Energy Industry Grows Out of Its Workers

By Rainy Adkins

Inside a powerplant boiler room that’s been converted to conference space, Martin Drake Power Station workers, managers, and energy traders shine a light on how public demand for a faster shift to clean energy is changing the lives of plant workers. 

Colorado Springs Utilities leaders have assured power plant workers whose jobs will be rendered obsolete in a rapidly changing energy industry that they will be retained for new positions.

“I don’t have any concerns. I’ve never once thought I’d be jobless,” said David Bertrand, 34-year-old power plant operator. 

 Drake Power Plant is currently scheduled to be decommissioned by 2035. That means 87 highly skilled technicians working within the plant will likely outlive their job positions as Colorado Springs shifts to relying on solar and wind power supported by battery storage. 

State Government officials are diligently working on more aggressive rule-making to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon that could be the nail in the coffin for coal power plants. Public pressure to push along this agenda has John Putnam, environmental programs director for the Colorado Department for Public Health and Environment, leaning on Drake and other power plants to drastically cut emissions by much sooner than 2035. 

Putnam shared concerns about the mental health effects of workers losing their jobs as industries change. 

“We need to take it seriously,” Putnam said. Across the state, he’s looking at pressures that could uproot people in energy industries, along with agriculture and recreation. He and his department look at potential human consequences. He’s concerned about economic stress on folks in various industries that are having to restructure because of less water, less snow, or more emission restrictions. Putnam also focuses on how rules his department makes to control air pollution, impact citizens. 

As stark changes in climate begin to present themselves and the climate crisis becomes more and more evident, it’s Putnam’s job to minimize Colorado’s contribution to greenhouse gasses and to help the state respond to climate warming. 

Colorado officials over the last decade have set into motion initiatives to shut down coal power plants statewide and eventually the Drake Power Station. He’s confident that by 2035 Xcel, a leading energy company, will reduce carbon emissions by 80%  of 2005 levels. By 2030, Putnam hopes to reduce emissions economy-wide by 50%.

Drake workers say they can see the writing on the wall.  

“Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” Drake plant manager, Ian Gavin said.

As prices for renewable energy become cheaper, Alex Baird and Josh Bowen, energy traders for Colorado Springs Utilities, are in charge of finding the cheapest energy for Colorado Springs citizens. They explained how, currently, although wind and solar energy are cheap they are unreliable and often must be supplemented with coal or gas. When events like the recent fire at Drake happen, energy traders’ jobs get “exciting,” according to Bowen who grinned at the thought of the intense number crunching and panic that ensues when they are faced with connecting consumers to energy generated outside Colorado Springs while maintaining a low price. 

“It’s very serious because when you turn on your light we want your light to turn on,” Baird said. 

Energy trading jobs are fairly secure with a transition away from coal or gas energy. Baird and Bowen say they expect to maintain their jobs with any disruption. Other workers like Gavin and Bertrand are relying on the Colorado Springs Utilities to rehire them in different positions. Bertrand said he is confident his skill set will carry over to the gas or water divisions of Utilities, or that Utilities will have an internship program ready to train him.

But the looming end of coal power does hit hard for some workers. 

Gavin said, “People have a lot of pride in the work that they do here… knowing that their skill set is being put into practical application, and to think of that going away… it hurts a little bit.”

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