For nearly 100 years, Drake Power Plant has powered Colorado Springs, mostly by burning coal.
Hailed as literally an engine of progress for a sleepy town of 30,000 that’s since grown 16 fold, the plant now stands at the brink of its demise, having taken its final shipment of coal on Aug. 5 and burned its last bin of coal on Aug. 27.
For the next 15 months, Drake will operate on natural gas, which pollutes less than coal, but it will hit the dustbin of history on Dec. 31, 2022, when it’s slated to shut down completely. That decommissioning, and the run-up to it, marks a tectonic shift by Colorado Springs Utilities, and the nation, from fossil fuels to clean energy.
In some ways, Drake’s history parallels growth and development of the local community.
Without a doubt, the plant played a role in lifting Colorado Springs from a burg known mostly for treatment of tuberculosis patients and refining ore from mountain gold mines to the state’s second-largest city. From a population just over half that of Pueblo in the 1920s, Olympic City USA, as the city recently dubbed itself, has become a tourism mecca, military stronghold and cybersecurity hub.
Powering that development were Drake’s spinning turbines, and those of three other fossil-fuel power plants added later, as well as hydroelectric plants on a smaller scale. But those coal plants, and to some degree two plants that burn natural gas, are now on a path toward obsolescence as air quality laws and environmentally conscious populations demand Earth- and health-friendly power sources.
Not surprisingly, Drake’s history isn’t all fit for a promotional brochure. Drake has plunged the city into lawsuits; been the scene of fires; and cost ratepayers $200 million for a scheme hyped as a way to burn coal without shooting toxic chemicals from its 250-foot smoke stack, a signature Downtown landmark. One critic likened Drake’s history to a soap opera.
But now, the city will close the book on the controversial power station, focusing more on solar and wind energy and ways to store renewable power.
“Colorado Springs Utilities has relied on the Martin Drake Power Plant to bring electricity to the residents of the Pikes Peak region for nearly a century,” Utilities spokesperson Natalie Watts says in a statement. “Since 1925 it has provided safe and reliable power for our customers.”
But those concerned with the environment and health impacts say the closure should have come long ago.
“It’s a long overdue relief,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for the nonprofit environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which sued Utilities over Drake’s emissions. “Colorado Springs Utilities finally read the writing on the wall that coal is simply too costly for the community.”
In the beginning...
Colorado Springs gained electric power in the 1880s, but it was provided by privately owned organizations. In 1925, power became a municipal function, as dictated by a vote of the people, according to a history of Drake provided by Utilities.
The Drake plant was built in 1925 and provided 25 megawatts of power. More capacity was added through the years. The plant got its name in 1962 when it was posthumously labeled in memory of Martin W. Drake, a member of City Council for 25 years and a strong supporter of the city’s utilities.
In 1968, when a new unit went into service, a promotional piece about the city’s electric system boasted of “an electrostatic precipitator” that was supposed to remove 99.5 percent of “all residual” from burned coal, thus ensuring “that air in the area is not polluted.” The flyer also touted, “Coal blown into the fire box is finer than any lady’s face powder.”
Drake was fed by coal from the Wyoming Powder River Basin delivered by rail. In recent times, Drake operated with three turbines — those installed in 1962, 1968 and 1974, called Units 5, 6 and 7 — which totaled 254 megawatts.
Drake’s performance was impressive, both in reliability and operations and maintenance costs, according to an August 2005 article in Power Engineering magazine.
Utilities officials frequently boasted about the workhorse power plant, which at one time met more than half the city’s power demand.
The article also noted the plant was retrofitted with bag houses, a type of pollution control, from 1978 to 1997, “to enable the plant to meet its state-imposed opacity limit.”
But two fires within five years — 2014 and 2019 — caused more than $20 million in damage. The 2019 fire triggered discussion of closing the plant earlier than 2035, as previously planned, and reinvigorated local activists who had campaigned for an earlier closure date.
