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Opinion Piece: As other cities move on to clean energy, Colorado Springs falls behind

Posted on January 3, 2013

As other cities move on to clean energy, Colorado Springs falls behind

Colorado Springs Utilities continues to rely on its old and outdated coal plants while other utilities in Colorado and neighboring states are moving to invest in clean energy alternatives. Colorado Springs Utilities’ plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its coal plants goes in the wrong direction. Cleaner energy alternatives, including renewables, are more available and more economical than ever before. Coal cannot compete in today’s energy markets. Coal production for domestic consumption has dropped nationwide, and the trend is only going to continue. It’s no wonder that other utilities in Colorado and in neighboring states are adapting to emerging technologies.

Xcel Energy Colorado will retire coal fired boilers at its Arapahoe, Valmont and Cherokee plants, totaling 593 MW. Xcel also has a lot going for its renewable portfolio, including its Limon wind facility that produces some of the cheapest power in the market. Utilities in neighboring states are also choosing to switch from dirty coal to clean energy alternatives. The two largest utilities in Oklahoma, OG&E and AEP-PSO, have a voluntary program for ratepayers that allows customers to get most of their electricity from renewable sources. Oklahoma ranks 8th in the country for wind energy with 2,089 MW installed. OG&E plans to retire two of its coal plants by 2026. In Arizona, all three major Arizona utilities expect to meet or exceed their 2012 milestone of 3.5% solar for the year.

Coal is a dirty and dangerous fuel that poses serious risks for local communities, and the Colorado Springs Utilities coal plants are no exception. Over the years, Colorado Springs Utilities spent millions on costly modifications to its 50-year old Martin Drake and its 32-year old Ray D. Dixon coal plants to keep them in operation. These major modifications resulted in more pollution in our air and stand in violation of the Clean Air Act. In addition, the massive amounts of water that these coal plants devour to keep in operation is unbelievable -- Drake and Nixon devour over 2 billion gallons every year, enough to serve Colorado Springs with nearly a month's supply of precious, drinkable water. With a persisting drought and under a year and a half of water reserves left, a month of supply could avoid a severe crisis. The effects these two coal plants have on the local community are just staggering.

According to a risk-based analysis by the Clean Air Task Force, emissions from the Martin Drake and Ray Nixon resulted in an estimated $97 million of public health costs that burdened families in 2010. According to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Martin Drake coal fired power plant emitted 3,415 tons of nitrogen oxides, 6,035 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 11 pounds of mercury into the heart of downtown Colorado Springs in 2010. That same year, Ray Nixon contributed 1,999 tons of nitrogen oxides, 4,078 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 15 pounds of mercury into the air we breathe. The fact that children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to coal pollution is most disturbing. This pollution can lead to short term and chronic respiratory diseases including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and can exacerbate the effects of heart disease, which can lead to increased hospital visits and premature death.

In spite of all this, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board continues to throw money at these high risk coal plants. Colorado Springs Utilities recently committed to spend as much as $120 million on the Martin Drake plant with the installation of the experimental NeuStream technology – an unproven pollution control technology that no other utility in the country is using. Imagine what kind of job-creation investments that money could fuel if it was spent on something other than an old and dirty coal plant that will continue to pollute our community for decades to come.

In its 2012 Electric Integrated Resource Plan, Colorado Springs Utilities reported that a majority of its own customers expressed support for an increased renewable energy in the supply mix. The same analysis also showed that Colorado Springs Utilities has much more electric capacity than it needs. The entire Martin Drake plant could close tomorrow, and there would still be enough electric capacity to meet Colorado Springs’ demand for years to come. It’s time for Colorado Springs Utilities to start paying attention to the interests of its own customers and stop wasting ratepayer’s money on unhealthy and costly coal plants.

Bryce Carter is an Associate Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s Colorado Beyond Coal Campaign.