Connecting the College to its Carbon

Written by Kelsey Maxwell

Transitioning to renewable energy (RE) is one of the most significant ways Colorado College can reduce its carbon footprint. CC currently uses 15,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity annually­ — a 3000 MWh decrease since 2008 — which is significantly less than the national average for higher education institutions. These accomplishments can be attributed to the work of the Sustainability Council, where students, staff, and faculty have collaborated to ensure that every infrastructural change has been designed with energy efficiency and sustainability in mind. However, despite these efforts, less than 20 percent of light fixtures are LED, solar only accounts for 11 percent of our energy consumption, and many of our buildings, such as Armstrong, Olin, and Loomis, are old and therefore highly inefficient. CC has an institutional goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2020, which can be understood as achieving net zero carbon emissions by offsetting carbon released with RE and carbon credits. Relying on small-scale infrastructural changes to our energy consumption alone is certainly not going to get us to carbon neutrality by 2020. In order to significantly reduce CC’s carbon emissions, we must start with Colorado Springs Utilities.

Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) is the second largest full-service utility company in the nation, providing Colorado College with water, electricity, natural gas, and waste water. Currently, CSU generates 43 percent of their electricity from coal, 45 percent from natural gas, and less than one percent from wind, solar, and hydroelectric combined. Based on our location on the energy grid, CC gets nearly all of its electricity from coal-fired plants, more specifically the outdated and inefficient Martin Drake Power Plant located in downtown Colorado Springs. The Drake Power Plant is a 254-megawatt coal-fired plant that provides nearly one-third of the community’s power year-round. Operating around a meager 30 percent efficiency, it utilizes at least 2,600 tons of coal and about 57,600 gallons of water daily. Historically, the plant has been the recipient of intense scrutiny from the Colorado Springs community for alleged Clean Air Act violations and an overall lack of transparency regarding their operations. Overall, because Drake Power Plant requires about half a ton of coal to create one megawatt of energy, our energy consumption at CC may be responsible for burning 7,500 tons of coal annually.

Due to the attention Drake Power Plant has received for being highly pollutive and inefficient, CSU has decided to decommission the plant by 2035 and has already shut down one of its four generation units. This decision is consistent with CSU’s intentions to “Change the Current” in Colorado Springs by transitioning from coal to RE. By 2020 CSU intends to generate 20 percent of their electric energy from renewable sources—a goal which they are on track to accomplish due to the proposal of more RE infrastructure, possibly including both solar and wind. This infrastructure would provide 50,000 to 150,000 MWh of energy to Colorado Springs residents. The implementation of this project is an exciting and significant step in the right direction, providing millions of homes and companies with RE sources.

But what does this mean for Colorado College and its RE goals? CSU’s goal of 20 percent RE by 2020 would not even bring Colorado College close to its 2020 carbon neutrality goal. This means that it is imperative that the Sustainability Council continues to work closely with CSU to ensure that they continue to develop clean energy infrastructure, even once CSU achieves their goals. During a recent Sustainability Council meeting, Kenny Romero, the Renewable Energy and Demand Side Management Manager at CSU, assured council members that “just because we [will meet] our 2020 goals does not mean that Colorado College stops being our customer—we will continue to work to meet your needs.” However, Romero also clearly articulated that ultimately, “it all comes down to pricing,” meaning that CSU’s willingness to invest in RE infrastructure depends entirely on its cost effectiveness.

Fortunately, solar and wind power are becoming increasingly competitive within the energy market meaning that the construction of more RE in Colorado Springs is likely. Yet the fact that CSU has no plans for a future RE project once they reach the 20 percent goal has raised concern among CC Sustainability Council members. In order for CC to reach carbon neutrality, we must take initiative and increase our collaboration with CSU. We have the ability to locate possible sites, develop solutions to the many problems that prevent CC from building RE plants, and get the ball rolling for CSU. CC may not reach its goal by 2020. But if we can maintain a strong relationship with CSU, a group of dedicated students and faculty, and a favorable market for RE, then carbon neutrality at CC is in the near future.

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