By Johnna Geick
With fossil fuel emissions driving global warming, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is pushing hard to transition to cleaner, renewable energy state-wide. But closer to home, workers at the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant under Colorado Springs Utilities challenged the practicality of immediate change.
Colorado aims to cut emissions in half by 2030, according to John Putnam, director of environmental programs at CDPHE. The combustion of fuels like coal releases heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere, meaning coal-fired power plants are leaders in harmful emissions.
The Martin-Drake plant is already scheduled for decommissioning no later than 2035, but with the ambitious deadline for Colorado’s atmospheric standards quickly approaching, Putnam said that such a date might not be soon enough.
“This is the busiest that the Air Quality Control Committee has been in decades, if not ever,” said Putnam. “Communities must make transitions towards newer forms of energy,”.
Putnam stressed the effects that lower air quality and warming can have on human health. As temperatures rise, so does the risk for insect borne diseases, as insects thrive in warmer regions. Heat-related stress such as heat-strokes will become more prevalent, especially among youth and the elderly. Warming is likely to cause economic stress, as agriculture essential to the region might no longer be viable in a shifting climate. In response, we’re likely to see a rise in mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse.
But the immediacy of the need for change has placed stress on power plants relying on coal, and the people working for them.
“The energy industry industry has flipped on its head. When I started, coal was king,” said Martin Drake plant manager Ian Gavin. With decommissioning just ahead, plant workers must be retrained to ensure them economic security of their own, finding new work in a cleaner energy industry.
“Decommissioning brings feelings of, “What am I going to do when this place closes down?”” said Gavin. Luckily, Colorado Springs Utilities handles the city’s waste, wastewater, and gas in addition to electricity, so options for workers to stay local and economically secure are accessible.
Still, the push for quick change in the energy industry might cause some to overlook logistic challenges. For example, energy sources like solar and wind are less reliable than coal, according to CSU energy traders Alex Baird and Joshua Bowen.
“When solar drops off, our load goes up. How do we fill that gap?” asked Baird. Because solar energy storing batteries are “at their infancy,” according to Baird, a shift to solar without improvement in battery technology could increase the potential for power outages in the Colorado Springs area.
In regards to wind energy, we’re “getting better at forecasting wind generation, but its not perfect,” said Bowen.
The necessity of cleaner energy sources is undoubtedly necessary to maintain the health of Colorado’s environment and residents — both Putnam and the CSU employees can agree upon this. Where they find themselves split is the issue of just how soon a shift can happen, practically. “We need to drastically reduce the amount of coal by generation to meet our 2030 goals,” said Putnam. But Gavin says, “Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure… we’re getting there, it’s just not going to be today or tomorrow”.
It looks like Colorado is banking on technological advancements and further developments in the field of clean energy to carry us to the 2030 goals. Certainly this is not a signal to give up, but rather to recognize that the work is not done to get us where we want to go in terms of environmental policy.