Two giants seem poised to battle it out over the Martin Drake Power Plant. On one side is the Sierra Club, with 1.4 million members, thousands of volunteers and an aggressive, well-funded legal arm. On the other, Colorado Springs Utilities, a multi-billion-dollar, city-owned enterprise with deep pockets and legal resources of its own.
In the middle: the fate of NeuStream, a clean-coal scrubber that is supposed to make the plant meet regional haze requirements by 2017, and the brainchild of a locally owned company that employs roughly 55 people.
For months, both the futures of NeuStream and Drake have hung in the balance as the Utilities Board of Directors — City Council in a different governing role — has hemmed and hawed its way through discussions, budget talks and legal wrangling. Now the board is seeking volunteers for a task force that will start meeting in 2013 to determine the coal-fired plant’s fate.
But the back-and-forth of the board caught the attention of the Sierra Club and its powerful “Beyond Coal” campaign, which claims responsibility for closing hundreds of coal-fired plants around the nation.
The Sierra Club describes itself as “America’s largest and most influential grassroots organization” — a not entirely inflated claim, as opponents of the club’s policy initiatives often have discovered.
The Sierra Club is to environmentalists what the National Rifle Association is to gun owners — a fierce, effective, politically potent advocate for their beliefs.
On Sept. 17, the Sierra Club notified Utilities that it intended to sue “…the owners and operators of the (Drake and Nixon) power plants for repeated and continuing violations of the federal Clean Air Act.”
There followed a list of 37 alleged violations dating to 1986. To a layperson, none seemed particularly egregious. Rather, it seemed like a grab-bag of purely technical violations, failures of paperwork rather than evidence of a devious plan to sidestep state and federal regulators.
Is the potential suit a purely political maneuver meant to advance the club’s national anti-coal agenda? Is it an empty threat intended to stampede Utilities and City Council into abandoning an eminently serviceable coal-fired plant?
According to the club’s website, “Coal is an outdated, backward, and dirty 19th-century technology … not only is coal burning responsible for one-third of U.S. carbon emissions — the main contributor to climate disruption — but it is also making us sick, leading to as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs. … The Beyond Coal campaign’s main objective is to replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built.”
The Sierra Club is hardly alone. In a November report, the Union of Concerned Scientists identified 353 coal-fired generators that are “ripe for retirement,” including two of Drake’s three generating units.
Denver-based Bryce Carter, associate organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Colorado Beyond Coal campaign, doesn’t deny the anti-coal agenda but claims the potential lawsuit is firmly based in fact.
The notice’s violations, Carter emphasized, consist of “physical changes or changes in methods of operation that resulted in significant net emissions increases for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (and) particulate matter.” He says any one of the incidents should have triggered a new source review under the Clean Air Act’s prevention of serious deterioration (PSD) requirements.
Even more seriously, the notice accuses Utilities of “falsely certifying compliance (with applicable regulations)” since 2002. Had Utilities complied with state and federal regulations and installed “best available control technology” (BACT), emissions from the Nixon and Drake plants would have been measurably reduced.
The suit, if filed, will seek “appropriate injunctive relief, civil penalties, a beneficial environmental project … and Sierra Club’s cost of litigation.”
The club prefers to avoid litigation, Carter said.
“It looked as if the Utilities Board was prepared to launch a decommissioning study last summer,” Carter said, “but they seem to have suddenly changed their minds just before the board meeting on July 10. So now they’re on their way to spending $120 million to extend the life of the Drake plant with experimental and unproven NeuStream technology. And spending that kind of money means that the city will be stuck with a coal-fired downtown power plant for the next 40 years.”
Even without the lawsuit being officially filed, the Utilities Board has had at least two closed legal sessions about it, and negotiations between Sierra Club attorneys and senior CSU officials are said to be ongoing.
Neither Carter nor any Councilor would comment on the record about the negotiations, and Utilities CEO Jerry Forte was equally circumspect.
“We’ve looked at (the 37 alleged violations),” said Forte, “and we don’t think there’s much substance to them.”
According to most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, Drake annually emits 3,415 tons of nitrogen oxides, 6,035 tons of sulfur dioxide and 11 pounds of mercury. Based on studies by another nonprofit, the Clean Air Task Force, the Sierra Club estimates Drake’s 2010 emissions resulted in $65 million in public health impacts, or the cost of 160 asthma attacks and eight deaths.
Natural gas-fired power plants emit substantially fewer pollutants than coal-fired facilities. Compared to burning natural gas, burning coal produces five times the nitrogen oxide emissions, 2,591 times the sulfur oxides, 392 times the particulates and two times the carbon dioxide — numbers that seem to make gas substantially greener than coal.
The Sierra Club once advocated replacing coal with gas, but no longer. The Clean Air Task Force believes replacing all coal-fired plants in America with advanced combined-cycle gas facilities would only slightly reduce greenhouse emissions. That’s because gas production and transmission releases significant quantities of methane into the atmosphere — and methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Coal is bad, gas is bad — so what’s the solution?