Drake’s Unit 5, damaged in the first fire, was retired on Dec. 31, 2016. Unit 7, damaged in the second fire, shifted to natural gas only in November 2020. Both 6, which was taken off coal on Aug. 27, 2021, and Unit 7 will shut down by Dec. 31, 2022.
Clean up your act
As climate change propelled development of renewable technologies, driving costs down, the environmental movement renewed the push to abandon fossil fuels.
Drake was the main target of those efforts locally, being the last remaining coal plant in Colorado located in a downtown urban area.
It didn’t hurt that effort that Drake sits in the pathway of a lower Downtown renaissance where apartments, bars and restaurants, Weidner Field and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum have moved in. Even if Utilities Board members embraced coal despite environmental concerns, economic development realities couldn’t be ignored.
Shortly after the city’s first strong mayor, Steve Bach, took office in 2011, he began exploring how to get rid of the plant. Then, in 2013, the city proposed the City for Champions tourism venture, funded in part with $120.5 million in state sales tax rebates, that led to construction of the museum and soccer stadium, among other venues.
Hulking in the background was Drake, long the bane of citizens who suspected it was spewing toxic emissions and endangering the public health.
Science had already blamed climate change on fossil fuels and coal plants, specifically, and the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force estimated that in 2012, before Unit 5 was retired, Drake’s operations resulted in five deaths, nine heart attacks, 100 asthma attacks and other illnesses with a total economic impact of over $40 million.
As tighter federal air quality restrictions loomed, Springs Utilities looked for a way to clean up the plant’s emissions, settling on ”an experimental emission control system,” as it was called in the city contract with its maker, Neumann Systems Group Inc.
That NeuStream System could remove sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates and carbon dioxide, city officials were assured by the system’s inventor, former Air Force Academy professor and officer, physicist David Neumann, though sulfur dioxide was the chief target.
Not only did the city agree to allow Drake to serve as Neumann’s guinea pig, it also was his first and — as it turned out — only customer for the device. (A contract clause that allowed the city to share in a cut of profits after the invention was marketed became moot.)
In a Sept. 29, 2011, contract with Neumann, the city agreed to pay $66.85 million to Neumann and cited $98.9 million as the total project cost. (Other vendors were paid for construction management, site preparation and other tasks.)
A February 2015 contract amendment upped the amount for Neumann to $85.8 million. The following November, the Utilities Board, composed of City Council, decided not to decommission Drake until 2035.
In 2016, two contract amendments upped the payment to Neumann by another $400,000, to $86.2 million.
As of Aug. 4, 2021, records show, Utilities paid 189 contractors a total of $200.4 million for work connected to NeuStream. The biggest amount — $126.4 million — went to Neumann’s company.
To its credit, initial testing and subsequent analysis showed the invention removed 99.7 percent of sulfur dioxide and 80 percent of nitrogen oxide. That led Utilities Chief Energy Officer Tom Black to tell the Utilities Board in 2008, “It’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved with since I’ve been in this industry.”
By all accounts, the system has operated as promised, with Watts saying the system “effectively removed [sulfur dioxide] to meet the permit limits.”
But Neumann’s company vanished after the equipment was installed.
As the Indy reported on April 18, 2017, the company’s last Facebook post came in 2015. Its office phone number was no longer working, and its building sat empty. The company website also had been taken down, and the firm’s Colorado Secretary of State filings switched its address in December 2016 from an office location to Neumann’s home north of the city.
Then-City Councilor Tim Leigh served as the Neumann project’s most vocal critic during his two-year term from 2011 to 2013.
“We never should have spent the money,” Leigh now tells the Indy. “When I tried to bring points up at the Utilities Board, I remember [Councilor] Scott Hente telling me, ‘We’ve already discussed it. It’s not open for conversation.’ That’s how my voice got shut up.”
Leigh called for the city to negotiate a deal with the EPA to not install pollution control equipment in exchange for decommissioning Drake early.
