Colorado Springs Utilities board gets an earful over Drake: Close the power plant early

By: Conrad Swanson

December 5, 2017
Martin Drake Power Plant shot from Gold Hill Mesa on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

Approximately five times more people urged Colorado Springs Utilities Board members to close down the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant early than encouraged them to keep it open during a town hall meeting Tuesday evening.

Regardless of the position, the comments, suggestions, statistics and data points proffered during the meeting on the eventual closure of Drake do not appear to have moved the dial for any of the board members who were present.

“They were all the same people on both sides. All very articulate and knowledgeable,” said Andy Pico, board vice chair. “But no new information was tossed out there.”

Pico said he is still leaning toward keeping Drake open until 2035 – its scheduled closure date – as a way of keeping electric rates low. Board members Richard Skorman and Yolanda Avila, said they remain in favor of closing the plant a decade earlier. Board member Bill Murray said he favors a 2030 closure date. And board members Jill Gaebler and Dave Geislinger say they have yet to make a definitive decision on the matter.

Earlier this year, the board directed Utilities staff to investigate options for closing the plant as early as 2025. The cost of replacing Drake’s power is highly dependent on the timeline for closure and could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perhaps 200 people packed into City Council Chambers for Tuesday’s town hall meeting. Many hoisted signs, with such messages as “Our families deserve clean air,” “Release the Drake Report! What are you hiding?” and “Protect people, not polluters.”

Many of the commenters urged the board to consider a larger shift to renewable energies such as wind and solar. They asked the board to close Drake by 2025, if not earlier, and to invest in a transmission system that could connect Utilities to other utilities in the region, possibly driving rates down.

Geislinger said the argument in favor of an investment in transmission infrastructure made an impact on him. That type of investment, sooner rather than later, could open new generation options for Utilities. Skorman agreed.

Susan Edmondson, CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership, also made an impact, Geislinger said.

Edmondson called Drake’s land a potential “gold mine” for the city because of its highly coveted and centralized location. She also urged the board members to carefully consider how they examine the higher costs to shut down Drake earlier.

“Think carefully and holistically about cost and potential. Striving to be the very, very lowest cost is not always the way for economic development,” Edmondson said. “Even tech companies that are high energy users, your Googles and Facebooks, are seeking cities that prioritize renewable energy.”

There were those, however, who voiced their support of Drake. Some said it can serve as a backup generator during natural disasters or if other generators fail. One man said Drake is “the only thing in Colorado Springs that takes a raw product in and turns it into something that is essential to our way of life.”

Utilities recently spent around $180 million on a scrubbing system meant to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from Drake, said Dan Malinaric, vice president of FAB 5 Operations at Microchip Technology. And it should continue running the plant to make that investment worthwhile.

But Daphne Greenwood, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, compared Malinaric’s argument to buying bad stocks.

“If you realize it’s going to tank, you just sell it, take your loss and move on,” Greenwood said.

Others accused Utilities of obscuring data surrounding the separate costs to run the two remaining coal-fired units at Drake. A per-kilowatt-hour cost would better allow ratepayers to compare options to shut down the plant.

None of the board members present Tuesday evening knew the per-kilowatt-hour cost for Drake’s two units and Gaebler said the lack of that information, coupled with a need for additional input on the efficacy of the scrubbers, factor into her current indecision.

The board is expected to vote on a specific direction for Drake on Dec. 18.