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City council to consider role of natural gas beyond 2030 after two plants close

by Allen Best

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The role of natural gas as a bridge fuel will inevitably be part of the discussion on Friday morning, June 26, when the Colorado Springs City Council takes up plans for the city’s municipal utility.

The city’s Utility Policy Advisory Council and advocates back plans for closing the Martin Drake Plant, which is located near the city’s center, by 2023, and then closing the newer Ray Nixon plant, which is about 15 miles south of the city center, by 2030.

The Drake plant has two units, constructed in 1968 and 1974, while the Nixon plant has one unit, completed in 1980. Together, the units have a total generating capacity of not quite 400 megawatts, according to Wikipedia.

If the city council goes forward with that plan, Xcel Energy will have the only coal plants still scheduled for operation after 2030. It owns Pawnee altogether, and has majority interest in the Hayden units and in Comanche 3.

The advisory group’s recommended portfolio, No. 16, calls for replacing generation at the Drake Plant with smaller generators that burn natural gas, using technology adapted by General Electric from jet engines to electrical generation. The technology is called Aeroderivative. A new gas plant is proposed to replace the generation from the Nixon plant. Together, the natural gas generation would total 500 megawatts.

The Sierra Club, which has had a notable presence at meetings, has advocated for portfolio No. 17. It would have less gas and more wind, said Anna McDevitt, the senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative in Colorado and New Mexico.

“Other utilities are retiring coal and replacing with renewables only,” she said in prepared remarks at last week’s meeting. Portfolio 17 “would allow Colorado Springs utilities to catch up to what the rest of the state is doing. Not to mention, CSU’s own data shows that in 2030, gas would hardly be used more in portfolios with the gas plant than portfolio 17 without a new gas plant…”

What is at stake here?

In other words, she said in a later interview, choosing the recommended portfolio will force ratepayers to run a gas plant that is rarely operated.

The same note was struck by Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy energy advisor at Western Resource Advocates. She worries natural gas infrastructure will end up being stranded by emerging technology.

She suggests competitive bidding, allowing wind, solar, and storage to compete directly against fossil fuels. They can effectively compete on cost against both existing natural gas generation as well as new natural gas, so that existing gas can be used more as a backup than baseload.

Black Hills Energy, the utility that serves the Pueblo-Canon City area, is testing that out with its competitive solicitation that was filed in a Renewable Advantage 120 Day report (19A-0660E) filing with the Colorado PUC. The new solar projects would displace gas burned at the existing units near the Pueblo Airport that are operated as needed under a power-purchase agreement.

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