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Colorado Springs Utilities Faces Tough Decision in Closing Drake Coal Plant Earlier Than 2035 Deadli

On November 21, the Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) Board discussed with the CSU energy acquisition team the possibility of closing Martin Drake prior to its current 2035 deadline, but the mood at the meeting made one thing clear: in all likelihood, the board will vote against moving the deadline to an earlier date. Although there are more voices on the council calling for closing Drake as soon as possible than there are voices completely opposed to the idea—recently elected council members Skorman and Avila have asserted that an early closing will benefit the health and economy of Colorado Springs, while Pico has gone on record doubting that renewable energies can aid in such a dramatic transition—the majority of the Board remains hesitant to vote for a plan that would increase utility rates. Chair Tom Strand, for example, explained that the board had thoroughly examined costs in 2015 when it decided to close Drake by 2035. Since those estimates could have hardly changed in just two years, Strand said “I don’t see [it] happening” that the board could change its decision after a similar review in 2017.

A representative from Microchip Technologies, a large employer in Colorado Springs, underscored this point during the period of public input. The representative warned that CSU’s own numbers showed that an early closure of Drake would inevitably increase rates, which in turn would force his company to consider moving production to another city. “I’m not for coal or against green energy,” he explained. “I am just for lower costs.” The conversation on the November 21 showed that the Drake debate will be waged not in terms of health, the environment, or even the revitalization of Downtown Colorado Springs. Instead, the swing voters on the board will talk of rate hikes.

Those who favor closing Drake at the earliest possible date, including City Council President Richard Skorman, are prepared to have this debate. Closing Drake, Skorman argued, would allow Colorado Springs residents to to ditch unpredictably priced fossil fuels for renewables, whose costs will undoubtedly decease with time. “What we are not taking into account,” Skorman said of our reliance on fossil fuels, “is the rate increases in the future.” But we would have to build the infrastructure necessary to bring in green energy generated outside of Colorado Springs, Skorman continued. “If we bring in transmission, then we bring in a lot more choices” moving forward, Skorman asserted. “There are so many unknowns in this,” Skorman argued, but he concluded that “if we did get cheap generation” from a proposed regional project, then the projected costs of closing Drake would decrease “significantly,” saving residents money in the long term.

If this outcome seems idealistic, note that Utilities’ general manager of energy acquisition John Romero himself argued that new transmission would likely play a role in Colorado Springs energy future. Even if Drake were not closed by 2025, Romero explained to the board, transmission would still be necessary to realize a number of possible solutions to Colorado Springs future energy needs. So-called “hybrid” plans—these would connect Colorado Springs to outside sources of energy without abandoning internal generation altogether—could allow for CSU to begin phasing out Drake prior to its 2035 deadline. The board, therefore, does not face en either/or choice here. A plan involving transmission investment could potentially satisfy Skorman, Avila, and the centrists, since such a plan could leave open the possibility of an early closure of Drake in the case that green energy does become cheap in the coming years.

And some of the potential swing voters on the board do not oppose partial closure or “hybrid” solutions. As Knight recently explained to the Gazette, while he is worried about relying entirely on outside energy, he “could support closing Drake by 2030. . .depending on the other projects Utilities is planning.” For his part, council member Geislinger has also stated that it would be easier to support such measures if wealthier people in the community who support a green transition would support CSU COPE, a fund that eases the burden of higher rates on the poor. Strand, Knight, and Geislinger have all indicated that they would be willing to support some form of an earlier transition, so long as the plan proved cost-effective. And so the debate over the future of Drake remains unsettled.

Please, if you have something to about Drake’s future, join in on the upcoming public events. There will be a telephone conference on Wednesday, November 29 from 6-7:30PM (register now at csu.org!).

Then, on Tuesday, December 5 at 6PM, citizens from around Colorado Springs will attend a public-input meeting at City Hall (107 N. Nevada Ave). Those calling for Drake’s early closure will be congregating both inside and outside the hall for discussion and protest.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the El Paso County Democratic Party.

John Jarrell is the Chair of the Grassroots Coordination Committee

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