Plunging: not just for toilets 

New immersion class gets citizens talking about a greener Colorado Springs

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Next to me, a tower of shredded paper stands at least five feet high, 15 feet wide. I want to jump into the middle of it, much like a fresh pile of leaves, and watch bits of receipts, junk mail and Post-It notes fly.

I don't think Garry Foster, our tour guide and head of southern region sales for Waste Management's Recycle America, would appreciate a move like this. Nor would Steve Saint-Thomas, coordinator of today's Earth Plunge. But it's been a long September day, and in many ways, it seems easier to satisfy a childhood desire than to come to terms with the adult-world information overload of the past six hours.

People power

A new project of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, Earth Plunge is a monthly full-day opportunity for community members to learn about local transportation, energy and recycling the three priority areas of the Green Cities Coalition of the Pikes Peak Region, a group focused on promoting ecologically, economically and socially healthy cities in El Paso County.

Priority one, transportation, plays a key role today. We'll be using pedal- and people-power (plus a quick ride on the bus) to get around town. So our morning meeting point, Old Town Bike Shop on South Tejon Street, serves a few purposes. Owner John Crandall hands out loaners to those without wheels and makes sure we've all got helmets.

This stop is not just about bikes, though. In 2007, Crandall installed the city's first commercial solar project at the back of his property, hoping his shop could run off 100 percent renewable energy. (The Independent became the second commercial solar project in March.) He answers inquiries about the equipment (he wanted it on the roof, but worried it was too heavy), the cost ($59,000), and his return on investment (30 years at a maximum, assuming an increase in rates).

The photovoltaic array towers over him, and us, at 12-plus feet tall. And yet, its steel beams and overhead solar panel wing don't feel out of place at the edge of Old Town's parking lot. In fact, in many ways, the arrangement acts as an old-growth tree would, shading us from the sun even as it catches and uses sunlight.

Crandall's proud of it, but reminds us, "There's nothing as efficient as a human being on a bicycle."

Coal concerns

Getting 22 people going on bikes is a bit like herding elderly cats. But soon we're all gathered at the Martin Drake Power Plant. We're supposed to tour the inside of the plant, but due to a safety issue, it's closed today. Instead, we're met by two Colorado Springs Utilities government affairs liaisons (i.e., lobbyists), Daniel Hodges and Andy Colosimo.

Martin Drake, a coal-fired plant, is the primary source of energy for Colorado Springs. The plant sits just west of downtown, puffing steam clouds from stacks that can be seen from I-25. Three trains filled with black chunks of coal arrive there daily. One passes while we're there, halting the conversation for a few minutes.

Our Plunge group includes Fountain Valley High School's Advanced Placement environmental science class. It's been a long time since I've been on a field trip, and the students' enthusiasm strikes me. They ask tough questions of Hodges and Colosimo, about mercury, clean coal and CO2 standards. Unfortunately, they receive guarded answers, or non-answers.

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In an economic climate that's led to a record number of shut-offs across the country, the whole group wants to know what Utilities is doing about the cost of energy. Colosimo says the city-owned utility constantly has to ask "what makes the most sense for rate-payers," and at the same time get people to recognize "there's a correlation when I flip that switch." Not much new in that answer, either.

We bike our way around the power plant, and end up in America the Beautiful Park for a brown-bag lunch with Jane Ard-Smith, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. Ard-Smith smiles knowingly when she learns we've come from the plant. She believes Colorado Springs is on the right path, but also thinks we need to do more.

"We capture the production costs, but not the environmental costs," she says.

At the rate we're moving, the city will need a new major energy source by 2018, and there's a seven-year build time and a $1 billion dollar cost for a new coal plant. We need to be talking about alternatives like wind power and Crandall's solar now. As much as Utilities staffers may want to do the right thing, Ard-Smith says, the decision ultimately still goes to City Council. And there are no guarantees there.

"If there was a silver bullet, we'd use it," Ard-Smith says.

One tidbit of note from Ard-Smith: Fort Carson has mandated that by 2027, its base run 100 percent from renewable sources.

Makes you think. If the Army can do it, why can't we?

Single streaming

Our final destination of the day, via city bus, is Waste Management's Recycle America, and that pile of shredded paper.

Foster has shut down the Old North End plant to lead us into the heart of his recycling world, past all the items Springs residents have cared enough about to give another life: cardboard, paper, glass, aluminum, plastics. It's all here waiting for sorting and trips through the baler.

Foster tells us about Waste Management's decision to go to single-stream pick-up recycling (in other words, no sorting required by you and me). In Denver, he says, single-stream resulted in a 250 percent increase in recycling.

"If it's easy, people will recycle," Foster says.

It's nice to hear that word, "easy." It's certainly not all that easy to get around town on a bike, nor on the bus. And there are certainly no easy answers to solving local energy concerns.

But thanks to Earth Plunge, there is an easy way to get informed. And that's step one.



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