Carter believes Utilities can replace Drake’s current 254 megawatts with a combination of demand-side management (DSM) and purchased wind power. An aggressive DSM program, costing $10 million annually, could reduce peak demand by 150 megawatts by 2020. Renewable-energy purchases could account for another 100 megawatts — problem solved.
Carter’s assumptions may be optimistic. The Union of Concerned Scientists projects that state energy efficiency policies and goals will reduce nationwide demand by 5.7 percent by 2020 — far less than the 1.5 percent annual reduction that Carter believes Utilities can achieve. Renewable energy has become competitive with conventional power sources in recent years, but its viability is being challenged from an unexpected source.
“With historically low natural gas prices and no long-term national policy support for renewable energy,” the UCS report asserts, “there is a real danger that natural gas could crowd renewable energy out of the market.”
Forte remains enthusiastic about NeuStream, despite growing public skepticism about the project.
“We’re absolutely confident that it’ll work,” he said. “We think it’ll remove 97 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, compared to 90 percent with existing technology. I think the Sierra Club should join us and get behind the technology — it has the potential of cleaning up coal emissions nationwide.”
Carter was incredulous.
“I can say that pigs can fly, but that doesn’t make it so,” he said, “We’ve seen a lot of (coal pollution technology) claims, and most of them just don’t work, or they can’t scale up. NeuStream has been tested at 20 megawatts, but 100 megawatts is another thing entirely.”
An exasperated senior Utilities official, who refused to be quoted by name, forcefully rebutted Carter.
“We know that it’ll work,” the official said, “and we know that it’ll scale up. How stupid do you think we are? Would we risk $120 million of ratepayer money, not to mention all of our jobs, on something that might not work? We might risk $200,000 on something with a big potential payback, given the size of the organization, but not $120 million.”
That $120 million will be well-spent if Drake continues in operation after 2017 new state haze regulations are in place, said Councilor Bernie Herpin, a staunch supporter of the coal-fired plant and NeuStream.
“If it’s going to be open after 2017 — and I see no way it cannot be — then the NeuStream is needed,” he said. “Even if we close Drake in five years, in 10 years, we’ll have to be in compliance until then.”
Herpin said two outside sources have verified not only that NeuStream meets the claims of its creator, Dave Neumann, but that it will scale up to 254 megawatts.
“The state looked at it, examined it, and they agreed that it works exactly the way Neumann says it does,” he said. “And the EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) also found that it worked.”
As far as Drake is concerned, Herpin acknowledges the decades-old plant will have to be shuttered — but not soon.
“If the task force starts meeting in January, it will still be a 10-year time frame to close it,” Herpin said. “When we did the electric power study last year, we only estimated that it would be open for 20 more years. No matter what, it’s coming to an end — but we need the NeuStream until it does.”
The Department of Energy is also interested in the clean coal scrubber, and has given Neumann $7.2 million to see if it would also remove carbon dioxide. Those tests are not yet final.
For every Sierra Club allegation, Utilities has a response. Closing Drake will help the area reach potentially stricter ozone levels? Not so, they say.
“The bottom line is that additional emissions control on Martin Drake, by themselves, or even the closure of Martin Drake, will only result in small improvements,” said Dave Grossman, spokesman for Utilities, “in the range of 1 to 3 percent in ozone air quality. It takes a community-wide effort to reduce ozone.”
Colorado Springs meets current ozone air quality standards, and Utilities’ environmental experts believe improvements in car engines, combined with changes to manufacturing facilities, will continually improve the air.
As for arguments that CSU doesn’t need the power generated at Drake, Utilities says it does. CSU can provide up to 1,147 megawatts of electricity, about 93 megawatts more than peak load. That, officials say, is needed for customer growth — for manufacturing plants like Atmel or data centers like Wal-Mart’s or the proposed Vineyard project.
“Additional power would be needed,” Grossman said. “Conservation helps, but cannot fully eliminate the need for Martin Drake’s 254 megawatts of power.”
Even the most aggressive conservation program would save .75 percent a year for 10 years, totaling only 75 megawatts, according to CSU.
Even wind and solar aren’t answers — at least according to Utilities.
“Wind and solar are intermittent in nature, and cannot replace a continuously operating power source such as Martin Drake,” according to CSU talking points. “This facility operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Herpin says a natural-gas plant is the most practical replacement for Drake.
“And it will take time to plan, permit and build a natural-gas plant — we’ll need Drake until that happens,” he said.
Utilities dismisses the notion that ratepayers could benefit from closing Drake.
“It’s likely that an alternative solution would increase electric rates,” said documents from CSU. “The Electric Integrated Resource Plan indicates that the current mix of resources is the most cost-effective means of providing energy to our customers.”
As for the 37 alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, Herpin says they’re grandstanding by the Sierra Club.
“They heard that we were having this community discussion about the plant,” he said. “And they smelled blood in the water.”
John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.