“It was never pursued,” he says, adding an engineering firm from Denver was willing to install a scrubber system for $50 million. “The point is, we had alternatives.” He also raises this question: “Had the [Neumann] scrubber been such a wonderful product, why didn’t they use it at Nixon [Power Plant]?” (Nixon’s scrubber equipment cost about $84 million, The Gazette reported in 2018, based on a city audit.)
Leigh’s vociferous opposition to Neumann’s technology led Neumann to file an ethics complaint against him, but Leigh was cleared of wrongdoing after he left office.
Today, Leigh calls the Neumann contract a “horrible transaction” and an example of the “perils of a community-owned utility.”
Asked about that, Hente acknowledges he supported the project, proven effective through a series of progressive tests.
“We thought Drake would be around for a long time, and if it was around for a long time, it was worth the investment,” he says. “I was a fan of Drake. It produced cheap electricity and I thought it was worth keeping.”
He also notes the city hoped the Neumann proof of concept on Drake would translate to a windfall for the city when it took a cut of future sales to coal plants around the world. “Did that cloud my vision at the time? Maybe it did,” he says.
But Hente admits that in the last eight years, he’s changed his mind about climate change, having studied it and witnessed “the retreat of the glaciers” as evidence of global warming induced by carbon emissions.
“I will tell you,” he says, “as they move toward shutting down Drake, I’m a fan of that now. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have favored spending that money on something that was going to go away. The money could be spent better elsewhere.”
Still, Watts notes that between 2005 — before the Neumann technology was installed — and 2020, annual emissions of sulfur dioxide have been reduced by more than 99 percent, nitrogen oxide by more than 85 percent, and carbon dioxide by more than 75 percent.
Neumann didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Resistance to renewables
The city’s persistence in standing by coal isn’t surprising, considering the Utilities Board’s resistance to renewables.
A home-grown company, SunShare, established by Colorado College graduate David Amster-Olszewski, struggled to consign customers for and build a solar garden here. But in spring 2013, Utilities rolled back its solar program, and Amster-Olszewski moved his company to Denver where it’s enjoyed success, building solar gardens in several states.
That served as a huge disappointment for Jan Martin, who served on City Council from 2007 to 2015.
Thrilled that SunShare won approval for the first solar garden, in which customers bought shares without having solar cells on their homes, Martin says via email she cringed when a new slate of councilors installed in 2013 essentially killed the solar garden program by reducing the reimbursement rate Utilities paid for solar garden power, undermining solar gardens’ profitability.
One of the final acts of the Utilities Board prior to the April 2013 election was to renew the solar garden program, which required an annual subsidy of roughly $11 million to $22 million, depending on various estimates, or $1.45 to $3 per year per ratepayer.
But after a new slate of members took office, some large power users opposed to the program lobbied City Council to reverse the action.
Voting to kill the program by curtailing the subsidy were newly elected members Keith King, Helen Collins, Joel Miller and Andy Pico, joined by incumbent Merv Bennett, who switched his vote from two weeks earlier.
“They not only put a stop to expansion of solar gardens,” Martin says, “but also other forms of renewables, such as wind, and restricted Utilities’ ability to expand renewable programs.”
Here’s her recollection. “That day I had my one and only meltdown from the dais when the Chamber/EDC CEO came to speak and tell us we shouldn’t expand the program. I was furious as I had noticed they were using a photo of a solar garden on their home page to sell Colorado Springs to prospective businesses. I didn’t mince words as I chastised the CEO for using the photo and then coming to our meeting to oppose expanding the program and not supporting the fast-growing company that had started in our city.”
That reluctance to embrace renewables, she says, was “shortsighted” and left the city without a plan to close Drake.
“Those of us who supported closing Drake and using renewables were outvoted every time a discussion arose about the future of Drake,” she says.
