As Colorado Springs Utilities determines Drake’s future, the plant hasn’t been running all that much 

Foggy future

click to enlarge Drake is scheduled to shut down by 2035. - BOB STEPHENS, COURTESY CSBJ
  • Bob Stephens, courtesy CSBJ
  • Drake is scheduled to shut down by 2035.

As Colorado Springs Utilities moves closer to settling on its energy roadmap for the next five years — and as calls for cutting emissions grow stronger at the state, local and national levels — the coal-fired power plant downtown remains the center of public debate.

CSU’s board voted in December 2015 to decommission the Martin Drake Power Plant by 2035, but advocates of clean energy and public health have long been pushing for an earlier closure.

One of Drake’s three coal-fired units, unit 5, was decommissioned in 2017 per a utility board vote. However, units 6 and 7 are still running — but not as often as you may think.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Markets Division, which tracks air pollution from power stations, shows Drake’s two remaining units were offline for a combined total of nearly 200 days between Sept. 30, 2018, and Sept. 29, 2019.

Unit 6 was offline for 150 days out of the year, including a period from April 6 to Aug. 14 (except for one day in June). Unit 7 was offline for 47 days total, including the six days following a blaze when a turbine caught fire in August.

“We own a diverse mix of energy sources,” CSU spokesperson Amy Trinidad wrote in an email, when asked where Utilities got power the days Drake’s units weren’t operating. “...In 2018, almost half of our electric generation was from natural gas. Last year we brought online a new utility-scale solar resource with plans to add another in the coming weeks.”

CSU’s nearby Ray D. Nixon Power Plant in Fountain has one coal-fired unit and two other units that run on natural gas, a fossil fuel that is relatively clean when compared with coal.

The new solar resource to which Trinidad refers is the Grazing Yak Solar Project, a partnership with NextEra Energy Resources. Its 119,000 panels stretch over 278 acres near Calhan, providing enough energy to power 13,000 homes, according to CSU’s website. The Palmer Solar Project (a partnership with Duke Energy Renewables) south of Colorado Springs is expected to power as many as 22,000 homes when it comes online in weeks.

Drake’s unit 6 was down 66 more days from 2018 to 2019 than in the previous year (Sept. 30, 2017, to Sept. 29, 2018), while unit 7 was down for about the same number of days.

“There are several reasons a unit can be down for extended periods of time, such as planned and unplanned maintenance outages and for market conditions,” Trinidad says. “We constantly evaluate the lowest-cost source of energy and at times we will not run units at Drake as we commit to other energy sources, such as renewables (solar) and natural gas fired sources.”

Trinidad says one of the outages for unit 6, in the spring of 2018, was planned in order to make repairs to the unit’s rotor.

A central argument for continuing to utilize Drake is keeping costs down: that rates will go up if the city’s public utility switches to renewable energy. So if renewable sources are cheap enough that one of the plant’s coal-fired units can be turned off for most of the summer, why is Drake still operating at all?

“The plant remains a critical piece of our system to ensure reliable electric service for our community,” Trinidad says.

This reasoning is also illustrated by a CSU customer survey.

“We’re in the business of reliability,” Leslie McKiernan, CSU’s customer experience supervisor, explained to Utilities Policy Advisory Committee members when sharing the survey results on Jan. 15. She suggested that customers assume that power should always be reliable, and that’s why they ranked “reliability” slightly higher than both “cost” and “environment” in their responses to the survey — even though much of the debate around Drake tends to center on cost or environment.
The survey is meant to help CSU determine a kind of blueprint for the next five years, known as an Electric Integrated Resource Plan (EIRP).

CSU’s staff will present several portfolio options to the utilities board by late summer. Then, they’ll vote on which path to take. It’s still a possibility that the new EIRP could include speeding up Drake’s closure timeline, Trinidad confirms.

“As part of our long term energy planning, we are studying a variety of earlier decommissioning dates for Drake — from 2023 to 2030 — in addition to the decommissioning of our other generating resources,” she writes.

Drake’s critics have a new line of attack since CSU last voted on an EIRP in 2016: peer pressure.

Xcel Energy announced in October that it would close two of three units at the coal-fired Comanche Power Plant east of Pueblo.

Then Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced Jan. 9 that it would completely close Craig Station, a three-unit coal-fired plant in Moffat County, by 2030. (One of Craig’s units was already scheduled for a 2025 closure, and will still be decommissioned that year.) Colowyo Mine, which supplies coal for the plant, will cease production by 2030.

Tri-State announced the same day that it would also close Escalante Station, a coal-fired plant in New Mexico, by the end of 2020.

The Denver Post recently reported that Drake is the second-biggest single-source nitrogen oxides polluter in the state, after Craig Station. Nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and sunlight in the atmosphere to produce ground-level ozone that drives up health risks, especially for children, the elderly and people with breathing problems.

Lee Milner, a local clean-air activist and frequent attendee of Utilities board and committee meetings, clued the Indy into the EPA’s air markets database. Milner wants Drake decommissioned early, and he points to a new report published in Nature Sustainability as additional support for that conclusion.

The report, by University of California–San Diego researcher Jennifer Burney, links the closure of coal-fired power plants to reductions in the nearby communities’ mortality rates. Specifically, Burney credits coal plant decommissioning to saving more than 20,000 lives between 2005 and 2016.

“This is a breakthrough,” Milner says.

But the customer survey results show that regardless of possible health risks, CSU will have to continue balancing cost, environmental and reliability factors if it wants to make everyone happy.

Got opinions you want to share about Colorado Springs Utilities’ plans for the future? Or just want to learn more? You’re in luck: CSU is hosting an Energy Planning Workshop at 6 p.m. on Jan. 29 at Library 21c, 1175 Chapel Hills Dr. You can also send comments via email to energyvision@csu.org.

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