Drake Power Plant last burned coal in 2021, and now the smokestacks are coming down, too. Natural gas combustion will continue at the site indefinitely.
by Allen Best
Most towns and cities had smoke- and steam-belching, coal-burning power plants near or within their downtown areas a century ago. Colorado Springs kept the smoke coming from its Martin F. Drake Power Plant until August 2021.
Now, the two 250-foot smokestacks erected for that coal-burning have started coming down. Utility officials project the dismemberment of the concrete stacks to be completed by the end of March. Demolition of the Drake plant began June 2023 and is expected to wrap up later in 2024.
Above, you can see the partially demolished stack set against the snow of Pikes Peak.
Top soil will be spread on the site where coal was once piled, but the city’s utility has no plans to make the space available for development. New development, however, has begun to creep closer to the power plant, most conspicuously a large apartment complex being completed just a block away from the wall marking the perimeter of the energy complex.
The Drake Power Plant lies along Fountain Creek just eight blocks from the stately Antlers Hotel in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs, a city of 495,000 people. Closer yet, literally just down the street and across the railroad tracks, sits the gleaming new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum.
Drake began operations in 1925, producing 25 megawatts of operation for the city of then 30,000 people.
The plant evolved. Combustion units were added in 1962, 1968 and 1975, delivering a total capacity of 254 megawatts. Even as Colorado Springs grew, Drake in the mid-1990s delivered one-half all of the city’s electricity.
Colorado Springs Utilities, the largest electrical municipal in Colorado, resisted calls for the coal plant to be shut down. Instead, the city invested in an unproven technology devised by a local resident, physicist David Neuman. The municipal utility says the technology reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 99%, nitrogen oxide by more than 85% and carbon dioxide by more than 75% between 2005 and 2020.
But it was an expensive process, and then fires and other problems escalated operating costs. Meanwhile, the prices of renewables were tumbling. In 2021, then-Mayor John Suthers and other officials gathered under a tent to mark the passing of an era. Somewhat beyond was the last small pile of coal to be burned. By then, the power delivered by Drake’s remaining coal units was a minor portion of the total generating capacity —and a very expensive one at that.
To ensure generation to meet peak demand, such as on hot summer days, the utility had assembled plans to erect six natural gas units. Those gas units went on line in 2023. They are to be used sparingly.
Colorado Springs also has several other gas-burning units, the source of about half of all the city’s electricity.
The city has also added renewables. The Pike Solar Project recently added 175 megawatts of capacity. Renewable energy now provides 27% of the city’s electricity.
By 2025 the utility expects to add up to 100 megawatts of battery storage.
By 2030, the city expects wind to deliver 33% of electricity, solar 26%, and natural gas 17%, with market purchases from other sources adding 16%. Hydro, now 7% of all electricity, will decline to 5%.
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