Colorado Springs Utilities Looking Forward

On the floor of Colorado Springs Utilities Ray Nixon coal-fired power plant. PHOTO Nick Penzel

COLORADO SPRINGS–Sitting in the heart of the coal-fired Ray Nixon power plant, a giant blue General Electric generator, spinning at 3,600 revolutions per minute, churns out 225 megawatts of electricity for residents of a growing city.

This was state-of-the-art electrical generation when the plant opened.

Three decades later, the generator stands out as a relic from the glory days of coal. A work crew – dwarfed under a super-high ceiling amid an enveloping roar and vibrations – tends to the machinery.

Next to the Nixon plant, the natural gas-powered Front Range plant that opened in 2003 can produce up to 480 megawatts of energy.

Superintendent Bill Sunderland, standing in front of the relatively uninhabited natural gas plant, said it uses less water than Nixon and only takes ten minutes to ramp from low to full capacity. Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) officials say it burns fossil fuels at 60 percent efficiency compared with 42 percent efficiency at Nixon. Front Range looks the part of a futuristic power source. Massive silvery towers jut against the blue sky. Messes of tubes feed into transformers.

A few miles south of Nixon and Front Range, CSU has installed 42,000 solar panels on a 130-acre former ranch. These produce about 10 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 3,000 homes. The rows upon rows of panels sit quietly on the prairie. The sunlight glints off a contractor’s truck moving through the array of solar panels.

The solar array represents CSU’s most recent foray into renewable energy. CSU has been criticized for being outdated, clinging too hard to the old coal-fired systems. Drake power plant, CSU’s other partially coal-fired plant, stands out as one of a few coal plants left that still operate in a downtown metropolis. Colorado Springs city council has directed CSU officials to move towards renewables.

“That path has been set in this country in terms of what our energy future looks like and where we are moving to in terms of renewables,” CSU chief environmental service officer Dave Padgett said. During a recent visit, Padgett wore work boots and jeans and joined utility crews at the Nixon and Front Range plants with snow-capped Pikes Peak in the background.

“None of us ever believed that just because the current administration might have sent a message that they wanted there to be a revival in coal that practically speaking that was ever going to happen,” Padgett said.

But the transition will take time, he said. “You can’t build things that quickly. You can’t ramp up that quickly.”   

The Drake plant is set to be decommissioned by 2035 at the latest to be replaced with more natural gas and solar. Nixon “is not going to run forever,” Padgett said.

The conflicting energy interests nationally and globally are dictated by the people rather than policymakers, Padgett said. Electricity produced at the new solar farm costs about $31 per megawatt hour while Nixon provides electricity for about $16-17 per megawatt hour and Front Range can make electricity for $18-20 per megawatt hour depending on gas prices.

“What are we willing to pay?” Nixon superintendent Rob Rawson said. “Do we care that the Earth is doomed by 2030? I’m not going to argue that. What are you willing to pay to make sure that doesn’t happen? That’s the real question.”

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