The Neumann Systems Group’s partnership with Colorado Springs Utilities has always raised eyebrows.
People have questioned whether the NeuStream emissions-cleaning technology can possibly do what it has advertised to do, and they’ve wondered whether the public-private partnership is ethical. Others said CSU shouldn’t use public money to test unproven technology at Martin Drake Power Plant.
Even now, with an outside, independent agency certifying that the smaller version of the technology works like CSU and Neumann say it does — cleaning 97 percent of sulfur dioxide from coal emissions — skeptics still question.
And some of them, like Utilities board members Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan, actually have the power to halt NeuStream in its tracks.
While Leigh isn’t quite prepared to do that — yet — he did receive universal approval from the rest of the board/City Council to stop further progress until the board has a chance to reach conclusions about NeuStream.
Leigh says it isn’t just a matter of what they’re going to do with the aging Drake plant; it’s also a matter of whether NeuStream is the technology that’s needed right now.
“I don’t think we know that,” he said. “We know the smaller version works, but we don’t know about a full-scale one. And is coal really what we want right now? Wouldn’t natural gas be better? There are too many unknowns to keep pouring money into it.”
Utilities has signed a $73.5 million contract to install a full-sized NeuStream at Drake, and CSU officials say they can install it at the Nixon power plant in Fountain instead.
However, there seems to be a rising tide against coal-fired power plants. Outsiders are saying that coal is on its way out, evidenced by one power plant after another banking their fires and switching to natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to issue pollution measures that make burning coal more and more expensive.
Young professionals seem to echo the notion that burning coal is an old-fashioned, outdated and potentially dangerous way of creating power.
But Neumann Systems Group and its founder, Air Force Academy graduate and former professor Dave Neumann, isn’t daunted by the controversy. The company, while stopping some of the construction contracts that were supposed to start his summer, is moving ahead with technology testing related to NeuStream.
In fact, just weeks after the Utilities board dealt a blow to his fast-track plans for the NeuStream, the company announced that it was sitting on another gold mine — extracting rare earth elements from fly ash, another waste product from burning coal.
The company’s goal is to use all the waste from coal-burning power plants, says Rob Fredell, vice president for Neumann. They say that the process could make millions, and of course, they’re asking Colorado Springs Utilities to partner with them again. So far, there’s no formal agreement in place. With all the controversy surrounding the first agreement, it’s not surprising that Utilities is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Meanwhile, across town, research into wave energy by another Air Force Academy professor, Stefen Siegel, shows that Neumann’s goals might be shortsighted. Siegel hopes to capture the energy from ocean waves, an environmentally friendly, pollution-free source of energy.
Siegel hasn’t made as much progress as Neumann, but he hasn’t had a $23 million partner or a $74 million contract to build on, either. Siegel’s still seeking venture capital and still testing a model at Texas A&M University.
While Siegel’s technology isn’t practical for Colorado, it could provide cheap, reliable energy for the majority of the nation’s population who live within 100 miles of the coast. Siegel is hoping to market the Atargis product both nationally and internationally — putting the company and Colorado Springs on the energy map.
Neumann Systems Group might be on to something. Combining a clean way of producing power is a laudable goal. And that way could still be coal, which is still plentiful and it’s still cheap, at least until EPA regulations make it too costly to continue to burn.
Finding alternative technologies to burn coal cleanly answers at least one part of the coal equation; the other, what happens at the mine itself, is another issue altogether.
However, the Artagis project shows that it’s time to explore other methods of producing the area’s power. It’s time to look to the future, beyond coal. But utilities doesn’t seem to be embracing natural gas or other energy sources — officials in the Springs are still clinging to coal.
Maybe it’s time to see past coal to future electrical needs.