Shutdown angst inside Colorado Springs’ coal power plant workers

By Whitton Feer

As the energy industry shifts away from burning coal, the people working in Colorado Springs’ Martin Drake power plant face a future in which their skills are growing irrelevant.

The Drake plant is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2035, according to Colorado Springs Utilities officials. That threatens the jobs of the 87 employees.

Mulling the prospect of losing their jobs in a recent interview, workers seemed unworried.

“I really don’t have any concerns,” said David Bertrand, 34, a power plant operator dressed in heavy canvas work clothes and hardhat. A radio in his chest pocket periodically interrupted him as he spoke.

He said he finds security in the diversifying energy portfolio of municipally-owned Colorado Springs Utilities. The workers there are already looking for new job possibilities within the company, including options in wind, hydro and solar power. 

However, “not everything is rainbows and unicorns,”  plant manager Ian Gavin said, acknowledging the possibility of job losses that could be painful.

“This is home,” he said. “What am I going to do when the place goes down?” 

Gavin said he is confident he will be able to find another job in the energy sector. But he is still apprehensive about the future. He has worked there since 2006, a time when coal was still the cheapest form of energy and decommissioning the plant wasn’t on the table.

“It’s tough, we have the cards we’ve been dealt,” said Gavin.

The Colorado government is pushing hard to shift away from coal, according to John Putnam, the director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who revealed in an interview that he is looking into expediting Martin Drake’s decommissioning. 

“Colorado Springs is barely under the ozone standards right now,” said Putnam, who cited meeting air quality standards as one of his main concerns.

This puts pressure on the employees, as they are well aware that they work in a dying subset of the energy industry.

“Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” said Gavin.

Until renewable energy technology is a viable option to provide electricity for the city, the power plant will remain operational regardless of outside pressure, said energy trader Josh Bowen. The employees stressed that the current demand for electricity cannot currently be satisfied without coal generated electricity from Martin Drake. They say the plant’s decommissioning is not an immediate worry for them. 

The employees at the plant are confident that their skills will transfer to other positions within Colorado Springs Utilities and say they are open to working with the new energy sources required to comply with new regulations.

Many feel that the energy industry is where they belong.

“I will be in utilities somewhere. I like it here. They treat me well,” said Bertrand. “They’ll have to drag me out kicking and screaming.”

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