Mar 5, 2021 | NEWS | By Arlo Metzger | Illustration by Bibi Powers
As Colorado’s Front Range joins the march towards a future of sustainable energy production, the potential new faces of Colorado Springs’ City Council and Utilities Board weigh in.
The wide race for six City Council seats comes amid numerous efforts in recent years to modernize Colorado Springs’ energy system.
Initiatives such as converting the city’s bus fleet to “no or low” emissions by 2035, planning an Electric Vehicle Transition Plan, and retiring the city’s coal plants have developed under the umbrella of the Colorado Springs’ master plan — PlanCOS. Meanwhile, a Sustainable Energy Plan by Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU), which provides heat, light, and power to the city’s residents, aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
“I think that Utilities has taken really groundbreaking steps in restructuring what its energy resources will be and ensuring that it won’t disrupt the energy needs of our community,” said Jillian Jaeger, an analyst at the Colorado Springs Office of Innovation, which partners with the city’s departments to improve services and oversee technological and environmental developments.
The city’s efforts to move towards more sustainable energy also come under state-wide initiatives such as a Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, which aims to reduce carbon emissions in Colorado by 50% by 2030.
As Colorado’s fast-growing and second-largest city marches into the next decade — “the decade of energy,” as one candidate calls it — the upcoming April 6 race for City Council will determine who the decision makers are for the next four years. The nine-member City Council also serves as the local Utilities Board, so council members influence decisions like the expedited closure of the downtown coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, energy costs to customers, and adoption of annual budgets.
Colorado College falls into District 3, and parts of the area surrounding the campus extend into District 5.
In northwestern District 1, which stretches from Garden of the Gods to N. Union Boulevard and encompasses Rockrimmon, Mountain Shadows, and Grant Park, four candidates are battling for the open seat previously filled by Don Knight, an Air Force veteran, since 2013.
In 2020, Knight was one of only two votes against a measure that would displace Martin Darke’s energy production from coal with renewables over other fossil fuels. The other vote against the measure, officially called Portfolio 17, was from former councilman Andy Pico who represented the northeast District 6. Pico left council in 2020 to join the Colorado House of Representatives as a Republican; the council in January selected Mike O’Malley, a retired Navy Reserves captain, who now faces conservative military veteran Garfield Johnson for the council seat.
Outgoing councilwoman Jill Gaebler, who represented the central District 5, which stretches from the border of Colorado College to N. Powers Blvd., voted in favor of Portfolio 17 and now has five candidates seeking her seat. All other districts have incumbents in the race.
Candidates charge to either end of the energy spectrum, but there’s plenty of common ground.
Many support the implementation of renewable energy at the pace technological development will allow, hoping to limit additional cost to utilities customers and maintain fossil fuels as a backup. Some are gung-ho and embrace evolving technology, such as wind and solar, while others are more wary of potential pitfalls, with several referencing recent power outages in Texas.
Coal in the Springs: From retire the plants to ‘revisit’ the decision
One of the more progressive voices on energy in the race is District 4 Incumbent Yolanda Avila, who represents the southeast part of the city. A Springs native and Colorado College graduate, Avila voted in favor of Portfolio 17 in 2020 and is now running against School District 2 Board Vice President Regina English.
Avila said she’s optimistic voters will elect council members who “realize that the planet is heating up and it’s having dire consequences.”
Avila said she is willing to push to retire the city’s other coal plants, which are slated to shut down by 2030, even sooner. She is shocked, she says, that some candidates still want coal-fired energy fueling the Springs. Avila is also excited about technological development and meeting local carbon emission reduction goals without any additional cost to taxpayers.
“When we knew that we wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade in the ’60s,” she said, “it was done.”
Richard Skorman, current City Council president who represents the southwest District 3, offers another progressive stance on energy. Skorman, another alum of Colorado College, voted in favor of retiring Martin Drake by 2023, a move he touts on his campaign website.
An owner of several small businesses, Skorman has served on the boards of several Colorado Springs environmental groups, including Fountain Creek Watershed and the City Parks Board. He told a local food tourism site that his own restaurant embodies environmental stewardship by using solar panels, recycled products, non-toxic cleaning and construction supplies, and composting food waste.
In District 1, Glenn Carlson, a business owner and board member for the Trails and Open Space Coalition, is “very optimistic” about the city’s future in renewable energy. “I think we can accelerate the timeline even more as the price [of renewable energy] continues to come down,” he said. Carlson is also optimistic that the city will not have to raise taxes to achieve a shift to renewables.
District 5’s Karlie Van Arnam, the general manager of a local medical marijuana business, describes herself as progressive on energy, and said the city can’t afford to be “analog in a digital age.” The small business supporter and entrepreneur said that public transit is one of the main issues in the city, which has been called a transit desert, for both the mobility of residents and environmental impact.
With an opposing polarity, some candidates have resistance about the city’s haste to decommission Martin Drake.
Jay Inman, a Microsoft digital architect seeking to represent the northernmost District 2 said, if elected, he would “really want to revisit” the decision to retire the Martin Drake Power Plant by 2023.
Inman also looks to a recently frozen southern state with a collapsed energy grid as a leading example of what not to do. “Texas is proving that the green agenda does not work,” he said. “Running out of power in a state like Texas is kind of like starving to death in the middle of a crammed-full grocery store.”
Contrary to Inman’s claims, numerous sources state that the power outages in Texas were not due solely to the failure of renewable energy sources.
For Inman, having resilient and reliable energy is a matter of public deed. “If we can keep that cheap and reliable, we are protecting the innocent and the defenseless,” he said.
While the military veteran and author supports diversifying the city’s energy sources, he said that reaching the city’s carbon goals is not feasible if it is going to have a resilient and reliable power grid.
