COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — It's the end of an era for electrical generation in the City of Colorado Springs. The Martin Drake Power Plant will be retired Thursday ending 97 years of service.
The power plant stopped burning coal for electrical generation last August and has used natural gas to power the two remaining turbines, Unit 6 and Unit 7.
Work crews have since installed a series of six modular natural gas-powered generators at the plant site to temporarily provide replacement electricity. Each unit can produce 30-megawatt hours of electricity for a total capacity of 180 MW.
"The biggest advantage that these units have is that they can be turned on and off contrary to having a coal unit that would take three days for it to go up to the levels that we want it and then to go down when we don't need it," explained Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin during a news conference Wednesday.
He explained that the new generators require less labor to operate. Benyamin estimates that three or four employees could manage the generators compared to the staff of 80 that were required to keep Drake operating while it was burning coal.
Two primary factors have driven the Colorado Springs Utilities Board to shutter the plant; environmental regulations and cost. State lawmakers passed a trio of bills during the 2019 legislative session establishing a mandatory 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by the year 2030.
Benyamin also explained the price of coal had tripled by the time the board voted to speed up the timetable for decommissioning at Drake. Prices have fallen some in the months since. However, Benyamin indicated that the market fluctuations are becoming similar to other fossil fuel sources of electrical generation.
“Keeping coal would not guarantee low-cost energy going forward," Mayor John Suthers said.
Another cost to consider is the maintenance associated with keeping the plant operating. It was originally built in 1925 and underwent a major expansion in 1962. The turbine in Unit 6 dates back to the early 1970s while Unit 7 is only slightly newer.
The electric portfolio of Colorado Springs Utilities includes power purchased through agreements with wind and solar companies, the power generated at the Ray Nixon coal plant, and the natural gas-burning Front Range Power Generation Station. Both are located in southern El Paso County near Pikes Peak International Raceway.
The George Birdsall Plant on North Nevada Avenue is considered a peaking plant and only used in periods of unusually high demand. It also burns natural gas for electrical production.
Boulder-based provider juwi Inc. will build and operate the 175 MW Pike Solar farm southeast of Fountain. The facility is to be coupled with a 25 MW battery storage operation and is projected to provide enough electricity to power 55,000 homes when it goes online in 2024.
Benyamin told reporters that the 25-year contract between CSU and juwi will provide stability for utility customers for decades to come.
"So, as far as the bills that we are forecasting down the road, we want to take that volatility out of the fuel costs to make sure that we have a stable price for energy," he said.
The temporary generators will remain on the Drake property until at least 2027. That will give Colorado Springs Utilities flexibility as it begins a major project relocating its transmission infrastructure and improving the city's grid.
The generators will then be disassembled and relocated to a property on the southeast side of the city where they can be used to add to the resiliency of our electrical system.
Colorado Springs Utilities began working with the staff at the Drake Power Plant years ago to help them transition to other jobs within the utility provider. Benyamin explained that some roles, such as plant operator, required a training module to help translate their job skills to a water plant.
Other employees who work in the skilled trades, such as plumbers and electricians, were able to connect with new jobs more easily.
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