How quickly the tide turns on coal

Closing coal plant is an easy decision. But Colorado Springs also decided against buying a shiny new natural gas plant

By Allen Best

Colorado Springs will close down both of its coal-fired power plants within the next decade. That’s not surprising. It’s becoming easier to count the number of coal plants still scheduled to remain standing in 2030 as compared those that will be retired.

The surprise is how quickly the tide has shifted.

Tom Strand, a city councilman, recalled that he was on the utility’s board of directors in 2015-16. Evaluating the Martin Drake plant, which sits near the city’s center, he said, a majority of directors would commit to a statement closing Drake by 2035. He hoped for a closing by the late 2020s.

Instead, the city close by the plant 2023 and the city’s second coal unit, the Ray Nixon plant, no later than 2030.

More noteworthy is the limited role of natural gas that Colorado Springs sees going forward. Six 30-megawatt natural-gas generators will be installed at the site of the Drake plant to take advantage of existing transmission during the next decade.

But the approved plan – unlike the primary alternative—sees no need a new combined cycle natural gas plant. Colorado Springs has one, and this plan sees it as sufficient.

The approach approved by the council on a 7-to-2 vote leaves the city nimble, able to seize opportunities in the rapidly shifting energy landscape—a key point of Aram Benyamin, the chief executive of the city utility since November 2018. The two dissenting members expressed reservations about the city’s ability to ensure reliable power without the additional natural gas generation.

The plan gets Colorado Springs Utilities to 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, in accordance with a state law adopted in 2019, and to 90% by 2050.

Additional modeling and study during the next few years will continue to reveal how new technology and shifted economics may alter what is possible, said Amy Trinidad, public affairs lead at Colorado Springs Utilities.

Colorado Springs will add 500 megawatts of new wind generation plus solar and also 400 megawatts of battery storage. That compares with the 275 megawatts of large-scale battery storage planned by Xcel Energy as it dismantles two of its three coal-burning units at Pueblo as part of its Colorado Energy Plan.

This decision puts Colorado Springs, which drifts hard right politically, in lockstep with Colorado’s most left-leaning neighborhoods. There was nary a mention of climate change by the elected officials, although plenty of talk about environmental quality.

“It strengthens our brand as one of the most desirable places to live and continue to build a city that matches our scenery,” said Mayor John Suthers in a statement.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis nodded at climate change in his statement.

“Colorado continues to set an example for the rest of our country when it comes to renewable energy and climate action, and this announcement comes in the wake of numerous electric utilities across the state committing to a transition to clean energy,” he said. “The pathway toward achieving our goals of protecting our environment and our communities is driven by a bold, swift transition to renewable energy.”

Polis ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of achieving 100% renewable energy in electrical production by 2040.

The shift in the last decade can still astonish. Several city council members, in explaining their positions, referenced a decision made by Colorado Springs in 2011 to retrofit the Drake plant with scrubbers to reduce nitrous oxide and other air pollutants. The eventual cost was $2o2 million.

Some said they were OK with the decision given the context. “Neumann scrubbers for Drake was the right decision at that time,” said Council member David Geislinger. Today, though, the city needs flexibility, he added.

The worry is that natural gas investments now will be stranded by new technologies and economics by the 2030s. “We made that mistake with the Neumann scrubbers,” said Council President Richard Skorman. Council member Yolanda Avila suggested investing “millions and millions of dollars” in a natural gas plant would be unfair to future generations. “It’s not about us. It’s about the babies that are being born and what we’re giving them.”

Natural gas was often touted as a bridge fuel. Several years ago, at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association summer meeting, a speaker who apparently didn’t get the memo about carbon emissions got lathered up and said heck, why does it have to be a bridge fuel? Let it be the fuel of the future.

The vote by the Colorado Springs City Council was a triumph for environmental groups, including 350.org and the Sierra Club. That latter several weeks ago began sending out e-mail blasts to its 1,200 members in its Pikes Peak Chapter urging support for the eventually triumphant portfolio.

Economic groups also supported the less-gas approach, among them the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC. In a message to members, it emphasized “resiliency, reliability, cost, and environmental stewardship.”

Still, Lindsay Facknitz said she found the vote to be a “little bit of a nail-biter.” She’s a member of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign who began attending the monthly planning meetings of the utility in January 2019.

An advisory council composed in part of former utility members favored a major new gas plant to replace the generation from the Nixon plant. This, she suggested, was the thinking of the previous administration at the utility.

In addition to the two plants being retired by Colorado Springs, Tri-State Generation and Transmission in January announced two of its three coal units at Craig will be retired by 2030. One was previously scheduled to shutter by 2025. Platte River Power Authority also announced definitive plans to close its Rawhide plant by 2030.

In previous years, Xcel announced plans to close Comanche 1 and 2 units at Pueblo in 2023 and 2025.

The only units currently scheduled to remain in operation in Colorado beyond 2030 are Pawnee at Brush, the two units at Hayden, and Comanche 3, all of them either fully or primarily owned by Xcel Energy.

That’s ironic, points out the Sierra Club’s Anna McDevitt, senior campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign in Colorado and New Mexico, given that Xcel Energy in 2018 drew national attention when it announced it intended to reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to 2005 levels by 2030 and 101% by mid-century.

Xcel will share its plans in Colorado next spring when it files its electric resource plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

email
Allen Best