Coal Plant Employees Share their Experience in a Changing Industry

By Emily Stamper 

Five men and a woman sat inside the 1925 boiler room at the Colorado Springs’ Coal-Fired Power Plant, seemingly excited to share their experience. Each held a plastic cup of filtered water.

One of them, plant manager Ian Gavin, got his start in nuclear power school. He then moved to the coal plant where he has worked for 13 years. 

“The energy industry has basically flipped over on its head since I started. When I started, coal was king,” Gavin said. However, coal has now been deprioritized to often cheaper and cleaner energy alternatives such as solar and wind. Despite coal’s negative impact on the environment when burned, Gavin and his coworkers take pride in their work and say they love their jobs. 

Gavin said that the main reason the employees at the plant feel proud of their work is because their skills are being used for something important. The employees at the Power Plant are anxious to see coal go.

However, the reason they are anxious isn’t necessarily because they are worried about losing their jobs. They genuinely enjoy working at the coal plant.

They work 12 hour shifts together, which brings them very close. Gavin said it feels like home and “like a family almost.”

The employees also enjoy working in coal because there is a lot more that goes into it than other energies. “It is like an older car, you actually get the feel of it…there’s something about that,” Gavin said. Compared to solar, where the sun simply hits the panel, coal is fun and complicated. 

Talking about decommissioning does make Gavin wonder where he will go, but he knows he will get more work. He reassures himself that he has the skills to apply across other divisions. 

David Bertrand, the power plant operator, is only 34, but looks much older after years at the plant. He knows he has the skills for other work in the field as well, “I never once thought I’d be jobless. I will be in utilities somewhere,” said Bertrand. 

Times are changing in Colorado Springs and all across the country. New

generations of energy are pushing out coal and fossil fuels. Gavin said that years ago they never would’ve expected this, “we were just going to run it until the wheels fell off.”

Due to demands for cleaner energy, the plant itself began to reduce emissions back in 2006 and 2007. The sulfur dioxide levels at the plant dropped because of improvements made to combustion control. 

Solar energy in the Springs is starting to become very popular. The problem with solar energy is that it is great when the sun is shining. When California switched from coal to solar they had to start importing a lot of their energy. Alex Baird, an energy trader, said, “when solar drops off at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, our coal goes up.” 

The Colorado Springs Coal-Fired Plant is currently supplies a quarter of the city’s power. There is a lot of pressure in the coal industry to keep that energy going, despite the demand for cleaner energy.

 “If someone turns their light on they want that light to go on,” said Joshua Bowen, another energy trader. If the plant just shut down, then a quarter of the city wouldn’t have lights, he said. It isn’t possible for coal production to stop until there are new energy generations in place, the workers said. 

Yet, cleaner energy is getting cheaper. “Times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure,” said Gavin. It is impossible to have an instant switch from coal to solar or wind. The supply does not meet the demand, Gavin said. They emphasize that a shift to clean energy can’t just happen overnight. 

Nobody at the plant knows what the future will look like with all the new energies, but Gavin said he hopes that in 2035 “We have the new generation in place…solar, wind and batteries.” Everyone else agreed. As much as they enjoy working in the coal industry, they can hear the public’s desires and are ready for the future. 


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