By Rachel Colchete
In a conference room inside Colorado Springs’ coal-burning Martin Drake power plant, five utility workers sat across from a group of Colorado College students clutching notebooks—barriers that seemed to separate the students from the workers who feel misunderstood by the public.
The Drake plant has become a hot topic within Colorado Springs. Billowing white clouds of steam rising from the plant take up almost as much space in conversation as they do in the sky. Although the plant is set to be decommissioned no later than 2035, many residents are pushing to have the plant shut down earlier due to the risks it poses to environmental and public health.
“Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” said Ian Gavin, manager of the plant.
The key question is how fast the city can ramp up solar and wind as alternative sources of energy. “It’s not gonna be instant,” Gavin said.
Colorado Springs Utilities employs 1,800 workers overall, including 87 workers at Drake. The views of workers are seldom heard. To understand the controversy around Drake, students begin by looking at the impact of the looming transition on the workers whose lives are sustained by the plant.
Gavin sat prominently in the middle of the panel in a white shirt and jacket. To his right sat two young energy traders, smiling as they answered questions. To Gavin’s left, distinct from the rest of the group with their dark blue jumpsuits and more subdued presence during the conversation, sat a shift manager and a plant operator.
The prospect of the power plant shutting down threatens the coal-related jobs of the workers. Gavin said that he and the two employees to his left all studied nuclear power in school. Their skills, he claimed, can be applied to various positions within the electrical, gas, wastewater, and water treatment fields across the nation. Workers in the plant also may receive training to ease their transition to new jobs after Drake’s closure.
But promised job security does not alleviate all of the workers’ worries. For Gavin, moving to a job in a different part of the country is not the most comforting thought.
“This is home,” he said.
David Bertrand, the power plant operator, agreed with this sentiment. When he assessed working at Drake, he had positive things to say. His job is one that is hard to get into, supervisors treat him well—all better than other jobs available in the city, he said.
“They’d have to drag me out kicking and screaming.”
Not only do workers feel attached to Colorado Springs and the benefits Colorado Springs Utilities provides, but the work they do with coal is fulfilling to them. Compared with wind power, there’s “a lot more to it with coal,” plant shift leader Jim Waddle said.
The work employees do in the plant is often multi-faceted and allows them to use all of their skills. Workers take pride in working on a turbine or in a boiler room, Gavin said.
The well-being of Drake’s workers is not completely overlooked by public officials. During a video interview the day prior, Director of Environment Programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) John Putnam weighed in on the issue of transitioning from environmentally damaging energy sources such as coal to renewable resources.
“Dislocation of moving from what was an honorable way of life needs to be supported,” Putnam said.
Yet Putnam’s sympathy for the power plant workers did not sway his opinions regarding the importance of the plant being shut down. Stressing the impact that operations such as coal power plants had on Colorado’s environment and human health, Putnam revealed that he planned to “take a harder look” at the original decommissioning timeline and discuss the possibility of moving the deadline for Martin Drake’s closure up to 2030.
Because CDPHE plans to reduce emissions by 80% for all utilities in the state by 2030, Colorado needs to drastically reduce coal to meet compliance of 2030 goals, Putnam said.
Utility workers understand the public’s urgency in wanting the plant shut down and are trying to comply with that plea to the best of their ability, but shutting down the plant right away is just not a viable option, they said. Because Drake supplies a quarter of the city’s electricity, plant workers feel they first need to figure out how to supply enough generation from resources such as solar and wind before shutting down their coal plant. They have concerns regarding the impact on ratepayers if they close operations prematurely.
“We cannot just shut the place down or else we are turning everyone’s lights off,” said Gavin.