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EDITOR'S DESK: Current Drake closure offers glimpse of costly electric future

By Kenyon Jordan

        We all have different ways of seeing things.
       A letter to the Pioneer presents one view on Colorado Springs Utilities' anticipated 7.4 percent increase in electric rates. Barbara Conquest wants to know if Utilities will keep charging customers the extra amount even after the fire damage is repaired at the Drake Power Plant.
       It's certainly a valid issue, worth following up on.
       Elsewhere, we hear questions about Drake's age, its use of coal and the logic of running a major power plant downtown. These questions have been considered over the past year by the Drake Task Force and a hired consultant. We seem to hear them louder now in the wake of the May 5 fire that temporarily forced the plant to close.
       My take is that the current situation offers a preview of the very future that many of the Drake critics actually want: the plant shut down. With that, we see the future outcome: higher utility costs.
       Why so? Because coal is significantly cheaper than any other power source. Before the fire, according to Utilities figures, Drake provided nearly a third of Utilities' power. Because of the current situation, the city-owned enterprise is having to scramble to keep us electrified, using its own natural gas (over a third more pricey) or whatever it can buy from other power providers. The reality (to address Barbara's question in part) is that the anticipated rate hike might turn out lower than the one we'll get in our “actual” post-Drake future. That's because natural gas, being a fossil fuel like coal, is also in the cross-hairs of those who run our country. That leaves the likes of hydro power (cheap but limited availability), wind (about twice the cost) and solar (about five times the cost), again quoting from Utilities information.
       But (you might ask) isn't there a trade-off? Aren't we healthier with the plant down? Some of us could probably argue that all night long. I could appeal to your basic senses - for instance, do you find the air cleaner (other than the lack of the plant's usual steam)? Are your lungs more clear? Your eyes less watery? I'm pretty sure that the answer to all these questions is no. On a personal note, I know someone who just returned to town and didn't even realize Drake was inoperative until he was told about it.
       The fact is, the Drake Power Plant, like all others in the country, must meet stringent pollution standards. The kind of soot that was reportedly commonplace in early days is a thing of the past. Even an Obama administration which - it's hardly a secret now - has declared a “war on coal” has not found any traditional pollution standards that were too tough for Drake. Despite its age (the first of its units was built in 1962), the facility has kept passing with flying colors. Utilities boasts on its website that it's better than it has to be: “We use low-sulfur coal from Wyoming, which burns cleaner than other types of coal.” And Utilities insists that the new scrubbers currently being installed will virtually eliminate sulphur oxide emissions.
       So, then, what is the big health complaint? It goes back to the “war on coal” thing. Moving beyond traditional regulations, the feds (with environmental groups cheering them on, possibly even writing the rules) have made a “super soldier” that no amount of filters or scrubbers can defeat. Coal-fired power plants exhale the same thing people do. That's right - carbon dioxide is now defined as the enemy of the people. It's the main cause of greenhouse-gas emissions, which cause climate change, which in turn, we keep being told, leads to any bad weather we get and will eventually fry or freeze the planet, whichever comes first.
       I don't think most people believe all that, even when sentimental issues such as polar-bear extinction (oops, their population is actually increasing) or ice caps melting (except where they're forming) are thrown into the mix. Most of us simply like the idea of the world being a better place, and the spin-savvy government/environmental groups take advantage of that sentiment to frame their opponents as pollution-lovers. It's well known (or should be) that the world put up with a whole lot of grief long before humans came along - imagine a world filled with belching volcanoes and about 12 percent carbon dioxide (over 300 times more than we have now) - all of which was followed somehow by the start of life.
       It makes no sense to me why this issue has been so politicized - turned into a war - when the logical process should have been for all sides to work together, using established industry practices in which new technology is brought on line only when it's shown to be more efficient than its predecessor. A major air-quality example is the catalytic converter on automobile engines.
       In the end, the law is the law, and that's what Drake is facing. But according to Val Snider, the councilmember who's chairing the Drake Task Force, shutting it down would only reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 1 percent. And that's just in the state of Colorado. Who knows how many coal-fired plants are being built in China.
       So that's the reality of all this: higher electric bills and a planet that's far from saved. As I said at the outset, we all see things differently. If this is a war, is that what you'd call victory?

(Posted 5/19/14; Opinion: Editor's Desk)

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