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Utilities need to let town know when scrubbers are down 

Voice of Reason

click to enlarge FRANCOIS RAAB
  • Francois Raab

Update: In the Feb. 13 issue of the Independent, Colorado Springs Utilities' CEO Aram Benyamin writes a response to this Indy editorial.

The Indy's glad to hear Drake power plant complies with its operating permit, but we disagree the permit limits are "very strict."

Drake's operating permit was last revised in 2004. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has instituted much tougher clean-air standards. For SOx emissions, the current EPA standard calls for a 1-hour limit, rather than the 30-day average included in Drake's dated permit. This is why the Indy presented graphs showing hourly data.

Think of it as measuring the temperature of your morning shower. Should it be based on the average temperature over 10 minutes or on the actual temperature every second? A 5-second scalding-hot burst will burn your skin; but it will not raise the 10-minute average temperature by much.

According to spokesperson Amy Trinidad, on Jan. 1, Utilities adopted a policy to take Drake offline whenever its scrubbers are down for more than three hours. The change was administratively implemented by Benyamin and did not require the approval of the Utilities Board or disclosure in a public forum. The Indy regrets we did not know of this change before last week's editorial, but nevertheless we applaud Benyamin's decision and will be closely monitoring Utilities' emissions rates moving forward.

—————————————————- Original post ——————————————————

When the Martin Drake Power Plant started powering Colorado Springs in 1925, no one knew about the poisons present in the steam clouds billowing over downtown.

Now we know better. For decades, we’ve known about the irrefutable scientific evidence that proves emissions from coal-fired power plants are a public health hazard. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, lead, arsenic and particulate matter aren’t simply byproducts of burning coal; they’re killers — dangerous to those living or working around the plant or in the fallout zone from the toxic plume.

State and federal governments demanded cleaner air, and Colorado Springs Utilities spent millions working to reduce Drake’s emissions. Utilities used electrostatic precipitators and added baghouses to remove particulate matter, switched to more costly low-sulfur coal, and later installed low-nitrogen oxide burners. Even after these measures, emissions often remained at dangerously high levels.

Utilities’ latest “fix” was to install NeuStream — for more than $178 million — one-of-a-kind sulfur dioxide scrubbers, created by the now-defunct Neumann Systems Group. The NeuStream, built to trap sulfur oxide (SOx) before it escapes the smokestacks, went into full operation in January 2017.

SOx is a highly toxic, corrosive and invisible gas that occurs as a byproduct of burning coal, one of its many other undesirable pollutants. Even a single hour of exposure to SOx can have negative health consequences. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to SOx is particularly dangerous for anyone with chronic respiratory illnesses, the very young and the elderly. It’s also harmful to anyone exercising in the fallout area of the plumes that dominate the downtown skyline.

The good news: When the NeuStream scrubbers are working, they capture about 95 percent of the SOx from burning coal.
The bad news: More than 20 times during the past two years, NeuStream’s scrubbers were down for maintenance or unexpected failures. During these downtimes, no SOx is captured, and high levels of the dangerous pollutant spew into the air we all breathe. In 2017, the scrubbers failed for seven days, yet the plant continued to operate — and the public was oblivious to the danger.

It stands to reason: Citizens need to know when Drake operates without functioning scrubbers or any time when the air isn’t as clean as it should be. Colorado Springs Utilities has an obligation — a moral duty — to inform the citizens when our air is more dangerous for outside activities.

The city needs to send immediate social media alerts and/or text messages when the scrubbers are malfunctioning, so everybody — especially athletes, tourists and people with asthma and other respiratory conditions — can make their own informed decisions to limit outdoor activities.

Coal-fired power plants are an archaic means of providing power. That’s no secret; it’s why there were no other takers for the Neumann technology. It’s no longer the cheapest method, and it’s never been the safest. Scientists now understand the negative health aspects of having an aging power plant in an urban downtown area. It’s time our City Council understands the risks as well. Council must appoint a public health task force to monitor Drake’s emissions until it’s closed, hopefully as soon as 2023.

City Councilors, in their dual role as CSU board members, must take steps to alert their constituents to health hazards; consider buying electricity from alternative sources when the scrubbers are down; and move swiftly to close Drake.

Springs residents: Demand immediate action from the Utilities board. It’s time to step up and clear the air.

