As I was biking past the new Garden of the Gods Gourmet location at 26th Street and U.S. Highway 24 on Sunday morning, a beautifully restored 1960 Thunderbird emerged from the parking lot and stopped abruptly.
I slowed down, intending to say “nice ride!” to the car’s proud owner, when I heard the starter motor turning over as the engine coughed and wheezed. I kept quiet, as appreciative envy turned into sympathy.
Poor guy! Unless you’re an accomplished mechanic, even the best-maintained 1960 automobile is unreliable and unpredictable.
Having owned a few, I understood the coughing, sputtering engine — it’s the carburetor, or the fuel pump, or the ignition, or fouled spark plugs, or the electrical system, or some other damn thing that few present-day mechanics can either diagnose or fix. Later, as I descended from Gold Camp Road, the T-Bird was still parked, waiting for the tow truck.
The next day, without warning, smoke and flames poured out of the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant. It was hard not to see a connection between the T-Bird and the old coal burner.
Opponents can now characterize Drake as a decaying, dangerous industrial facility in the heart of downtown.
From the CSU website:
• The Martin Drake Power Plant provides nearly one-third of the community’s power year-round.
• As base load power generation, the Drake units run 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The units have achieved continuous runs exceeding 100 days several times in recent years, which is an industry benchmark of excellence.
• Drake provides the lowest-cost electricity of our entire generation portfolio. Including costs for planned emissions control, power from Drake is expected to be less costly per megawatt hour than building a new plant or buying long-term replacement power.
There are powerful arguments. Despite the efforts of environmentalists, downtown advocates and significant segments of the business community, Drake is still there. A formal independent study of issues surrounding Drake’s decommissioning was commissioned by the Utilities Board in 2012, and released at the end of 2013.
The study authors hedged their bets, with no meaningful recommendations: “Preliminary modeling results indicate that the least-cost option is continued operation of Drake for 30 years. The most favorable sustainability alternatives, considering potential environmental and social costs, are retiring the facility in three to five years. Mid-term (nine to 15 years) options were also analyzed.”
Until Monday, it seemed clear that Council would kick the can down the road, keeping Drake online and responding to mandates as necessary.
Now Council has a problem.
The elected leaders can’t very well cover up or minimize a fire that required an emergency plant shutdown, the evacuation of all personnel and the temporary loss of power to 22,115 customers. When opponents tried to kill Drake because it was an ugly, polluting, carbon-emitting anachronism, they got no traction. It was safe, cheap and reliable.
Opponents now can characterize Drake as a decaying, dangerous industrial facility in the heart of downtown.
City Council, as the Utilities Board, will have to make a couple of tough calls. The first priority should be to commission an independent investigation of the fire. It was alarming to hear Fire Chief Chris Riley say that without CSFD’s decision to enter the burning building and extinguish the fire, there might have been a “catastrophic explosion.”
We need to know the facts. And despite the daunting numbers, maybe we should bite the bullet.
It won’t be easy. A new gas-fired power plant of equal capacity would cost about $260 million and increase the city’s dependence upon a more expensive energy source. It also would mean a stranded nine-figure investment in the Neumann anti-pollution system, as well as other expenses related to the Drake closure. Such an investment would impact electric rates directly through increased costs, and possibly indirectly via higher interest rates on CSU debt.
There are lots of “what ifs.”
What if CSU had replaced Drake in the 1980s with a coal-fired plant on the Nixon site? What if management had declined to invest in anti-pollution equipment for Drake a few years ago, and begun work on a new plant then? What if the fire is not an isolated incident, but a harbinger of things to come?
Six of the nine Councilors are military veterans. Points to consider: The Navy retired carrier Enterprise in November 2012, after 52 years, and the Air Force no longer buys F-16s, much less F-111s.
The stalled T-Bird is still great for show, but not for go. What if Drake is good for neither?