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Utilities makes a conservative play on final decommissioning of downtown eyesore 

click to enlarge Drake's days are finally numbered, even if that number stretches 20 years. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Drake's days are finally numbered, even if that number stretches 20 years.

After many months and meetings with their Customer Advisory Group and the public, Colorado Springs Utilities officials indicated in October that they had selected an energy plan to recommend to the Utilities board. From 85 initial proposals, "Portfolio D" had emerged as their top pick as Utilities' new Electric Integrated Resource Plan (EIRP).

Pushback ensued. Local environmental activists and spokespeople for the business community urged the board to instead choose Portfolio H. Portfolio H outlined a nearly identical plan in the first decade of adoption but called for the full decommissioning of downtown's Martin Drake Power Plant by 2029. Plan D contained no closure deadline.

Last week, after three hours' debate, the board (aka City Council) opted for something of a hybrid. It chose Portfolio D but added a provision to shutter Drake no later than 2035. It also set a goal to reduce the average residential customer's electric use by 12 percent, rather than just 10 percent, as compared to 2011 levels. Known as "demand-side management," or DSM, the effort will rely heavily on tools such as peak-demand strategies and consumer rebates for energy-efficient appliances. No more than 2 percent of a customer's monthly electric bill will be used to fund DSM efforts.

Another change to Portfolio D — this one recommended by Utilities project managers — is now scheduled for a Council vote in December. It would decommission Drake's Unit 5, instead of converting it to natural gas, to avoid high conversion costs and regular maintenance fees. (Maintaining Unit 5 as a coal-burning unit would require even greater expenditure, because federal air quality regulations demand new emissions controls by the end of 2017.)

Community stakeholders seem confident the board will vote for Unit 5's shutdown. They also laud the DSM increase: "Nobody was lobbying for it," notes citizen activist Lee Milner.

"All of us would of course want that," he says. "But it wasn't anything we had made an issue over."

CAG member Rolf Jacobson, a local business consultant, believes increased DSM will help phase out Drake's Units 6 and 7 well ahead of the new 2035 deadline. The 80 megawatts of solar energy called for in Portfolio D, in addition to continued public pressure, should also influence the phaseout.

During the citizen comment period, Nor'wood Development Group's Chris Jenkins and Murphy Constructors' Chuck Murphy called for an earlier closure of Drake, making cases for economic development and expressing concerns about its aesthetic impact. Downtown Partnership president Susan Edmondson represented business interests, saying outsiders looking to invest in our community routinely ask about Drake's fate.

Now she has an answer for them: 20 years from now — if the young professionals and progressive urban dwellers can wait that long.

Jacobson, for one, calls the board's move to 2035 "arbitrary." But he concludes on a positive note, saying he's "impressed with our leaders" and calling the decision "a position we can all get behind."

Barb Van Hoy, who advocates on behalf of the Denver-based Western Clean Energy Campaign, calls this "an incredibly historic vote" that "recognizes the direction the energy industry and world is going."

Future EIRP processes could, of course, undo some of this planning. A new plan must be created at least every five years. But Van Hoy says she feels "a huge psychic barrier was crossed, recognizing this old polluting plant needs to be replaced."

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