Drake: No talk about premature death?

Recently the Regional Business Alliance hosted a panel discussion on Martin Drake Power Plant’s future. It wasn’t a shock that nobody spoke in depth about available alternatives to coal-powered energy production, but I was genuinely surprised that nearly no attention was paid to the pollution Drake emits onto our 600,000-plus residents, employees, students and visitors.

After all, the main problem with coal, the dirtiest form of large-scale power generation, is the massive pollution it adds to our air, water and soil, and that it causes more than a few people to get sick and die prematurely each year.

When the 50-year-old generators in the 90-year-old Drake facility are operating (and not out of commission due to substantial repairs required from massive fire damage), over 3,400 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 4,600 tons of sulfur dioxide (SOx) and 11 pounds of mercury are spewed out upon us each year.

Because of harmful health impacts, federal regulations will require Utilities (i.e., ratepayers) to expend at least a half-billion dollars over the next 10 years on equipment required to reduce some percentage of those toxins, should we keep Drake operating that long.

About $70 million (final price-tag TBD) has already been spent on two Neumann Systems scrubbers that are not yet operating (nor proven) to adequately reduce SOx emissions from two of Drake’s three generators. Another $110 million-ish is needed to purchase a scrubber for the third generator (Unit 5, “down for a while” due to needed post-fire repairs). In a few years, another $120+ million will be required to reduce NOx emissions, and a yet unknown (but likely much greater) amount will be necessary to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) that Drake emits at an annual rate of 2.2 million tons.

So what did the panelists discuss? Possible alternative uses for that money toward cleaner, safer power-generation sources that could free up a blighted section of downtown key for revitalization and a healthier city? Not quite.

The fire presents us with an opportunity to pause and contemplate better choices for our community’s energy future.

CSU Chief Energy Services Officer George Luke faithfully advocated the status quo, returning Drake to burning coal, claiming it’s the cheapest form of energy — although it’s not if you factor in the health, social and environmental damage and costs it causes, on top of the impending required regulatory compliance expenses. I sympathize with Mr. Luke, whose loyalty must be torn between the majority of ratepayers surveyed who support more renewable energy, and those Council members who don’t hold the same value for clean air.

Dan Malinaric of Atmel Corp. made the now-familiar pitch that the company doesn’t want to pack up and move away because they all like to hike and ski, but will have to if their rates increase. Missing from his discussion were the risks and liabilities associated with nursing this aging power plant for 30 more years. Stunning was his admission that Atmel requires a one-year return-on-investment on any energy investments. This unreasonable restriction on energy efficiency at their own plant and/or for cleaner, safer sources of energy from CSU does not translate into meaningful corporate responsibility to our community.

Al Wenstrand of the RBA was the most balanced in his comments that any decision about Drake will have differing impacts, and how we must thoughtfully contemplate priorities.

A discussion on the impact of an aged, centrally located industrial facility without mention of pollution and the adverse health impacts it causes to our community, is incomprehensible. This is akin to Council only asking a coal industry lobbyist for guidance on how to plan for currently forming regulatory requirements for carbon emissions reductions, and paying a firm with energy production expertise $500,000 for advice on Drake decommissioning and then deciding they don’t like the results. Sadly, these all occurred.

We must push CSU management for a more open discussion about Drake’s viability. The fire presents us with an opportunity to pause and contemplate better choices for our community’s energy future.

In another article soon, I hope to focus on how displacing Drake’s coal generation with wind, solar and conservation not only removes the toxins from the power generation formula (and our air), but also provides a levelized cost of energy for the longer term because the need to pay for both regulatory compliance to reduce pollution emissions, as well as the perpetually increasing costs for fuel will be substantially reduced.

As a consequence, Colorado Springs becomes a more self-reliant, robust and cleaner place to live, work and visit.

Leslie Weise is a principal at Weise Consulting Services and works with technology companies and nonprofits to provide legal, policy and business development services. She has a master of law degree in environmental and natural resource law and policy. Contact her at www.weise.us.