But things changed with the 2017 city election, which installed David Geislinger in Miller’s place, Richard Skorman in King’s place and Yolanda Avila in Collins’ place and retained Jill Gaebler and Don Knight, who had previously supported renewables. In addition, Aram Benyamin, who’s pushed the city toward a renewables future, was promoted to Utilities CEO in fall 2018 to replace Jerry Forte, who had retired.
The 2015 decision to delay Drake’s decommissioning until 2035 was revisited in June 2020 when the Utilities Board reset the closure for 2022.
Utilities staff reports to the Utilities Board, and today, lays blame or credit for past decisions at the feet of those elected officials. “The future of Drake is determined by our governing body, the Utilities Board,” Watts says. “They have a responsibility to our customers to balance rates, reliability and relationships in making these decisions. We make recommendations to them, but the final decisions are ultimately made by the Board.”
But Colorado Springs seems to track with other agencies. As the Pew Research Center reported last year, “Solar and wind power use has grown at a rapid rate over the past decade or so, but as of 2018 [the most recent full year for which data is available] those sources accounted for less than 4 percent of all the energy used in the U.S.”
Fossil fuels — coal, natural gas and fuel oil — remained king, at 80 percent of the nation’s energy demand.
‘Alternative facts. Fake news.’
While Utilities clung to a commitment to fossil fuels, Drake gave rise to at least three lawsuits and a threat of a fourth.
In 2012, the Sierra Club threatened to sue, alleging the Drake and Nixon plants had been modified in the past to make them heavier polluters, but ultimately sought what it called an “amiable solution.”
Efforts of one activist citizen led to two lawsuits, one of which is pending. After being denied access to an air quality modeling report on Drake in 2015, Leslie Weise sued Springs Utilities in December that year, alleging violation of the Colorado Open Records Act for withholding the report, which she believed would verify violations of air quality rules. Her interest lay in the fact that her young son attended a school not far from Drake.
The following May, a judge ruled against her after Utilities asserted the report was protected by attorney-client privilege and the “work product” exemption. Weise appealed the District Court decision, and in November 2016, the Colorado Court of Appeals inadvertently sent her the report she’d sought.
Weise informed the appellate court of the error and returned the file as ordered by the court. The court notified Weise the report was not to be downloaded, copied, retained or disseminated and that distribution of the material would be a violation of the court’s orders.
But Weise told a reporter the document showed Drake’s emissions had violated air quality standards; she also cited the report in her motions to the court seeking legal access and didn’t mark those motions as confidential.
The city asked the court to find her in contempt, and the court began those proceedings. But the case was settled in February 2017, resulting in the appellate court dropping its contempt proceeding and Weise dropping her appeal.
But the matter didn’t end there. The Utilities Board sought sanctions against Weise, who’s an attorney, filing grievances with the offices of attorney regulation in the three states where she was licensed or had been — California, New York and Pennsylvania.
Those complaints were eventually dismissed, but Weise then brought a federal lawsuit in 2017 against the city, alleging infringement of her First Amendment rights and defamation of character through its campaign to discredit her.
“Alternative facts. Fake news. We live in an age of both,” Weise’s attorneys wrote in an amended complaint filed in the case in 2019. “Colorado Springs has sought, over the last year, to take advantage of our age of disinformation and actively lie to its constituents. Leslie Weise sought to expose one of these lies. Her reward? A nearly year-long campaign of retaliation and defamation that sought to discredit her and ruin her reputation in her community for exposing the fact that the Martin Drake Power Plant was spewing noxious pollution in violation of Environmental Protection Agency regulations in the backyard of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs residents.”
Her lawsuit sought $250,000 in actual damages for lost business opportunities and wages, medical and legal bills and loss of investment proceeds, along with damages for emotional distress to be quantified by a jury. The only point remaining in the lawsuit was her First Amendment claim. The judge has set a pre-trial conference in February.
“Each time we sought information about Martin Drake’s emissions, we either found misinformation or none...,” Weise says via email. “My wish is that the City had simply been respectful and forthcoming with the public about the pollution and problems with the plant. The residents could have understood that information, and could have engaged in a more meaningful dialogue with the City, other than through hostility, about efforts to address those problems.”
