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A gift in the ashes? 

City Sage

Standing before the fire-ravaged downtown Martin Drake Power Plant last week, Utilities CEO Jerry Forte gave thanks to the firefighters who had rescued the plant from destruction in the May 5 fire.

"They helped save this treasure behind me that has served this community for 90 years," Forte said. He was only off by a year. The plant, built in 1925, has provided power to the city ever since.

In that era, and decades thereafter, coal-fired power plants were an unremarkable feature of downtowns nationwide. The technologies of the time dictated that such plants had to be close to major industrial customers, served by rail or barge transport, and easily accessible by public transportation.

Externalities such as pollution and industrial accidents might be regrettable, but too bad! Then, as now, electric power was vital to city economies.

Power plants didn't make good neighbors. They were noisy, dirty and smelly. Nearby residential neighborhoods were home to working-class folks whose choices were limited.

When President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, coal-fired plants were forced to reduce pollutant emissions. Enormous reductions in particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide have been achieved over the years. When operating, Drake's emissions often look like simple steam — not that they are.

Power plants are still lousy neighbors. They're still noisy, unsightly and, as we just found out, potentially dangerous. As Forte pointed out, "It's an industrial facility, and there are all kinds of hazards associated with any industrial site."

Downtown plants are an anachronism today. There's no compelling reason to place such facilities amid densely populated residential and business districts, and their very presence may deter economic growth. It makes much more sense to locate them in industrial parks removed from the city, as Utilities has done with the Ray Nixon and Front Range plants south of town.

While CSU is several weeks away from a comprehensive assessment of Drake's damage, Unit 5 likely is damaged severely, perhaps irreparably. Unit 5 accounts for 51 megawatts of the plant's 254-megawatt capacity, so if Units 6 and 7 are relatively undamaged, the plant's output will drop to 203 megawatts. According to CSU, insurance will cover most of the losses, so Utilities will have the option to put a new unit in place. Or will it?

Rebuilding Unit 5 will trigger multiple sections of the Clean Air Act, according to Maureen Barrett of Evergreen's Air Expertise Colorado, which performs air-quality analyses. One section, New Source Review, would evaluate the new unit's "maximum annual emissions of criteria pollutants" against the old Unit 5's actual emissions. If the new unit's annual emissions exceeded the old unit's, NSR would be triggered.

That might be a problem. Barrett says the damaged unit, built in 1962, likely hasn't been running at full capacity. CSU might have to replace it with a much smaller generator to avoid the trigger. That wouldn't make sense, nor would a larger coal-fired replacement. New plants must comply with performance standards that include limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

"Brand-new coal plants can't meet the CO2 standard without carbon sequestration," Barrett writes in an email. "Nobody has/will or can do this economically yet."

Yet there may be a win-win solution, if CSU's board (City Council) can bear to part with Forte's treasure. If insurance will pay to build a 51-megawatt replacement generator, why not build it at the Nixon site as part of a 250-megawatt, gas-fired plant to replace Drake completely?

You can patch the structure, fix the roof and windows, and restart Units 6 and 7. Run them for a few more years, then fire up Drake II. The old plant may have yielded treasure: a fat down payment on a brand-new power plant, not to mention an accelerating economic revival for southwest downtown.

Will CSU's policy cover such an eventuality? "That's a really interesting question," said City Attorney Wynetta Massey on Monday afternoon. "We've just begun to look at that policy, so I can't say. For your homeowners policy, insurers will sometimes pay for repairs, sometimes just write you a check — so we'll see."

On May 4, Drake was cheap, safe and reliable. Now it's none of the three.

Time to move on, guys ... or shall we give you all lifetime memberships in the Society for Destructive Anachronisms?

hazlehurst@csindy.com

  • Why not replace Drake by building at the Nixon site as part of a gas-fired plant?

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