Six new natural gas units are under construction where a huge coal pile once stood at the Martin Drake Power Plant, a major step toward dismantling the old blue building downtown.
Colorado Springs Utilities began work on the new $120 million units shortly after the power plant burned coal for the last time in September. Project supervisors said crews needed to take out coal handling equipment, such as tankers, and excavate the site that was black with dust to lay the infrastructure for the new turbines.
Chief Operating Officer Travas Dell said the crane is now inserting generator parts into place and is expected to start producing power in late February or early March. Jesse Marshall, the project manager, said the new turbines can produce up to 167 megawatts of power and, while still impressive in size, cover only 3 acres compared to Drake’s 50 acres.
Martin Drake power plant burns coal for the last time
Dale said the two natural gas generators located in the Drake are expected to stop producing electricity in September, paving the way for the plant’s decommissioning. Eventually, the new generators will be moved from downtown as well, but that will take time because the power grid is built around downtown power generation.
The new generators will help meet peak energy demand when society is at its hottest and everyone is running their air conditioners without the long surge time that a coal plant requires. Dell said the coal plant could take 18 hours to start operating, while new generators could start within 10 minutes.
Drake’s coal generation has been idle for months at a time, while Utilities has been paying for personnel, maintenance, and other associated costs. So even though coal is cheaper than natural gas at the moment, it still makes sense to stop coal generation because of the overall cost, he said.
Dell said the new units would run about 4% to 8% of the time, and could produce power for a profit on the open market.
“It’s a great tool in the arsenal,” he said.
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The utilities expect to join the Southwest Power Pool in August to allow these sales.
Utilities are working on the shift as nationwide energy demand is expected to rise this summer during the air conditioning season, which could increase the risk of blackouts, several national media reported.
However, Dell said the utilities are not in danger of being cut off, as they have been strong in power planning.
The utilities bought the power a year ago to help bridge the four to five months in which the Drake site would become offline as crews moved between existing natural gas generators and new ones, and officials said they got the power at a good price.
With the old plant’s turbines running for the last time, a great deal of work awaits us to dismantle the site.
“The minute we stop generating, I want to make it as safe as possible and as quickly as possible,” Dale said.
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Just diluting lead and asbestos could take a year depending on how much contamination there is, Marshall said.
The utilities also plan to salvage the equipment for indoor use and then sell as much of the building as possible for scrap to help recover costs, Dale said.
One of the last things to fall will be the crust of the building.
Utilities are still selecting a contractor to decommission the site, so it is unknown how much the project will cost.
He said the environmental clean-up of the site would be a separate step and would need to address pollution such as coal dust and coal burning residue.
Dill said the utilities will need to work with the city on the future of the site, and whether it can be sold.