COLORADO SPRINGS – An October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that in order to minimize drastic changes in Earth’s climate, electricity production from coal must make up less than 2 percent of total electricity generation by the year 2050.
Yet utilities around the country rely on coal to produce 30 percent of the electricity they deliver to Americans, according to the government’s Energy Administration. And while cities like Colorado Springs are transitioning to cleaner fuels like natural gas, they’re having a harder time getting started with renewables like solar and wind.
“We have a very diversified portfolio, very cutting edge,” Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) Public Relations Chief Amy Trinidad said.
But other utilities may be moving away from coal much faster. California has gone so far as to attempt to ban electricity use from all coal-burning sources. Colorado Springs, meanwhile, still runs two coal plants.
Coal is a large producer of the heat trapping gas carbon dioxide, which scientists say is a driver of global climate change. It also produces sulfur dioxide, a pollutant which causes health problems including asthma and other respiratory issues.
CSU officials have decided to decommission the Martin Drake coal-fired plant in downtown Colorado Springs by 2035. The Ray Nixon coal-fired plant, a tangle of pipes and smokestacks rising incongruously above prairie dog colonies on the grassland south of the city, has no mandated closing date.
“None of us ever thought a [coal] revival was going to happen,” said CSU’s chief environmental officer David Padgett. “Nixon is not going to run forever.”
But the plant has long-term coal supply contracts that project 10-15 years in the future. It will likely remain in operation for the next several decades, CSU officials said.
The future of energy is market-driven, according to Padgett. Colorado Springs opened the Front Range natural gas plant in 2003, in order to decrease water usage and carbon dioxide output. It’s also a power source that’s economically comparable to coal.
Natural gas costs between $18 and $19 per megawatt produced, while coal is slightly cheaper at $16-$17 per megawatt, utilities officials said. Solar power is significantly more expensive at $31 per megawatt. Wind power can cost between $30-$40 per megawatt.
“It comes down to what are we willing to pay?” Nixon operations manager Rob Rawson said.
The prices of coal and natural gas are expected to remain relatively constant over the next few decades. Renewable energy, unless people are willing to pay significantly more for their power, may never truly become economically viable.
Ratepayers typically have about a 1% bill impact tolerance for renewables, Padgett said. And CSU officials say any significant transition to renewables, unless the economic landscape undergoes a drastic shift, will cost customers more than that.
Colorado Springs is attempting to use more renewable energy. It’s newest solar array to date is located on the Clear Spring Ranch facility, with 42,000 panels and a 10 megawatt capacity, enough to power 3,000 homes per year. Other solar projects include community solar gardens, solar credits purchased from other areas, and a 35 megawatt solar and battery project expected to come online in late 2019.
In accordance with their “Energy Vision,” Colorado Springs plans to source over 20 percent of its electricity production from renewables by 2020. Colorado state law requires only 10 percent of electricity to be sourced from renewables.
But even the officials overseeing the solar project said they doubt electricity can ever be produced exclusively from renewables.
“I’m not sure the world can ever get there,” said Warren Seese, CSU solar project manager.
He says that although Colorado Springs can offset fossil fuel use by purchasing renewable energy credits, they will still depend on fossil fuels as a backup source of energy. Current technology surrounding wind and solar still suffer from problems with transmission and storage. And while energy consumption in the United States remains relatively steady, worldwide energy consumption continues to increase.
“I’m afraid the demand for energy will outpace efficiency,” Padgett said.