COLORADO SPRINGS — Leaders of Colorado’s second-most populous city this week are taking first steps toward retiring their central coal-fired power plant that for decades has belched more than a million tons a year of air pollution, teaming with General Electric in a $100 million deal to install portable gas generators.
These generators will ensure steady electricity while coal heaps at the Martin Drake plant are removed and coal-burning stacks dismantled, starting early next year, Colorado Springs Utilities chief Aram Benyamin told The Denver Post ahead of Wednesday’s formal announcement.
“Drake will be gone,” Benyamin said, hailing “a very good step forward on making sure the environment doesn’t have all the pollution we were putting into it by using fossil fuels.”
Colorado officials have factored a 1.2 million ton reduction from shutting down Drake into their statewide plans to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution that worsens climate change. And dismantling this 96-year-old plant will clear a 70-acre industrial zone at the center of Colorado Springs along Fountain Creek.
“There’s unlimited potential in what the gateway to this city is going to look like,” Benyamin said. “We’re taking a very public planning process.”
While President Joe Biden, Gov. Jared Polis and others are prioritizing a faster climate-driven shift off fossil fuels toward renewable energy, making that happen without interrupting power supplies looms as a challenge in cities worldwide. The action in Colorado Springs is expected to be closely watched.
“It’s a great example for the nation of what a utility can do,” Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said. “You can’t just retire a coal plant overnight. There’s no doubt this requires careful planning.”
Municipally-owned and run by the City Council, Colorado Springs Utilities for years has been installing solar panels southeast of the city and ramping up use of wind power from turbines in northeastern Colorado and elsewhere — containing costs for residents as clean energy became cheaper than burning coal, which was hauled by train from Wyoming.
City leaders last June approved a plan to close Drake by the end of 2023. They plan to add more solar and wind capacity, and install battery storage systems, toward a citywide goal of reducing air pollution from electricity generation by 80% below 2005 levels before 2030. A second power plant southeast of the city is slated for closure by 2029.
The six gas-powered generators can supply up to 167 megawatts of electricity and are the first of their kind to be installed in North America, city and General Electric officials said. Drake workers plan to position the generators, now being built at General Electric factories in the United States and abroad, on the west side of the plant, where heaps of black coal can be seen from Interstate 25.
That’s expected to sustain residents until 2024 or 2025 while utility crews simultaneously “re-wire” citywide transmission, installing new lines from the east side to the city center and removing other lines. The generators then will be moved for continued use by the city, and possibly at local military bases, as solar and wind systems expand.
“Everything we’re doing doesn’t even take a chance on reliability,” Benyamin said. “These are fast-acting units. They’ll come on when we need them.”
Demolition of the coal-burning systems and stacks, along with other buildings, “won’t just be a bulldozing of the site,” he said. “We’ll have to take it one step at a time. It will take several years to dismantle the plant in an orderly fashion.”
For decades, Drake emitted hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping air pollution, state health department records show, along with toxics such as sulfur dioxide that hang over the city and mix into a plume against mountains.
State health and federal EPA officials negotiated with Colorado Springs officials about measuring the sulfur dioxide as Drake supplied up to a third of the electricity residents used.
In recent years, Colorado Springs leaders have focused increasingly on a revitalization along Fountain Creek. Public parks, an Olympics museum and events center have been built. A U.S. Olympic Training Center in the east-central part of the city has encouraged an emphasis on creating a healthier environment for athletes. A soccer stadium remains under construction next to the power plant.
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