Deal would reduce millions of tons of carbon dioxide, but where’s the renewable energy?

Coal - San Juan

By Shrayas Jatkar
Beyond Coal organizing representative

The state of New Mexico and PNM announced that they had struck a major deal with the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 15 regarding the future of the San Juan Generating Station, a 40-year-old coal-burning power plant near Farmington. Key elements of the deal are to close two of the four coal-burning units by the end of 2017 while putting pollution controls on the remaining two units to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and other toxic pollutants.

The two units slated for closure — Units 2 and 3 — represent nearly 900 megawatts of dirty and dangerous coal-fired electricity to be phased out, enough energy to power 900,000 homes. Nellis Kennedy-Howard, Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign in the Southwest, said the announcement from the state “underscores the broadening consensus that New Mexico must transition away from coal.”

PNM has promised that no jobs will be lost under the latest plan, and that the utility company will invest at least $1 million into the Four Corners region for re-training of workers and economic development.

According to the deal, PNM will continue operating Units 1 and 4 at the San Juan coal plant indefinitely but will install on these two remaining units a cheap pollution-control technology called Selective Non-Catalytic Reduction (SNCR) by January 31, 2016.

Originally, the EPA had required that all four units at the San Juan Generating Station be equipped with the more effective Selective Catalytic Reduction technology — the industry standard in use at about half of the coal-fired power plants in the U.S. — that would have slashed nitrogen oxide emissions at the San Juan coal plant by 80 percent.

The New Mexico Environment Department agreed with the EPA’s ruling during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration and then reversed its decision a few months into Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, contending that SNCR on all four units would be sufficient even though NOx emissions would fall by a mere 20 percent.

A commitment from PNM, the state’s largest electric utility, and the Martinez administration to retire nearly 900 megawatts of coal-fired electricity marks a significant step in New Mexico’s transition away from coal. However, it remains unclear if the deal announced in February would meet the standard set by the EPA for reducing haze- and ozone-forming pollution (i.e., nitrogen oxide) at San Juan. These pollutants contribute to chronic respiratory ailments in nearby communities as well as marring the views at wilderness areas in the region.

The Clean Air Act requires that the plant must meet the same pollution standard that the best available technology would provide.

The deal singles out natural gas as the only replacement power source for the closing units at the San Juan coal plant. A natural gas pipeline and a 150- to 200-megawatt natural-gas power plant would be built to help meet “peak demand.” In other words, the natural gas power plant would be ramped up and down to meet electricity demand only when demand is higher than average, rather than serving as a baseload power source that operates all the time, making the gas plant an expensive proposition for the utility and customers.

Kennedy-Howard stressed the reasons New Mexicans demand more than just a switch to natural gas: “By building a reliance on another fossil fuel like natural gas, New Mexico will continue to allow more pollution from methane, benzene, carbon and other toxins. It would not provide affordable or stable rates for electricity customers. The use of natural gas in our state will not only contribute to both air and water pollution, it will also threaten our water supply just like coal does — since both are water-intensive. Solar and wind power can provide New Mexicans with clean, safe and affordable power that is not water-intensive.”

New Mexico deserves a plan that meets public health and environmental safeguards of the Clean Air Act. Yet the announcement from PNM and the Martinez Administration did not make any mention of investments in the rich potential of our state for safer sources of energy like solar, wind, geothermal and energy efficiency.

It is critical that our state leaders chart a path forward that protects the health of our communities and water supply.

At a time when New Mexicans are increasingly concerned with droughts and fires as a result of the growing climate-disruption crisis, we need solutions that will drive a transition to a true clean-energy future.