Hazlehurst: Drake discussion will have to change now

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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.

The three generators currently in operation were built in 1962, 1968, and 1974. Colorado Springs Utilities has long contended that although the plant may be an unsightly industrial behemoth, it has three significant merits.

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?

5 Responses to Hazlehurst: Drake discussion will have to change now

  1. By any definition Drake is obsolete. If CSU had in place a fair and reasonable renewable energy policy there could have been solar power systems in place all over the county that could make up or exceed the power generating capacity of Drake. But CSU’s renewable energy and net-metering policy is primitive and in no way encourages or promotes consumers to invest in solar power. And now Drake is offline the only backup Colorado Springs has is to buy electric power on the open market at a high rate. CS cannot afford to continue to operate its electric utility this way.

    Steven Shepard
    May 13, 2014 at 8:59 pm

  2. John,

    there are a few more alternatives and numbers you have overlooked:
    1. what is the insurance payout for the damage caused in dollars and could we use that to invest into alternatives.
    2. There are tax breaks available till 2016 for renewable energy. 250MW of wind installed cost about 350 Million USD (zero fuel cost) using a tax arbitrage model that cost would come down to about 250-280 million. 250 MW of Solar PV cost about 750 million USD but again using a tax arbitrage model that cost would come down to about 500 million. They are intermittent energy providers so they need to be backed up by either a peaking plant or storage. The big advantage is that at current low borrowing cost this is not such a high burden as we are made o believe.. I would warn to bet all our chips on natural gas as this cost will go up when all these LNG export terminals are ready to ship our cheap gas to Europe and Asia.
    3. part of the city for champion discussions could be to use CHP (combined heating and power plants) plants to heat cool and power our downtown centrally and as a result become more efficient.

    peter miller
    May 13, 2014 at 9:34 pm

  3. I think solar power and wind power is really neat !!
    But what do I do at night when the wind isn’t blowing ??

    Chris Lukens
    May 14, 2014 at 10:59 am

  4. John, you’re right! This issue needs to be addressed. I believe that previous leadership had everyone’s best interests in mind in putting a band-aide on Drake. The challenge now is really the unknown. We knew Drake was old. We knew Drake was dirty. We knew Drake was ugly. But now, we don’t know what other challenges Drake might hold in our future.

    Addressing the unknown and taking our city to an alternative will require some very strong leadership and resolve. It will also take a lot of work to explore worthwhile alternatives. Choosing to maintain Drake, repair the damages and move forward is the easy option. What happens though in ten years when we have a much larger problem on our hands, a threat to our community and overwhelming consequences?

    My two cents is that leadership truly analyze the data, understand the larger threat and put action to ground in executing an alternative.

    Justin Burns
    May 16, 2014 at 10:57 am

  5. I agree that Drake needs to go! It is an archaic, sightly pollutant of this rare gem of a city and irresponsible that we do not move forward with a clean “renewable” source of energy; either wind or solar. We are going to pay outrageous costs anyway no matter which method we choose. With Colorado supposedly being one of the leaders in “green” technology and support, this is our moment in Colorado Springs to show the state and the nation that WE are ready to be a leader. I’m just a citizen of the US and a resident of the Springs, but how can we be heard and make a difference? What are our options to address this with the City Council and demand a vote of the people? If we are going to have to pay for something, shouldn’t it be something WE decide to pay for??? And, why, why when we live in a city with more WIND than most and closer to the SUN than most would we not use those forms of energy? When I first moved here and looked out my window of the stunning view I have of the city, I was appalled to see that unsightly coal fire plant belching its toxic gas over the city. I could not believe that a city of such beauty, mountains, historical significance, clean air, and highly dependent on tourism would ALLOW itself to be polluted on purpose! Unbelievable! This must stop – how can we accomplish this? We know our planet is being destroyed and that global warming is HERE NOW. This is one piece of that deadly effect that we can eliminate – so why wouldn’t we????

    Deb
    May 21, 2014 at 1:34 pm