Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

If you have ever driven through Colorado Springs, you might have been a tad curious about an industrial area just south of downtown. As you pass through the Springs on your way to the southern portion of our state on I-25, you may have noticed, on the east side of the road, the large coal-fired power plant named after longtime City Council member Martin Drake. If you keep driving south, you will pass another coal plant, though this one is not surrounded by city, that is named after Ray Nixon, a longtime director of utilities for Colorado Springs. If you want to see  these coal plants in operation, please do visit them soon, because before too long, they will cease burning coal, and that’s a good thing.

Way back when I ran for Congress, from the greater Colorado Springs area, it was the heady days of 2008, when masks were only worn on Halloween and Donald Trump was an allegedly successful businessman who said that Hillary Clinton would “make a good president.” At a campaign event in a local park, I was approached by a couple of nice guys with a hat they wanted to give me. The hats simply stated in large block letters: Clean Coal.

The gents wanted me to sport their cap for some pictures, but I declined. They also had t-shirts proclaiming the existence of said “clean coal” and they urged me to read up on the issue. So, I did. More on that in a moment.

I thought of those guys when I read a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette this morning, regarding the aforementioned Martin Drake coal-fired power plant in Colorado Springs. Here in the Springs, the local utility — Colorado Springs Utilities — is owned by the citizens of the city, and the board that oversees the utility is the City Council itself. Recently, that board voted to close the Drake plant earlier than had been originally planned, along with also closing the Ray Nixon plant. The idea is to move to burning primarily natural gas until a transition to renewable energy sources can be completed. These are good things which, of course, puts them in opposition to President Trump, which these days is usually a good thing, but I digress…

In reading up on the alleged clean-coal technology the coal folks claim makes burning their product OK, I learned it is rather the opposite. Frankly, there is not really any truly “clean coal” out there. Coal plants are being closed all over the country, and just in the last couple of years, eight different coal mining companies have gone bankrupt. And they are not failing because of lefty, tree-hugging solar cell crazies. No, coal is failing in Colorado and our nation due to the most business-like and free-market idea there is: market forces. It seems that other energy sources — most notably natural gas — combined with rapidly dropping costs for renewables, will send coal (if you will excuse the feeble pun) to the ash heap of history.

Oh, and those coal jobs Trump promised to bring back? It turns out that coal jobs have not been going way due to overreaching environmental regulations, but rather due to that other capitalistic quirk called technological innovation. Coal companies have created better and faster machines that do the work once done by several men at a fraction of the cost, and so coal production has risen even as more and more miners have been laid off.

Just 10 years ago coal-fired plants provided 68% of Colorado’s net energy generation. Last year that figure had fallen to 45%, and the downward trend will certainly continue. The leadership of Colorado Springs Utilities expects that solar, wind and very importantly new battery technology, will continue to grow in importance, in large measure due to very steep drops in the costs of such technology. For example, the cost of wind generation has dropped about 70%, and solar has dropped a remarkable 90% in cost since 2010. That makes it very tough for coal to compete. Colorado also is the seventh-largest natural gas producer in the U.S. and has the sixth largest gas reserves. 

One can only wonder what Ray Nixon and Martin Drake might think if they were alive today to see the remarkable shift in energy production from their day. My late father always said that when you can pick between two things to think about a person, choose to think the kinder. Following that admonition, I would hope that both Nixon and Drake would be delighted that their goal of providing quality energy to the people of Colorado Springs is now moving toward a more inexpensive and environmentally improved future. Coal had its day, and it was vital to our industrial revolution. But just as we need far fewer stirrups and dialup phone lines than we did in the past, we just don’t need to burn coal as much, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future, at all. I hope Nixon and Drake could smile about that. I know I do.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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