Olivia Lupia, the youngest candidate in the race, is running to represent the west side and southwestern parts of the Springs in District 3, and provides another conservative voice. She worries that diversified sustainable energy sources will be unable to meet the energy needs of the growing Colorado Springs population and that fluctuation of natural gas prices will make it impossible to substantiate projected energy costs to utilities customers.
“I think we’re kind of at a crossroads in the city,” Lupia said. “There’s a danger in over-legislating and charging ahead without being fully aware of what the consequences are.” While Lupia concedes that the Martin Drake closure is a “done deal,” she doesn’t believe coal plants are as dirty as some might think.
‘Prepared for that change’
Other candidates in the sprawling race fuse closer together on energy issues facing the city.
Mike Seeger, a firefighter and paramedic running in District 1, said staying ahead of the technological curve is a priority. “We’re at the mercy of where the industry goes,” Seeger said. “And if we fall behind in going forward with renewable energy, it’s actually going to hurt us.”
While Seeger does have concerns about the potentially prohibitive costs of renewable energy early on, he is hopeful that its growing demand will provide a strong incentive for technological development. He advises that we also have to be smart about which technologies we invest in and when.
District 1 candidate Dave Donelson, a former Green Beret and physician assistant, said that a move to renewables should happen “as the technology leads us there,” and people have been misled about CSU’s plan to move to renewables.
“Most people are on board once they understand the plan,” he said. “We are not going to leave ourselves in a situation that if and when renewables fail, we won’t have fossil fuels to cover our energy demands,” adding, “like they did in Texas.”
Donelson said he recently met with Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin to better understand the city’s energy initiatives, as did several other candidates.
Another candidate in District 1, Jim Mason, was one of the few to mention public transportation as a main avenue to cleaner energy. The retired military colonel and secretary of Colorado Springs School District 11 cites the lack of effective public transportation options as “the most critical challenge facing the city today,” and an untapped solution to reducing carbon emissions.
Mason said that public transit is “simply a quality of life imperative,” but that implementing a reliable system is something that won’t happen over time. “I think we’re on the right path,” he said. “There is nothing anyone would do differently unless someone had a pocket full of billion dollars.”
Hospital Chaplain and District 2 Incumbent David Geislenger is hopeful for a steady future in renewable energy without additional costs to the city’s residents. Having voted in favor of Portfolio 17, he said that the city has made “incredible progress” over the last two years, and is “well positioned” to take advantage of technological breakthroughs in the future.
District 2’s David Noblitt, a long-time Springs firefighter, believes that marching ahead with renewables is important, but looks to Texas as a potential model if the switch is made prematurely.
“I see a lot of really cool technology coming down the pipe,” he said, “but I don’t want to see us so dependent on unreliable renewables. As long as we have the backups to make things happen, moving forward in that aspect is always a good thing.”
Noblitt also has concerns about a potential reluctance to transition from natural gas when reliable alternatives come around. “Maybe if we had held on to coal for two more years,” he said about Martin Drake, the transition would have been “a little more clean, a little more efficient, and we would have definitely been more in the future.”
Arthur Glynn, a former naval aviator running in District 3, describes himself as “fiscally conservative,” and emphasizes that because of finite resources, decision making must involve a “close analysis” of cost effectiveness for the city and consumers. He does not disapprove of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
Also running in District 3, former Oroville, California city councilmember Henry McCall said switching to renewables is common sense.
District 5’s Nancy Henjum, a local business owner, is excited about the future of Colorado Springs energy.
“I am trusting and believing that the people who are tasked with the sustainable energy plan,” she said, “would not publicize it if they didn’t believe they could do it.” Henjum said that pursuing energy initiatives is “as much a commitment to the environment and the land as it is also really fiscally smart.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in the last decade coal has fallen from providing 68% of net electrical generation in Colorado to 45%. Renewables, meanwhile, have doubled, contributing 25% of net energy in 2019. However, in 2017 Colorado was still only the 17th most renewable-friendly state and is currently the seventh largest producer of natural gas.
In 2019, Colorado created the Office of Just Transition and the Just Transition Advisory Committee to ensure minimal economic impact from its transition away from coal, an industry which currently employs approximately 2,000 people, according to the Colorado Department of Labor.
According to Colorado Springs Utilities, coal made up for 36% of the city’s electricity production in 2019. Solar and hydro made up a combined 10%, while natural gas made up 49%. The projected distribution for 2035 is 42% natural gas, 30% non-carbon, 12% solar, and 8% both solar and wind.
To achieve the Sustainable Energy Plan’s goals, the city began the process to convert the Mountain Metropolitan Transit (MMT) bus fleet to 100% “no or low” emissions in 2019. In 2021, MMT will receive four entirely electric buses from manufacturer Proterra. It plans to implement a demonstration project to evaluate how well the buses meet operational needs. MMT Director Craig Blewitt said, “We want to take advantage of whatever technology can afford us in terms of serving the community.”
The city is also in the planning phase of the Electric Vehicle Readiness Plan, which is slated to be finalized in Aug. 2021. “The growing number of people that are purchasing electric vehicles,” said Jill Jaeger, “does mean that we have to be prepared for that change, from both a utility and a city perspective.”
Other energy-saving projects in the city include a pilot project to install 50 “smart streetlight controllers” on existing LED streetlights around Colorado Springs, and a community microgrid project led by the Office of Innovation that would provide backup energy for community members and essential services in the event of a disaster.
As Colorado Springs, the state of Colorado, the U.S., and the world charge into the future, elections like this one will determine our relationship with energy.
Registered voters will be able to vote by mail in the April 6 City Council election. The City Clerk will send out ballot packets on March 12. You can find out if you are registered to vote in Colorado Springs here.