By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
COLORADO SPRINGS » Eighteen coal-fired power plants down. Another dozen to go as Colorado shifts its electricity supply system off fossil fuels.
The latest shutdown at the massive Martin Drake Power Plant in downtown Colorado Springs last week brings the share of electricity generated by burning coal statewide to less than 36%, federal Energy Information Administration data shows.
That’s down from 68% a decade ago, although Colorado still lags behind the national 19% share. The state’s remaining coal plants are scheduled to close by 2040.
“If we can do this in the heart of the West, in a state that used to be one of the most reliant on coal generation, states across the nation can do it too,” Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said.
A growing reliance on solar and wind energy alternatives “can be leveraged,” Toor said, for electric vehicles and electricpowered heating of buildings.
Air along Colorado’s Front Range no longer will be infused with the pollution that for nearly 100 years has risen from Drake’s towering chimneys.
This means 201 tons a year less sulfur dioxide, 25 tons less lung-clogging particulates, 257 tons less carbon monoxide and 1,007 tons less nitrogen oxides that lead to ozone smog, according to data from state air-quality-control officials.
Drake emitted more than 1.3 million tons a year of pollutants overall, including carbon dioxide and smaller amounts of benzene, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid and chloroform, state data shows.
Shifting beyond coal “will help improve air quality nearby and across the state,” state Department of Public Health and the Environment director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said.
Drake for decades has loomed as one of the nation’s last urban industrial coal plants.
City-run utility crews relied on coal, burning up to 3,000 tons a day, to handle up to a third of local electricity demands.
For now, utility workers are focusing on a delicate transition. They will supply electricity temporarily using portable natural gas generators, along with coal-fired power from the Ray Nixon power plant southeast of the city. The coal unit there isn’t scheduled to close until 2029.
“The time is right. The day has come for new energy solutions,” Mayor John Suthers declared at a ceremonial gathering with city leaders.
About 50 people worked at the plant. Ten left or retired, and 39 found new positions within Colorado Springs Utilities, although not necessarily at the same pay.
Dismantling Drake will open about 50 acres along Fountain Creek in the heart of Colorado Springs, where leaders have created the America the Beautiful Park, a new soccer stadium and the Olympics Museum just north of the plant.
Future uses of that site depend on cleanup, followed by land and creek habitat restoration.
When the chimneys come down, contractors will inject bleach 18 inches deep in the ground, and soil will be imported to the site, Colorado Springs Utilities chief executive Aram Benyamin said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency, state health officials and community groups for years have pressed Colorado Springs leaders to cut pollution from Drake, particularly sulfur dioxide.
But government agencies never ordered a shutdown. In the end, cost as well as the environment played a role, as City Council members last year voted to close Drake before their previously scheduled deadline of 2035.