Utilities never disclosed the modeling report, though Weise says it “conveniently” released a subsequent report that showed full compliance with environmental regulations.
Utilities declined to discuss the lawsuit.
A ways to go
In 2016, WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit that seeks to protect and restore wildlife, rivers and the environmental health of the American West, issued a notice of Clean Air Act violations and an intent to sue and followed up with a federal lawsuit against Utilities.
“By law, power plants are required to continuously monitor opacity, or the thickness of air pollution, released from the smokestacks of their coal-fired power plants,” the organization said in a release announcing the suit in February 2017. “Opacity is an indicator of particulate matter. Particulate matter includes soot, toxic metals, and droplets of acidic gases, and can have serious adverse health effects including asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks, and premature death.
“Records from Colorado Springs Utilities show that in the last five years, their continuous opacity monitors have failed for a total of over 300 hours, violating the Clean Air Act more than 3,000 times.”
The suit sought the imposition of fines against Utilities of $37,500 per violation, amounting to over $112 million, and to cease operations until appropriate equipment was installed.
Springs Utilities responded by alleging WildEarth Guardians lacked standing to bring a lawsuit, but U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello denied that motion, which led Utilities to negotiate a settlement.
In the consent decree, filed in September 2018, Utilities refused to acknowledge violations of its operating permit but promised to install two new Continuous Opacity Monitoring Systems (COMS) on two Drake units by the end of 2019.
The consent decree also required Utilities to compile by August 2020 a potential energy portfolio that would outline options for consideration by the Utilities Board for 100 percent renewables achieved by 2030, 2040 and 2050.
Those proposals were to be submitted to the board for possible inclusion in its Energy Integrated Resource Plan to be adopted no later than Jan. 31, 2021. The Utilities Board has not adopted a plan to attain 100 percent renewables by a certain date.
The settlement also included Utilities paying $275,000 to the Energy Resource Center to fund free home energy efficiency audits and improvement projects to qualifying customers. Lastly, Utilities had to pay WildEarth Guardians’ attorney and witness fees, totaling $150,000.
Today, Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians, says the lawsuit was instrumental in forcing Utilities to consider the true costs of continued use of coal.
“It just made no sense to keep saddling the people of Colorado Springs with costly energy when cleaner, more affordable renewables were on hand,” he says.
But before Utilities officials pat themselves on the back too much, Nichols asserts that while weaning Drake from coal was a critical first step, the city has “a ways to go to truly realize the full potential of clean energy.” He’s referring to the city’s other plants that continue to burn coal and natural gas.
To its credit, the city collaborated with the Air Force Academy to install a 6 megawatt solar array and worked with Fort Carson when it built a 2 megawatt solar battery storage system in 2007. It’s also added investment in other solar arrays.
The struggle to get the polluting plant shut down has left some citizens embittered.
Environmental activist Nicki Rosa recalls numerous meetings where ratepayers begged the city to shut down Drake. One mother, she says, brought five Ziploc baggies containing her son’s asthma medications to underscore the impact the coal plant has on human health. The Utilities Board’s response? “Blank stares,” Rosa says. “She ended up moving out of town.”
All that leads Rosa to quantify the city’s environmental concerns at “zero.”
Council cares less about reckoning with climate change and the impact burning coal has on air quality than financial considerations and the desire to accommodate developers, she says.
“They had to be pushed into the decision to shut down Drake, kicking and screaming,” Rosa says. “They are only entering the renewables market because the new CEO finally realized that coal is more expensive than the other options. It’s all about the money and nothing else. That, and the developers want that [Drake] land. They care about our health not at all.”
A report released in June by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) notes a “dramatic improvement in the competitiveness of solar and wind technologies” with coal between 2010 and 2020.
“Within ten years, the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV [photo-voltaic] fell by 85 per cent, that of CSP [concentrating solar power] by 68 per cent, onshore wind by 56 per cent and 48 per cent for offshore wind,” the report said. CSP uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver.
