way for Utilities.
The scenarios considered by the Colorado Springs Utilities Board for the future of the Martin Drake power plant didn't speculate much on the social and environmental impacts of Drake or consider Utilities' future with renewable energy. But with the decision of when to close Drake still open, some board members say they want more robust discussion of these issues in the future. Here's a deeper dive into the green issues surrounding the decision:
Related Utilities could attract new business, instead it appears to be a magnet for controversy: Power struggle
First, some good, albeit old, news for greenies: The Utilities Board recently decided to buy 100 megawatts of electricity generated from solar panels, meaning renewable sources will account for 15 percent of its portfolio by 2019. More likely than not, however, Utilities won't hit its 20 percent by 2020 goal for renewable energy. That might beg the question: Why not buy more solar and use it to replace at least a chunk of Drake's generation?
It comes down to storage. Photovoltaic modules, otherwise known as solar panels, convert sunlight to electricity. No sunlight, no electricity. Thus the need for a battery capable of storing energy generated during the day to dispatch later at night. There's consensus on the board that beyond cost concerns, the technology just isn't there yet.
Meanwhile, South African inventor, business magnate, billionaire and futurist Elon Musk's SolarCity Corporation finished installing utility-scale batteries first in Southern California, then on the Hawaiian island Kauai, and most recently in Australia. The newly built 129 megawatt-hour battery in Australia is the largest in the world and is said to be capable of powering 30,000 homes.
Maybe our scrubber system sapped the Utilities board's willingness to be a first or early adopter of new technology. (Utilities was the first to use the scrubbers designed by Neumann Systems Group, and had hoped for a cut of the profits if the scrubbers were later used elsewhere. But the company folded shortly after the project's completion.)
Still, there's reason for hope. John Romero, who manages Utilities' acquisition, engineering and planning, says he's "pretty sure we're going to add a lot more renewables," if not as a direct replacement to Drake, then as part of Utilities' routine reshuffling of its portfolio. He's eyeing storage technologies as they improve, and models for expanding on-site generation (i.e., solar panels installed on homes and businesses). "We see that as the future," he says, "but we're trying to go for low cost, not 'at any cost.'"
EmissionsSpeaking of those scrubbers, there are questions about how well they work. Utilities claims they work remarkably well, removing 95 percent of sulfur dioxide from the plant's emissions. And that's true according to a sampling of the plant's plume compared to pre-scrubber levels. But, there's only one monitor, located off Eighth Street, collecting data to model ambient air quality. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission found that insufficient to make a determination about the plant's compliance with federal clean air standards.
Environmental activists say the plant is a big polluter. They base that on several sources: Environmental Protection Agency data showing big spikes in emissions that get flattened out in 30-day averages; local professionals' independent analyses, like engineer Scott Harvey's finding that the plume contains toxins otherwise banned from consumer products; and the infamous modeling report done by contractor AECOM Technical Services that's never been released to the public. It was, however, accidentally released to attorney Leslie Weise who described its contents to the Gazette.
With the decommissioning debate now set to continue into 2020, as part of the next Electric Integrated Resource Plan process, Drake's plumes will remain a source of controversy.