NeuStream: Colorado Springs Utilities’ bad bet

click to enlarge In 2016, the $178 million NeuStream scrubbers were in a testing phase. During that year, as well as for decades before then, Martin Drake Power plant emitted unhealthy levels of SOx into our downtown air. - SOURCE: EPA AIR MARKETS PROGRAM (AMPD.EPA.GOV)
  • Source: EPA Air Markets Program (ampd.epa.gov)
  • In 2016, the $178 million NeuStream scrubbers were in a testing phase. During that year, as well as for decades before then, Martin Drake Power plant emitted unhealthy levels of SOx into our downtown air.
NeuStream was one of those great ideas that quickly fizzled, the victim of cost overruns, changing environmental regulations, an economic renaissance downtown and the advent of cheaper, cleaner energy sources.

First proposed by Neumann System Group’s then-CEO Dave Neumann, the one-of-a-kind, alkali-based scrubbers were billed as the savior of the Martin Drake Power Plant because they would be cheaper, smaller and more efficient than more traditional coal scrubbers.

The public relations piece enticed: The scrubbers were supposed to remove most of the sulfur oxides (which they do when operating correctly), as well as nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide (which they don’t) from coal emissions. Colorado Springs Utilities proclaimed the scrubbers a great investment for the landlocked Drake facility downtown. In addition, by purchasing the first-ever NeuStream scrubbers, the city would serve as a test site for the unproven technology. In return, Utilities would receive 5 percent of the proceeds from any additional sale of the revolutionary project. Leaders at the time, like former Councilor Scott Hente, believed the investment would be an economic boon for the Springs because it would create private-sector jobs and spotlight the city for its innovations. Back then, the news was negative. The Springs received national attention for its budget cuts: Some streetlights were off, and trash pickup and watering were curtailed at the city’s parks.
click to enlarge In late January 2017, the NeuStream scrubbers went into full operation. As can be seen on the above graphs, there was an immediate reduction in SOx emissions. Spikes above the red line indicate times when Drake operated while its scrubbers were down. During September 2017, the scrubbers were down for seven days while high levels of toxic SOx were pumped into the air we breathe. - SOURCE: EPA AIR MARKETS PROGRAM (AMPD.EPA.GOV)
  • Source: EPA Air Markets Program (ampd.epa.gov)
  • In late January 2017, the NeuStream scrubbers went into full operation. As can be seen on the above graphs, there was an immediate reduction in SOx emissions. Spikes above the red line indicate times when Drake operated while its scrubbers were down. During September 2017, the scrubbers were down for seven days while high levels of toxic SOx were pumped into the air we breathe.
It seemed like a win-win for Utilities, the coal industry, Neumann and the city’s positioning as a tech startup hub. But it didn’t happen that way.

First, the cost of the technology ballooned from around $111 million in 2011 when Utilities signed the contract, to more than $178 million by the time it fully deployed in 2017. Second, opponents of Drake’s location in the city’s now booming core found increasing support for closing the plant. It’s now scheduled to close by 2035, but there appears to be a push by both City Council as well as Utilities executives to close the plant much sooner, perhaps as early as 2024.

And while the cost overrides were within the city’s control (the single-bid contract signed with Neumann didn’t have a cost ceiling, but the city should have required one), the discovery of massive new natural gas deposits elsewhere in the U.S. was not. Suddenly, natural gas prices plummeted, as did the cost of solar and wind power. Utilities was left with a carbon-heavy, emissions-spewing, increasingly unpopular and outdated downtown coal plant — and with more than a little egg on its face.
click to enlarge Spikes of toxic SOx emissions (above the red line) were still seen in 2018. But they were of shorter durations, indicating that Drake may have curtailed operations when the scrubbers were down. - SOURCE: EPA AIR MARKETS PROGRAM (AMPD.EPA.GOV)
  • Source: EPA Air Markets Program (ampd.epa.gov)
  • Spikes of toxic SOx emissions (above the red line) were still seen in 2018. But they were of shorter durations, indicating that Drake may have curtailed operations when the scrubbers were down.
When Drake eventually closes, the sole operating NeuStream will cease operating as well. Because of the system’s rising costs, Utilities opted to put traditional scrubbers at the Ray Nixon power plant south of town. There were no other takers around the world, and the city’s dream of additional revenue from NeuStream died quietly. Despite sales pitches, not even the coal-friendly Chinese were interested.

As for Neumann System Group, it’s no longer in operation. Dave Neumann had stepped down from his daily role before installation was complete, a new CEO failed to stem the flow of negative publicity, and Neumann’s company shuttered its doors in 2017. Once heralded as a job creator and savior for coal-fired power plants everywhere, NeuStream failed to live up to its promise.

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