A surge in gas prices a decade ago prompted Lamar Light and Power to shut down its gas-fired plant, built in 1972. For a time, it was actually cheaper for the company to buy electricity from the grid than produce its own. But as the price of those contracts began to rise, too, LLP and its partner ARPA — a consortium of southern Colorado communities, including Holly, Springfield, Trinidad, La Junta, Las Animas and Lamar — began to search for new power sources they could control.

One resource, widely available and largely untapped on the eastern plains, is wind. LLP and ARPA built a small wind farm a few miles south of town, consisting of four turbines generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity each: enough energy to meet about 15 percent of the town's demand. The project was a stunning success, prompting calls for more wind power. But the established wisdom of the power industry holds that wind is too unreliable for base power generation and must always be backed up by some kind of fossil-fuel system.

To the guiding lights at ARPA and the Lamar Utilities Board, which oversees Lamar Light and Power, that meant coal. In 2004, ARPA informed its members of plans to "repower" the Lamar plant by retooling an existing steam turbine and adding a second turbine and a coal-fired boiler. The conversion to coal was estimated to cost between $61 million and $66 million and would provide what ARPA described as "competitively priced and reliable baseload power" for the communities involved.

But in some quarters, the plan was greeted with skepticism and trepidation. One surprising dissent came from Leon Sparks, who'd worked for Lamar Light and Power for 45 years, the last fifteen as the plant superintendent. Sparks felt so strongly that the conversion was a mistake that he wrote letters to the editor and even took out an ad in the local paper protesting the move.

"My biggest concern was that they were going to put it right in town," say Sparks. "I didn't think it was right to put a noisy coal plant, with rail cars and the rest, in the middle of Lamar."

Before he retired, in 2003, Sparks had sampled possible locations for additional wind turbines in LLP's 157-square-mile service area. He believes the area has sufficient wind for a far-flung network of turbines that would overcome the standard objections about wind being an intermittent power source. "Out here, the wind is blowing somewhere all the time," he explains. "I thought with more wind and gas, we could keep the prices down and have a clean plant. But when I left, nothing additional was done. Every effort was put into the coal plant."

The challenge of converting the old gas plant proved to be more daunting than expected. Hikes in the price of copper, concrete and steel sent the raw-materials cost soaring; competing for qualified contractors with Xcel's expansion of the Comanche plant boosted wages and labor expenses. Technical difficulties and what Rigel calls "design issues" resulted in significant delays as workers struggled to modify or replace pricey equipment. Projected to be up and operating 22 months after groundbreaking, the plant took more than three years to complete, forcing ARPA to buy more power on the open market than it anticipated.

E-mails between plant officials and contractors produced in the citizen lawsuit show a remarkable degree of bickering and blame-shifting — over delays, unpaid bills and work that was started and stopped repeatedly as technological and scheduling problems arose. "I again request a basic organizational chart and project schedule," an exasperated point man from General Electric wrote to an ARPA manager last fall. "This project continues in delay! This is at significant cost to your organization."

Even an admiring appraisal in Power magazine, which conveyed its Marmaduke Award for creative problem-solving to the Lamar Repowering Project, contained some caveats about the engineering involved. "The complexity of the integrated steam turbines makes the design and operation of this plant more complicated than for a standard steam plant," the writer observed.

The cost overruns prompted at least one member of ARPA to seek a way out of the deal. The city of Raton, New Mexico, a member since 1979, had approved the initial $66 million bond offering — but balked after ARPA requested an additional $10 million, then another $18 million. Two years ago Raton filed a federal lawsuit against ARPA, stating its reluctance to take on more debt and complaining that the cost per kilowatt hour generated by the plant would be well above what had been represented. By 2007, the suit alleged, ARPA's cost estimate had swollen to $110 million, and at a meeting with city officials, "ARPA admitted substantial mistakes related to the Project concerning, for example, silo issues, coal handling, and rail issues."

Under the terms of a settlement reached earlier this year, Raton will drop out of ARPA and will look elsewhere for its power needs. Other members have been dunned for "prepayments" of power and are facing rate increases to defray the costs resulting from the plant delays.

"If anything could go wrong, it did go wrong," ARPA board president Bob Freidenberger explained to the Trinidad city council a few months ago.


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