As Sustainable Energy Closes in on the Coal Industry, Workers at Drake Martin Power Plant Find Comfort in Their Business

By Sam Bower

COLORADO SPRINGS – Sitting in the conference room with its drop ceiling hiding evidence of the relic boiler that used to occupy the space, workers in Colorado Springs’ coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant grappled with the impending 2035 decommissioning as part of a shift toward cleaner energy.

“This is home,” plant manager Ian Gavin said. “What am I going to do once the place shuts down?”

Everyone is counting on Colorado Springs utilities to reabsorb workers who concentrated on coal-fired generation of electricity into new operations involving renewable energy. With its staff of nearly 1800 employees, Colorado Springs Utilities has been historically good at reabsorbing employees into the ranks when their jobs become obsolete. Amy Trinidad, who works with Communications explained that when meter readers became automated, many of the employees who formerly had this job were pulled back into the ranks and retrained by Colorado Springs utilities for another position.

As alternative energy generation gains momentum in Colorado Springs, including newer solar fields just southeast of the city, Martin Drake workers say Colorado Springs Utilities will re-train them to be able to make livings in new energy generation.

Colorado health officials are ramping up statewide efforts to reduce air pollution including greenhouse gas emissions. John Putnam, Director of environment programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said he is very aware of the plan to decommission Martin Drake in 2035, and even plans to meet with Colorado Springs city officials to discuss an accelerated decommissioning.

The employees in the plant say they’re aware of the problems that are causing their plant to face decommissioning – the growing global concerns about the worsening climate warming caused by the burning of fuels such as coal. They also expressed an awareness that the timetable for closing the plant is out of their own control. Power plant workers said such notions as proposed by Putnam may need a reality check:

“It’s taken us 100 years to get where we are,” Gavin said, “We can’t just finish overnight.”

Solar and wind power are intermittent and sometimes need coal power to fill in the gaps.

The employees at Martin Drake said they enjoy what they do. They have all made careers out of their work at the power plant, which required years of education and training in a competitive industry. Although they can easily find jobs in solar and wind energy, they said it will not be the same for them.

Working on the grid with diverse methods of generation excites Joshua Bowen, a day-ahead energy trader who spends his days traveling around to different plants and predicting how much energy must be generated in the near future by any given plant in order to satisfy the customers. When there is “excitement”, such as a fire somewhere in the grid, figuring out how to allocate and distribute energy becomes more consequential and high-paced.

Working in wind or solar would be fine for them, said Jim Waddle, a shift supervisor at the plant, but the large boilers and generators in the plant are products of the early 1900’s, making them inherently more interesting to work with than a modern solar panel. “It’s neat to know the whole entire plant,” he said.

“I really don’t have any concerns,” said David Bertrand, a power plant operator. Bertrand plans on simply getting retrained to generate a new type of power, come 2035. Mostly everything in the plant is manually controlled by workers like Bertrand, who is kept on his toes during a 12-hour shift, working hard to get people the energy they need: making sure all of the gaps in solar and wind energy are filled by coal power. Bertrand, like the other employees said he likes working at the plant.

“People have a lot of pride in the work they do here,” Gavin said, flanked by some of his colleagues. “It’s like a second family, almost.”





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