COLORADO SPRINGS – A large, blue generator sits in the middle of an empty industrial floor. The side is adorned with a faded Colorado Springs Utilities sign. The 297,000 horsepower General Electric turbine emits a constant roar, bouncing sound off a maze of pipes and echoing of the high cement ceiling.
While the generator room at the Nixon Power Plant looks like something out of the industrial revolution, the adjacent control room looks like it would be at home on the Starship Enterprise. Every quantifiable measure from the plant’s coal-based power production is displayed around the room on an assortment of monitors and screens.
This convergence of old and new technologies acts as an analog to a larger trend within Colorado Springs Utilities. With growing pressure to transition to renewable energy sources balanced by cost incentives for staying with fossil fuels, the utility is forced make a tough decision: continue to spend money on retrofitting it’s coal plants or begin to heavily invest in renewables.
“As long as there aren’t mandates that say this plant has to go away… I think [the decision] will be market driven, absent regulatory changes,” says Dave Padgett, chief environmental services officer for Colorado Springs Utilities. According to Padgett, coal is still the cheapest method of production, and with consumer’s price concerns paramount, a full transition to renewable energy may still be years or decades out.
“One percent bill impact range. That’s what they figure the tolerance is now,” Padgett says. This perceived product immobility played a large role in the utilities’ recent decision to invest just under $300 million in gas scrubbers and retrofits for the Nixon and Drake power plants.
“Our CO2 emissions have decreased by 25% in the last decade” says Rob Rawson, operations superintendent at the Nixon plant. These improvements maintain the plant’s compliance with the Clean Air Act, says Rawson, but they also suggest a long-term commitment to coal and natural gas. A commitment which is reinforced by decade long contracts with Wyoming coal producers.
According to Padgett however, the biggest hurdle in transitioning to solar or other renewables is not contracts or previous investments, but the cost of overhauling local infrastructure.
“You need to change and invest in the electric grid if we want to transition,” says Padgett, “and you still need a base load that backs up renewables.” He estimates the cost of this transition could be as high as $1 billion. Contributing to this high price tag are the emerging technologies required to convert a large grid to renewable energy, including high-capacity batteries and more efficient solar cells.
With cost in mind, Colorado Springs Utilities has opted to take a supplemental approach to renewable energy. Just south of the Nixon coal plant sits the newly constructed Clear Spring Ranch solar array.
With 42,000 solar panels, the utility aims to increase their renewable energy mix from the current 11 percent of overall energy generation, to more than 20 percent by 2020. As of now however, solar only accounts for .5 percent of total energy output.
As climate scientists warn of the increasingly detrimental impact climate change will have, the pressure is on for Padgett and Colorado Springs Utilities to make a change. Padgett acknowledges the possibility of impending climatic disaster, but says it is up to consumers to make the change.
“What are we willing to pay to make sure that it doesn’t happen?”