The changing coal industry changing people

By: Carly Valerious

As Americans awaken to the harsh realities of greenhouse gas emissions, companies that use problematic energy sources, like coal, are changing.

And workers inside the Colorado Springs coal fired Martin Drake Power Plant are wrestling with the implications of those changes. 

“Energy has flipped over on its head since I started. When I started coal was king,” plant manager Ian Gavin said, talking with five colleagues recently about in a break room the plant.

Hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide emitted as coal is burned in the plant adds to the build up of emissions of heat trapping gases around our planet. Scientists say this is driving climate change. State government officials are pushing to shut down coal plants including Drake as soon as possible. Cheaper renewable energy sources like solar power and wind are picking up speed as viable alternatives. 

The public concerns of carbon emissions are intensifying and so is the push to shut down coal plants. But, it may be a slow transition.

So what does that mean for those who work in the coal industry?

Energy traders, such as Josh Bowen, play an increasingly important role. They buy power from the broader grid generated by wind, because it’s cheaper than burning coal from the plant, saving Colorado Springs’ residents some money. While also ensuring when residence flip the switch they get light. With new challenges and goals for the future, plant workers say they expect their lives will change. 

“We cannot just shut the place down or else we are turning everyone’s lights off. Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” said Gavin. 

Bowen points to storage problems with solar energy and intermittent challenges with wind because it simply doesn’t blow all day.

The Drake plant currently provides a fourth of Colorado Springs’ electricity. Bowen emphasized that until there is a viable renewable energy alternative they cannot just shut down the plant without jeopardizing electricity for Colorado Springs’ residents. Shutting the plant down has implications we have yet to create the technology to deal with. Utilities officials said the public doesn’t realize the complexity of the situation.

The possibility of the plant being shut down is only one change the future entails.

Jim Waddle and Dave Bertrand are two employees who know the ins and outs on creating energy from coal, but they do not know the ins and outs on solar and wind. Using coal is a massive process with many steps. They do not need the same complicated skills working with renewable energy sources because the earth is creating that energy itself. 

Waddle and Bertrand’s jobs could look very different in ten years, but they are putting on a brave face.

“I am not concerned about losing my job. I know I will be in utilities somewhere,” Bertrand said with Gavin, the general manager, sitting to the left of him. 

They trust the company will have their back in the future. The plant is working hard to ensure their employees, who may soon have a different job, will not just remain employed, but be employed with the same benefits they had working at the plant and be trained with the skills needed to work with a new generation of energy.

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