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Utilities' burning question

City Sage



Is it a peasant revolt, Colorado Springs-style? Are our City Council members really prepared to throw off their shackles and do something that their better-informed, better-paid, better-educated and visibly smarter subordinates at Colorado Springs Utilities don't want them to do?

It certainly seemed that way at this month's Utilities Board meeting, when Council directed CSU to review all options regarding the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant, including closure and demolition.

Significantly, Council instructed Utilities to slow down spending on the plant until a final decision is made on its future. That may not be for six months or so, when CSU presents a detailed report to the board, which will summarize available options and recommend a course of action.

Comments from the dais were interesting, to say the least.

Reacting to a young entrepreneur's comment that two prospective hires for his "solar garden" had taken one look at the coal-fired dinosaur and refused to move here, Bernie Herpin expressed views that others likely share — especially my geezer pals.

"[Colorado Springs ratepayers] want plenty of electrons, and they don't want to pay much for them," Herpin said. "[Drake] is paid for and it's reliable."

As for those finicky young folk who are offended by that — well, Herpin implied, they can go somewhere else.

Brandy Williams took the opposite tack, noting that the plant is not just an eyesore but an impediment to local economic growth. A majority of Council appeared to agree with her, bringing the wrecking ball that much closer to the aging power plant ... maybe.

Council might love to get rid of Drake, please the progressive business community, and placate all those finicky young professionals. But don't get your hopes up. CSU's managers love their old clunker and will protect it to the end. As one appalled senior manager noted, Drake accounts for more than one-third of system capacity. Replacing it wouldn't be cheap.

Alarmed by suggestions that Utilities sell electric generation and transmission, CEO Jerry Forte cannily defended traditional municipal socialism.

"We can only have this discussion because we own [the municipal utilities system]," Forte said. "We don't have to go hat in hand to someone in Minneapolis." That's where Xcel Energy is headquartered.

Drake isn't just unsightly — it's a major source of air pollution, annually emitting thousands of tons of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, along with carbon dioxide. The sulfur and nitrogen oxides can be controlled to some extent, but there's no economically feasible technology that can remove CO2, widely believed to be a major driver of global climate change.

Gas-fired power plants are scarcely emission-free, but they're far cleaner than the cleanest coal-burner. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant."

Utilities, acting as our city's largest (and only!) seven-figure venture capitalist, has sunk millions into Neumann Systems, a local company with yet-unproven sulfur dioxide removal technology. If it works — and CSU officials are sunnily optimistic — it'll give Drake new life, enabling it to comply with increasingly stringent emissions standards.

And remember: Power plants aren't like kitchen appliances. You don't throw them away when they break. They're big, simple and durable. You burn coal, boil water, turn it to steam, and use the steam to drive turbines. Maintain and replace moving parts as needed, and they'll last for generations.

So here's Council's dilemma: Do you cling to the cheapest, most polluting plant, or do you force ratepayers to bear the cost of building a new gas-fired facility away from downtown? Are you ready for the political firestorm?

I can imagine the response from Jeff Crank and Americans for Prosperity. "Council liberals want to throw away our downtown power plant, spend hundreds of millions to please environmental extremists, and send you the bill!"

So unless CSU's report recommends unequivocally that Drake be decommissioned and abandoned, the old girl is safe for at least a decade ... or at least until all of us grumpy old conservative white guys have shuffled off this mortal coil.

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