Besides that, IRENA’s report said the renewables beat existing coal plants on operating costs, rendering coal power “increasingly uneconomic.”
In the U.S., 61 percent of total coal capacity costs more than renewable capacity. Replacing those plants with renewables, the report predicts, would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 332 million tons, or by one third.
A comparison of Utilities’ fuel mix compared to 30 years ago reflects its migration from coal. Drake alone supplied 51 percent of the city’s power supply in 1994. By 2000, it provided 44 percent, and last year, the city relied on Drake for only 7.4 percent of its power demand.
Today, the city’s ratepayers rely on natural gas for 51.2 percent of their power; coal supplies 25.2 percent; hydropower, 8.7 percent; solar, 6 percent; wind, 4.1 percent; and purchased power, 4.8 percent.
By 2030, Utilities wants to eliminate coal completely and have this mix: 43 percent natural gas; 8 percent hydro; 12 percent solar; 9 percent wind; and 28 percent “carbon free.”
Carbon-free energy is defined as sources that generate no carbon emissions, such as nuclear or large hydroelectric, whereas renewables come from a naturally replenishing resource that produces zero emissions. Those include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and bio waste, and some hydroelectric.
Back to the start
That the city took the step to abandon coal in the Downtown plant doesn’t mean it will be as aggressive about its other fossil-fuel plants. Nixon, which burns coal and natural gas, won’t close until the end of 2029. Natural gas-burning Birdsall, which also can run on fuel oil, isn’t due for closure until 2035. And Front Range Power Plant, which runs on natural gas, has no closure date. Today, Front Range produces 48 percent of the city’s thermal power, which means energy derived from fossil fuels.
Utilities has met the state renewable energy standard of 10 percent by 2020 (investor-owned utilities’ standard is 30 percent). It did so by increasing renewable generation, but also by buying certificates of generation from other producers who use renewables.
Ten percent might sound like a feeble start, given that the city’s Sustainable Energy Plan sets the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030 and by 90 percent by 2050. Watts says Utilities is “committed to increasing renewable energy and incorporating storage resources.”
The proposed Advanced Technologies Campus, southeast of Colorado Springs Airport, is part of that plan, where battery storage could be located along with electrical charging stations, she says.
“But we have dozens of other projects that are a part of that: the expansion of our Briargate substation, the expansion of our Kelker Substation, building a new transmission line between Kelker and South Plant, reconductoring existing lines, building new substations (Horizon and Williams Creek), etc.,” she says. Utilities also is focused on energy efficiencies, she notes, such as encouraging use of LED lightbulbs, offering rebates for customers who purchase ENERGY STAR dryers and smart thermostats and a rebate of up to $250 on ENERGY STAR furnaces.
Also, CEO Benyamin has hired a consultant to study how to set up solar grids in neighborhoods to create pods of power users/producers to reduce the chances of widespread service interruptions and curtail the amount of generation Utilities itself must provide.
As he previously told the Indy, “It’s the beginning of a path to transition to technologies that will bring us more opportunities and change the way we think about renewable energy. Doing nothing is more expensive.”
Residents, though, shouldn’t get too excited about the Drake apparatus disappearing soon and being replaced with something that’s more visually appealing. While the plant will cease operations no later than Dec. 31, 2022, the city’s plan calls for installation of stand-alone natural gas generators this year where heaps of coal used to sit, and they’ll remain until 2026, Watts says.
Then, there’s the little task of clearing the site and erasing a century of ground contamination.
Asked about that, Watts says, “That cost has yet to be determined and would ultimately be influenced by future land uses of the site.”
The EPA lists a raft of steps toward decommissioning coal plants, covering financing, cleanup and redevelopment. Among them: environmental assessment, removal of hazardous chemicals and wastes, permit applications, regulatory review, public outreach and demolition of existing structures.
But that’s another story.