Colorado Springs Utilities has committed to closing the coal-fired portions of the Martin Drake Power Plant by 2023 -12 years earlier than originally planned - and investing significantly more in renewable energy. The Ray Nixon plant, south of the city, will be converted to non-carbon resources by 2030. The goal is for the utility to achieve 80 percent carbon reduction by 2030, as called for under new state rules made last year, and set a course for 90 percent renewable energy generation by 2050.
Clean energy advocates like Amy Gray with 350 Colorado, an advocacy group focused on solving the climate crisis, see the moves as a big change from the utility's previous direction. She says the oil and gas industry usually makes the rules.
"We're outspent and outgunned a lot of the time," she says, referencing her work with 350 Colorado. "But this is an example of how people-power really works and how this group of people can come together...and advocate for something that they believe in and work hard towards a goal and accomplish it."
Drake, as the plant is known locally, has been a prominent part of the Colorado Springs skyline for nearly a century, and is one of the last urban-sited coal plants in the U.S. The tall industrial towers, metal framework and billowing clouds of steam rise up near the growing downtown. In recent years, the operations at the Martin Drake Power Plant have slowly switched gears as coal units were retired and new technologies came online. Once the plant is closed, new infrastructure will be required, both to generate power and to get it to homes and businesses.
The plan is to replace the coal-fired power with temporary natural gas generators that will be set up at the site, something Gray says is rational because a switch from fossil fuels can't come immediately.
"We are really excited that they decided not to replace the coal with a gas fired power plant," she says. "I cried. It was monumental."
A switch to 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions will come by 2050, including wind, solar, and battery storage.
Scott Harvey serves on the committee that makes policy recommendations to the Colorado Springs Utilities board, which is also city council. Harvey was careful to say that his opinions don't represent those of the committee, but he agrees with Gray.
"[The current board members] see the writing on the wall that our energy future is going to be much different, much cleaner and employ a lot more different solutions than just burning stuff that has been the pattern of the past," Harvey says.
Two board members did vote against the change, though, including Andy Pico, who on council represents the east side of the city. In an email, he said it's "extremely risky" to rely on significant technology breakthroughs in battery storage and solar power to make the project happen on a set schedule. Those same risks were identified by the Utilities Policy Advisory Committee, but for Scott Harvey, the changes put Colorado Springs in a better position than maintaining the status quo.
"I would say in the past, Colorado Springs Utilities has done the least it needs to do to not be a really bad looking entity out there," he says. "They lobbied hard when we had what was called a renewable portfolio standard that came out years ago requiring more renewable energy. They lobbied to have the least amount."
Many, including Gray and Harvey, see Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin as the driving force toward renewables. He has been with the utility since 2015 and has served as CEO for the past two years. He says his threshold for decision making is whether or not the outcome will be good for the public.
"The public owns this public agency and the public has said what's on their mind as far as what they want to see what the future holds," he explains. "So we are basically implementing what we heard the public say that they want to be looking like 10, 20, 30 years from now."
That also includes employees of Colorado Springs Utilities. Once the changes are finalized at Drake, Benyamin says only four workers will be needed to keep it going. Right now, the facility needs about 80. But, per the approved plan, no one will lose their job.
"I think it's a very important distinction that we can do all those things with the honor of keeping our employees, inclusive of their capabilities, of their training and everything, and make sure that we always put them on top of the priority, to make sure that they're not paying the price of this transition," he says.
The city plans to demolish the Martin Drake Power Plant completely by 2025, if not sooner. Benyamin says future uses of the site are still in the works, and depending on the lingering effects from years of burning coal and potential spills on the property, the city will likely have to foot the bill for clean up.
The switch to renewable energy will bring an additional cost to customers - an increase of 3 percent over the next 10 years. But overall, prices for renewable power are quickly dropping as technologies for storage are becoming more cost-effective. That's projected to make this new path cheaper for Colorado Springs Utilities in the long run.
For Amy Gray, it's a win-win situation.
"By doing this thoughtfully and thinking it through and making sure that there's innovation and room for improvement by not building any new fossil fuel infrastructure, it really shows where our society and where this city is headed," she says.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Colorado Springs Utilities planned to switch fully to to renewable energy. A 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions is planned by 2050. The cost to customers was also incorrectly identified.
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