Statewide renewable energy push creates instability for power plant workers

By Lili Weir

Workers at Colorado Springs’ coal-fired Martin Drake power plant put on brave faces this month as a push for renewable energy threatens their jobs and makes their lives more precarious.

“I really don’t have any concerns……..I will be in utilities somewhere,” plant operator  David Bertrand said. Like other workers, he says his skills needed to run a complex coal power plant easily will transfer to other positions with Colorado Springs Utilities. 

“You’ll have to drag me out kicking and screaming,” Bertrand said.

But Colorado health officials, increasingly concerned about the detrimental climate change effects of burning fossil fuels, are considering closing down coal-fired power plants statewide. And they’re “having conservations” about possibly shutting the Drake plant sooner than a current plan to decommission by 2035, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment programs director John Putnam said in a recent interview.

The Department of Health and Environment is expressing growing concern over the environmental and public health effects of the climate crisis, and the governor is beginning to implement policies to combat these effects, Putnam said.

Climate change impacts are likely to reshape Colorado by transforming ecosystems. The environment in Colorado is likely to “replicate what Albuquerque is today” in terms of the kinds of plants and animals that are able to adapt to these conditions, according to Putnam.

In addition to these ecosystem changes, Putnam and others at the State Health Department are monitoring the human health impacts of a warmer climate, including a rise in insect borne diseases such as dengue fever, heat related illnesses including heat stroke, and increases in heart trouble.

Beyond physical health, Putnam said climate impacts may affect mental health.

“Peoples mental health is tied to economic factors,” Putnam said. Economic pressure can create stress and impact people both psychologically and physically. Typically these effects manifest physically as weakened immune system, and psychologically as anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse according to a report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.  

 “There are certain things that we have to do in the short term” to reduce carbon emissions, said Putnam; particularly to meet the new standards put forth by governor Jared Polis to make Colorado 100 percent carbon neutral by 2040. Many coal fired electricity generators will be forced to retire, and the grid will become more reliant on alternative forms of energy. 

For now inside the plant they are scrambling to adapt, and instead of relying solely on burning coal for energy, they are increasingly turning to traders who predict which power sources, other than coal, will be the most efficient and easily dispatchable based on a variety of factors. Stock traders, Alex Baird and Joshua Bowen, expressed that they feel responsible for providing customers with the cheapest and most viable power options.

“It gets exciting,” said Baird. 

While some jobs in the energy industry remain competitive, it is critical to take seriously the stress caused by the dislocation of other workers in this field as they transition from what had been an honorable way of life to a future where coal generation is not economically viable, Putnam said.

Martin Drake municipal power station has been providing Colorado Spring residents with coal generated power since 1925, but with a rapidly developing downtown combined with the shift towards renewables, keeping the plant open is no longer a realistic option, plant manager Ian Gavin said in a recent interview as he sat with workers in a meeting room near the boilers of the plant.

As legislation enforces the decommissioning of the station by 2035, many employees face the reality of job displacement, and the sadness accompanying potentially leaving Martin Drake. 

“People have a lot of pride in the work that they do here,” Gavin said.


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