Springs Utilities Hopes to Cut Carbon Without Losing Reliability: “A Very Difficult Balancing Act,” Energy Advisor Says

By Benedict Wright 

COLORADO SPRINGS — Following what NASA says was the second-warmest year on record, the largest public utility in Colorado, Colorado Springs Utilities, is currently working on a plan to slash its carbon footprint to limit contributions to an already warming planet. 

The plan follows an aggressive move at the state level to reduce Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

In Colorado, electric power accounted for 34% of such emissions in 2015, according to a 2019 report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Within this context, Colorado Springs Utilities, a public utility that distributes power to homes and businesses in the Pikes Peak region, is reshaping the energy landscape here in Colorado’s second largest city. 

Last June, the utility’s board of directors, which unlike some other public utilities is made up of members of the local city council, approved a new 30-year energy vision to inform its Energy Integrated Resource Plans. The board adopts a new energy resource plan every five years.

“We have the opportunity to really reinvent our community when it comes to energy,” said Michael Avanzi, who manages energy planning and innovation at Colorado Springs Utilities. 

A critical component of this specific plan is to cut down on releases of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, which Colorado Springs Utilities’ power plants spew into the atmosphere. At issue is a difficult task for the public utility: lowering emissions while minimizing costs and maximizing reliability. 

The board approved its new energy vision on the heels of several ambitious pieces of climate legislation that came out of the statehouse in Denver last year. They include a new state law Governor Jared Polis signed last April committing Colorado to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030 and at least 90% by 2050.

For Colorado Springs Utilities, that means it will undergo a one-year process of combining technical work of Utilities staff with public input. At the end of the process, a board-appointed citizen commission — the Utility Policy Advisory Committee — will recommend an energy portfolio to the board. The board will then vote to approve that portfolio. 

“The key decisions are what we’re doing in the near term,” said Avanzi, who oversees the technical process of developing the resource plan and informing the committee. “Those set us on the right path,” he added. 

The committee plans to recommend a portfolio this summer that fits within Colorado’s new emissions regulations and that could go much further than 50% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. 

Though still uncertain, it is likely that the state will have higher expectations for the electric utilities sector than sectors like transportation or agriculture, said the utility’s government affairs liaison Daniel Hodges in a committee meeting on Jan. 15. “The easiest industry to regulate and drive the biggest emission reductions is the electric utility industry,” he said. 

The portfolio must also account for the “social cost” of carbon. 

Based on the standard set by Colorado law, the social cost will be set at $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The utility hopes to incorporate these new goals with low rates and reliable energy. 

“Reliability is inherent in everything we do,” Avanzi told The Catalyst.

“When our customers flip the switch, they expect the lights to come on,” said Utilities’ spokesperson Amy Trinidad.

For years, concerns over reliability and cost have rationalized Colorado Springs’ continued reliance on carbon-intensive energy from coal plants Martin Drake, located downtown, and Ray Nixon, located about 15 miles southeast. 

Currently, with the advance of solar and battery technologies and regional power integration, those arguments are “falling apart,” said Colorado College’s Director of Sustainability Ian Johnson.

Although scheduled for decommissioning in 2035, with a new energy plan, the hard-to-miss Martin Drake power plant and its omnipresent steam cloud might be gone much sooner. 

“It’s my hope that we would come up with a date,” said Richard Skorman, president of the City Council and a Utilities board member who speculates decommissioning could come as early as 2023. “Nobody’s talking about [2035] anymore.”

As a community-owned utility, Colorado Springs Utilities attempts to meet the needs and desires of its citizen-owners. However, this is no easy task. Weighing customers’ various desires is “a very difficult balancing act,” said Rex Adams, chair of the Utilities Advisory Committee.

Now, the Utilities Advisory Committee is in the process of deciding the various attributes to be used when evaluating energy portfolios. However, based on a survey conducted by Springs Utilities and presented to the committee in January, it is clear that different customer constituencies have very different needs and priorities. Some reported that the environment was their primary concern, while others emphasized cost or reliability. In the survey, 39% of residential customers reported that they would not accept a bill increase of $2 or more. Of those respondents, 43% had a household income of $50,000 or less. Furthermore, 37% of residential customers said a bill increase of $15 or more would force them to cut back on necessities.

“There’s a contingent of folks that says, ‘costs be darned’… and you have this other side that says, ‘my gosh I can’t afford that,’” Adams said. Balancing these concerns with other factors like reliability and public health is the primary challenge for the advisory committee and the Utilities board going forward.

Avanzi is optimistic. 

“I think that when we conclude this process, we’re going to be coming up with a portfolio that the community can be proud of,” he said. 

Others are less so.

As far as portfolios go, “there’s never going to be a clear winner,” committee member Hilary Dussing said at the January meeting. While she did note her confidence that some community members will be happy with the outcome, she said she believes it will be impossible to please everyone.

In contrast with Utilities’ hope for a reliable plan that also aggressively cuts carbon, Colorado College environmental studies professor Tyler Cornelius is less certain. 

“I think we’re probably going to have to have sacrifice,” he said, adding that he believes it might be necessary for energy consumers to give up some of the reliability they’re used to in order to fight climate change.

While questions about austerity, adaptation, and climate justice go well beyond the level of an entity like the city’s public utility, the future of this new energy plan will give a sense of whether Colorado Springs, as a community, can have its cake and eat it too.

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