For Colorado's largest power co-op, going green will mean taking down the King of Coal

Sprouting up through the haze along the horizon, the three smokestacks of the Comanche coal-fired power station rise far above anything for miles and miles on the dry, empty prairie on the outskirts of Pueblo. Two of them, attached to units 1 and 2, have been puffing away for more than thirty years, generating 660 megawatts of electricity to homes and businesses across Colorado. The third one is brand-new and tops off the nearly finished Comanche 3 coal plant, which will produce a whopping 750 megawatts when it is fired up later this year, making it the most powerful power plant in the state.

Closer in, maybe five miles from the station, the boxy, gargantuan buildings crowded around the smokestacks become visible. Now the plants resemble squat, long-necked creatures, a herd of brontosaurus lumbering across the dusty wasteland.

To Stanley Lewandowski, they look like the future. Sitting in the back seat of a minivan heading to the station, the 71-year-old trains his sharp, dark eyes on the smokestacks and smiles. Up front sit two representatives of Xcel Energy, the Minnesota-based power company with 1.3 million Colorado customers. While Xcel owns most of the $1.35 billion plant, Lewandowski — or rather, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association — controls a quarter of Comanche 3. Lewandowski is the general manager of IREA, the state's largest electricity cooperative, which is why he's checking on the plant's progress.

When the van arrives at the facility, Lewandowski likes what he sees. Guided by the Comanche 3 project manager, Lewandowski quietly takes it all in. The 3,000-degree combustion chamber and the 285-foot-high supercritical boiler that subjects water to temperatures and pressures so powerful that it forgoes boiling and transforms directly into steam. The mammoth turbine, powered by that steam, that will generate 3 to 5 percent more power than those in old-fashioned coal plants. The behemoth bank of 45 fans, each resembling a set of helicopter blades, which will help condense the steam into water so it can be pumped back into the boiler. And above it all, the sheer concrete smokestack rising 500 feet into the sky that makes Lewandowski catch his breath.

"Holy smokes," he exclaims. "I think it's worth $366 million."

That's what his quarter of the plant will cost Sedalia-based IREA, which provides power to a 5,000-square-mile area of Colorado, from the mountains of Park County to the plains of eastern Arapahoe County to the suburbs to the south, east and west of Denver.

To Lewandowski, the investment makes perfect sense. He believes Comanche 3 will provide cheap, reliable power to his co-op members far into the future. That's been the mission of rural co-ops ever since they were born decades ago: to provide electricity to sparsely populated parts of America. And it's one Lewandowski has accomplished with flying colors since 1974, when he took over at IREA.

Under his watch, the co-op grew more than tenfold, from a 12,000-member hardscrabble operation to the eleventh-largest in the nation, with 138,000 members. Yet IREA still boasts some of the lowest electricity rates of all 22 Colorado co-ops.

And, as Lewandowski loves to point out, he's done it without newfangled energy ideas. While he may be wearing a grass-colored sweater today, he jokes, it's not because he's green. Wind farms, solar technology, energy conservation mandates: To him it's all as crazy as what he sees as a made-up global-warming catastrophe.

Comanche 3's smokestack will spew out 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, but Lewandowski isn't worried about the effect on the environment. "There are some people who are saying that eventually people will look back and laugh at this period with regard to the global-warming argument," he says. "I've lived through other scares like this, like killer bees and disease pandemics. It's almost like part of the culture has to scare the living daylights out of you."

Lewandowski has made a career of opposing the status quo, and woe to those who've stood in his way. These days, though, he might be more on his own than ever as he prepares for his biggest fight yet, the 2009 IREA board of directors election this month. While Lewandowski isn't up for election — as general manager, he's hired and fired by the board — the contest has turned into a referendum on the man and his policies.

Some co-op members, taking the name IREA Voices, say Lewandowski has used his position to further an ideological, anti-green agenda — one they believe will send IREA energy bills skyrocketing. For them, the final straw was his maneuvering to buy part of Comanche 3, which many predict will be the last coal plant built in Colorado. With cheap and easily accessibly coal getting harder to come by and politicians considering a hefty carbon tax on fossil fuels, Lewandowski's critics say Comanche 3 could end up being a multimillion-dollar liability.

"By using assumptions from the last century that no longer hold true, IREA assumed that a coal plant would be cheap and reliable. Now it's abundantly clear that it will be neither," says Leslie Glustrom of Clean Energy Action, a Colorado citizens' group that's wants to shutter Comanche 3 before it's even turned on.

IREA Voices, which includes people with ties to some of the most prominent renewable energy and environmental interests in the state, succeeded in electing one sympathetic board member two years ago, and it is backing three challengers this election. If all three win, the group could take control of the seven-member board, possibly sell off IREA's investment in Comanche 3 and get rid of Lewandowski — whose ideas, they believe, are as fossilized as the stuff that'll be fueling his coal plant.

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