COLORADO SPRINGS — Head first in a dust-choked coal pulverizer, a heavy wrench knocking against a balky part hidden out of sight, body encased in an insulated safety suit as temperatures soared to 140 degrees, Chris Cox’s mind could have wandered to other career paths.
How about a switch to an easier job without imminent risk of fire, assault by machinery or suffocation?
In Cox’s telling, though, moving away from fossil fuels was the furthest thing from his mind when immersed in the ancient complexities of the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant.
What Cox was thinking was, “How cool is this?”
Cox, a coal operations mechanic at Martin Drake with 10 years at one of the most visible working power plants in the West, loved his job. Fixing things at a 96-year old power plant meant the constant brain-and-hands exercise of keeping the good fires burning and keeping the bad fires from starting.
Every day seemed to bring a new piece of machinery, Cox said, whether tightening the bolts on the latest gas-fired turbine technology, or inserting himself up to his ankles in a coal-pulverizing invention from a half-century ago and seeing how craftily it employed spinning hammers against metal plates.
“There are no given things,” Cox said. “It’s a different thing every day. It was never the same day.”
As Cox’s coal stories make the transition from “are” to “was,” he is standing next to Martin Drake where the 100,000-ton coal pile used to sit. A colleague in the distance cleans up the now-idled conveyor entrance where spinning jaws swallowed coal into the plant. For nearly 100 years, the conveyor entrance was buried dozens of feet beneath the coal, with front-end loaders constantly pushing the pile of carbon from the edges toward the jaws.
The last of that coal was burned up right at dinner time Saturday night, some 30,000-plus days after Martin Drake first started turning coal dust into electricity for El Paso County. Colorado Springs still operates the Ray Nixon coal-fired plant, but is transitioning to solar arrays, natural gas and other electricity sources.
Cox is now a former coal plant mechanic.
He is not, however, a laid-off employee. Colorado Springs Utilities, the city-owned agency that runs power, water and other essentials for nearly half a million residents, made a commitment early on that when Martin Drake stopped burning coal, no one who wanted to stay would lose a job. Of the 80-odd positions it took to keep the plant running on coal, about 45 people have already transitioned to other jobs within the utility.
Some will be kept on to install and operate new gas boilers to continue running the steam-generated electrical turbines at Martin Drake through the end of 2022. Colorado Springs needs generation at the downtown power plant in order to propel the overall grid, until new transmission lines are completed to even out the flow of electricity from other power sources.
Cox is taking a job with Colorado Springs Water, fixing and maintaining dozens of pump houses that keep water flowing across hundreds of square miles.
Gone now are the days he would take two showers after a shift, to rid himself of coal dust that felt like he’d spent the day rolling in black talcum powder. But coal was never a political object to Cox.
“Coal was not nearly the four letter word it is today,” said Cox, who joined the utility in 2011. “It was necessary. I mean it was never a great thing, but it was necessary. We knew there was a way it would go away, but at that time, we had to have something. So, there was never a thought of like, ‘Oh, I can’t work for this evil company.’”
What would haunt others as nightmares are some of his favorite work memories. Standing underground beneath that massive coal chute, for example, known as “The McLanahan.”
“So you have a door that goes into the underground, then to work in the lower motor of the actual feeder, you have to crawl down under the muck of coal and water and everything else down at the bottom and you’re just covered,” Cox said.
Good times? Absolutely, he said. “I’m the classic power geek of this energy department. I can go absolutely nuts. I can bore you for hours. This job was really hard if you don’t like learning.”
In recent years, Cox and other utility employees knew of the protests and legal action against Martin Drake’s intense air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. They knew city leaders were under great pressure to keep moving up the date the coal burning would stop.
“We still had a job to do,” he said Friday. “So we couldn’t put a lot of time into thinking about who’s going to be closed down because even up until today, there was still a job to do right.”
Assurances about job transitions were huge for the employees, he added. He’s had plenty of friends telling stories about oil rig jobs that come and go, or even jobs with renewable energy manufacturers like Vestas wind turbines, where layoffs and consolidations are regular events.
Cox’s time off these days is taken up renovating and rewiring the hazards presented by his 1920s-era house in downtown Colorado Springs.
As he continues to train into the water utility job and travels central Colorado to keep clean water moving, he realizes he’ll be able to repeat the daily wonders of the coal plant job, discovering an old and innovative mechanical solution to a timeless physics problem.
At the Skaguay Reservoir near Victor, Cox mentions, a hydroelectric plant was taken offline in the 1960s. But the guts of the mechanical operation are still there. They built 10 miles of wooden pipeline, out of California redwood, banded with steel every 12 inches. Much of it is remarkably intact, he said.
“People back in the day could really build stuff,” Cox said.
He said he will always be proud of the power station work.
“You don’t think about it, but you go home and you don’t think you’re not gonna have power today,” he said. “You’re gonna turn on a light switch, it’s going to be there,” he said.
One thing he will miss from Martin Drake is taking a late-shift break on the roof of the main power plant, on a hot summer night.
From five stories up, he would look out at twinkling yard lights on Cheyenne Mountain, or streetlights down below near Fountain Creek, or brightly lit restaurants to the north on Academy Boulevard.
And he would think, “You’re welcome, everyone.”