Photo of San Juan Power Plant for Sierra Club article on PNM's utility rate hike proposal rejected by the NM PRC

By Mona Blaber, 
Chapter communications coordinator

A seismic shift for energy and the climate has hit the Southwest, and New Mexico in particular.

On March 16, Public Service Company of New Mexico announced that it would likely benefit customer bills to retire New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station in 2022, when coal and ownership contracts expire. PNM said it had not made a final decision on the plant’s future.

That announcement came less than a month after owners of Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal plant in the West, announced the plant will cease operations in 2019, 25 years ahead of schedule.

The coal plants join others around the country on the ropes as natural gas and renewable energy have become cheapter than coal. Xcel Energy says it will save customers billions by investing in 1.2 gigawatts of wind in eastern New Mexico and west Texas (see story). And Taos-based electric cooperative Kit Carson plans to invest in 30 MW of solar in 30 locations in northern New Mexico (see story).

Studies have found that even before coal was overtaken as the lowest-price source of electricity, its economic benefits were far outweighed by its costs, including pollution cleanup and health damages. Some community members living near the plant, which neighbors the Navajo Nation, have expressed that concern.

“Coal is a dying industry and has had significant impacts on the Navajo Nation for over 50 years. Enough is enough!” said Colleen Cooley, Diné citizen and advocate for sustainable solutions. “It is imperative for our Nation to transition to a healthier, sustainable economy now.”

Scientists estimate that we must reduce greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, which could include devastating economic and human losses. Closing San Juan by 2023 would mean cleaner air, lives saved and significant progress in protecting future generations, but it would also mean ending the 286 jobs at the plant and around 355 at San Juan Mine.

“We must take this economic shift seriously and truly think about how we can support workers who have dedicated their lives to keeping our lights on and the communities that have lived in the shadow of pollution,” Bill Corcoran, regional director for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said. “If we don’t prepare for the future, it will be their families who carry the burden.”

PNM’s analysis is part of a required public planning process called Integrated Resource Planning, which lays out the utility’s plans for the next 20 years. Details of public meetings on the plan, which is in process, are at www.pnm.com/irp.

“PNM’s announcement is a clear sign that coal is too costly. Now is the time to focus on an economic transition for the hard-working families in Northwest New Mexico. The Four Corners holds vast solar potential and a massive transmission network that can create clean-energy jobs providing affordable, reliable energy to the region. This will require immediate and thoughtful action from PNM, the state, local government, and other local stakeholders,” said Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter director.

PNM had already planned to shut two of San Juan’s four coal-burning units by December 2017.

PNM’s replacement power for those units is mostly existing nuclear energy, natural gas and an increased share of San Juan’s remaining units, plus 40 MW of solar, but the company said closing the remaining units would be an opportunity to add renewable energy.

These events demonstrate that even while President Donald Trump caters to coal executives while ignoring the catastrophic human and economic risks of climate change, coal’s decline may be impossible to reverse.

In an analysis on the Navajo Generating Station closure, the Los Angeles Times said: “The environmental rules that Trump denounces as the culprit for the rapid decline of coal are not the problem in Arizona — even at this plant that releases more greenhouse gases than almost any other in the country. The problem is old-fashioned competition.”

Coal reels as wind and solar rise