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Utilities considers committing to 'cleaning' technology



After sinking $17 million of ratepayer money into a new invention to clean emissions from its coal-fired power plants, Colorado Springs Utilities now has to fish or cut bait.

City-owned Utilities has tested the Neumann Systems Group's technology for the past three years, and in October the City Council, acting as the Utilities Board, will decide whether to install the equipment on the Martin Drake Power Plant's entire output.

Environmental advocates say now might be the time to start breaking away from coal, considering its contribution to global warming, its cleanup costs, and the expected rise in price due to growing competition with eastern states and China.

"We're saying, 'How much do you put into your old car?'" says Leslie Glustrom, a founding member of Boulder-based Clean Energy Action, which opposes coal plants. "Or, do you invest in creating the infrastructure for the future?"

But for Drew Rankin, who oversees the city's power plants, it's a no-brainer. Having babied the Neumann technology through testing, Rankin thinks the Springs-based firm's equipment is the most economical way to clean up the plant's emissions, which in turn will extend the plant's life — and save ratepayers money.

$1.9 billion in benefit

Tests of the technology on 20 megawatts of output at the 254-megawatt plant show that "PureStream," created by local physicist David Neumann, scrubs more than 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide from flue gas and lesser amounts of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide, although it shows promise for removing higher levels of those pollutants. Utilities' power plants are within emissions limits for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, but both are expected to become more stringent in coming years. Carbon isn't regulated yet but is expected to be. Utilities believes sulfur-dioxide-control equipment will be required by government regulators by 2015; it's unclear how soon new regulations will limit carbon emissions.

Besides that, he notes, the equipment takes up less room than other pollution control equipment; it uses small boxes containing liquid "sorbent," rather than large containers of limestone and water, to strip flue gases. More notably, it's half the cost of competing technology.

The equipment, if Utilities stays in the game, could translate into a value of $1.9 billion over 20 years, Rankin says.

The biggest benefit would come from keeping Drake, which provides 40 percent of the city's power, operational for another two decades. Rankin estimates that building a new plant — either a natural gas plant that pollutes less, or a new coal plant with space for cumbersome pollution-control equipment — could raise the city's current $160 million annual cost to deliver power by 40 percent to 50 percent.

The city would also save $174 million installing PureStream at a lesser cost than that of competitors. And it would receive what Rankin estimates could approach $40 million over five years from Neumann in market development fees, possibly more if Neumann's equipment sells like hotcakes. (The city's deal calls for it to receive a percentage of gross sales revenues.)

One possible boost to PureStream's sales is a study of the technology by the Electric Power Research Institute, of Palo Alto, Calif., a nonprofit that conducts research on various power issues. Rankin believes the EPRI's stamp of approval would guarantee commercial success and lead Neumann to create up to 500 jobs locally in manufacturing, sales and shipping.

EPRI spokesman Clay Perry emphasizes that the organization, which works with the Department of Energy, National Laboratories and Utilities, doesn't endorse any product or process but merely reports findings. "If something is promising, we report on the technical merit," Perry says. "If it is lacking in some respect, we say that."

Lacking social skills?

Even if EPRI likes what it sees, Rankin acknowledges the growing concern over climate change and its link to burning fossil fuels.

"I don't know how long Drake can last socially," he says. "There's a lot of people who may not want Drake in our community."

The city produces additional power with the Ray D. Nixon and Front Range power plants, which burn coal and gas, with smaller amounts coming from hydroplants and purchased wind energy. It's also developing a solar array at the Air Force Academy. But still, roughly 70 percent of the city's power comes from coal.

Clean Energy Action's Glustrom acknowledges that it's not easy to toss out fossil fuels overnight.

"If you're a utility, you have to keep the lights on," she says. But, she adds, "As we head into a carbon-constrained world, adding more coal will add costs."

The Sierra Club's regional representative Roger Singer is more emphatic: "Putting scrubbers on is simply putting a Band-Aid on a wound that's gushing blood," he says. Coal costs will rise further if the EPA requires coal ash to be handled as hazardous waste, which some ecologists are pushing for, he says. He also notes that scrubber technology developed so far doesn't remove all pollutants.

But Councilor Jan Martin, a member of the Utilities Board, says she supports the Neumann solution. "I'm probably as interested in renewables as anyone on Council," she says. "I just don't think the technology is there now at a cost that is viable to replace coal."

Within months, the city will finish updating its Electric Integrated Resource Plan. Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman says it likely will recommend sticking with coal while gradually increasing renewables.

"There isn't a way to use just renewables to meet our needs," he says.

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