Energy Conundrum: The Future of Coal As Solar Gains Popularity

COLORADO SPRINGS- The Ray Nixon Power Plant, located on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, exemplifies what it means to be using coal, one of the oldest and dirtiest resources, in the midst of a present day push to shift away from fossil fuels.

Driving into the plant, all is calm. Open prairie stretches for miles on either side of the dirt road and Pikes Peak rises gracefully in the distance. From far away, Nixon looks a bit like a whimsical factory. It is made up of twisting pipes with steam billowing out the top.

Nixon receives and processes 3,500 tons of coal per day, turning it into energy to power a rapidly the growing city.

Coal has increasingly been targeted by federal health officials as the dirtiest source of electricity. Burning coal releases gases such as mercury, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the air, according to the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists. These gases can exacerbate breathing problems and contribute to global warming.

Why, then, does Nixon continue to use coal and how do they mitigate their environmental impacts?

Cost is a huge factor in deciding which energy source to use, according to Ron Rawson, operations supervisor at Nixon. Coal costs the least and remains reliable.

Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) produces electricity using a diverse portfolio of resources:  42 percent coal, 54 percent natural gas, and only 4 percent from renewable sources.

The renewable energy lies in solar.

Just south of the Nixon coal plant, utility contractors recently installed 4,200 solar panels. Row upon row of neatly laid out solar panels bake in the sun on a recent bright October day. There is no loud noise, no smoke released, and no hard hats necessary. In fact, the solar farm is managed remotely from Arizona.

But there are limits to the seemingly serene solar array.

“What happens if the sun goes behind a cloud?” Rawson said.

He is referring to both the weather-reliant nature of solar power and to the expense of the lithium batteries used to store solar energy.

The solar farm reaches its full capacity 24 percent of the time and can supply up to 17% of the households in Colorado Springs, according to Warren Seese, manager of the solar project for CSU.

And the people making the tough decisions about how to power our city?

A team of bearded men, all wearing jeans and sporting baseball caps. They faced a group of visitors and spoke with knowledge and passion about their careers as the people in charge of power plants.

Inside the Nixon Plant, crews go about their work as if the plant will run forever. They emphasize safety. They adhere to standards, including regulations put in place by the Clean Air Act.

But they also see changes ahead.

There are plans in place to slowly retrain the 78 coal plant employees to work in renewable energy.

Solar has a lot of potential, according to Seese, as he stands in front of the shimmering solar panels.

“My dream would be a self-sustainable house,” Seese said.

“I also have this crazy idea of putting solar trees in places where the tree cover is too dense to capture any real sunlight. I love thinking about sustainable options.”

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