Coal plant employees feel misunderstood

By Mitchell Adams 

Employees at the coal-burning Martin Drake Power Station in Colorado Springs say they feel misunderstood by climate activists who view burning fossil fuels negatively due to their prolific emission of harmful greenhouse gasses. 

“We have the cards that we’ve been dealt,” said Ian Gavin, the manager of the power plant, while discussing the previous dependence on fossil fuels seen in Colorado, and how these outdated methods of power generation still are needed for the community to function. 

The Drake Power Station burns coal and provides about a quarter of the city’s energy, according to Gavin. The Colorado Springs Utilities service, which operates the Drake plant, plans to completely shut down the plant by the year 2035 at the latest, due to changing standards on emissions. The power station currently employs 87 people, according to Gavin. 

Over a Skype call, John Putnam, the director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment discussed emissions reductions throughout the state, focusing on the energy sector, which includes the Drake plant. 

“We need to reduce emissions economy-wide by 50% by 2030, to do that we probably need a bigger chunk of emissions reductions from the electricity generation sector,” Putnam said.

Gavin said that he had worked at the power plant for 13 years and hadn’t heard any talk of decommissioning until four or five years ago. Now, the thought is very much on his mind, he said. 

Burning coal, which releases high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, has become the target of many environmental activists, who demand fast-acting measures. “To me, it’s like times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” Gavin said.

 If the coal plant were to shut down today, a quarter of homes on the grid would lose power. 

Gavin, and his co-worker Joshua Bowen, who is a day-ahead energy trader, someone who makes sure that energy will be available at an affordable rate in the future, discussed how it is a point of pride in their jobs to provide power whenever a switch is flipped. “For me personally, if our units go offline, I think of local hospitals, the people that are in their houses with medical equipment that they need to power,” Gavin said. 

Before the Drake station can be shut down, new power generation methods need to be integrated to allow the grid to continue to function. “We hear you, we are changing the infrastructure we are changing how we make generation, it’s just not instant,” Gavin said.

There are still questions surrounding the grid’s future dependence on solar and wind.

 “Solar and wind are intermittent, how do we integrate that into our portfolio with dispatchable resources to meet our load, you know, when solar drops off at 5 in the afternoon, our load is going up, so how do we fill that gap?” Said Alex Baird, the energy trading supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities. 

As far as filling the gap goes, the consumers may play a role. “We need the customers to help us get where we want to go,” said Amy Trinidad, a Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson. It may be the case that at certain times, consumers are asked to heavily reduce their energy usage, in order to help ease the grid into these newer generation methods. 

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