Generating station
(Photo credit: WildEarth Guardians / Flickr)

The state of New Mexico has committed to transitioning to carbon-free power by 2045, but one city near a coal-fired power plant is striving to adapt coal to a low-carbon future rather than allow that source of high-paying jobs and tax revenue to die.

The city of Farmington in northwestern New Mexico partnered with start-up Enchant Energy to push for installing carbon-capture technology on the San Juan Generating Station, an 847-megawatt coal-fired plant near the Four Corners. If successful, the generating station would join a list of pilot projects aiming to show the effectiveness of the technology, which traps emissions of carbon dioxide. The city’s goal is to keep most of the 445 power plant workers and miners employed, meet air pollution targets, and pioneer technology that could be used in coal power plants elsewhere. But critics challenge that the technology has not been proven at this scale and comes with environmental and public health concerns. Whatever the outcome, it’ll have a disproportionate impact on 20 nearby Navajo communities both economically — as 40% of the power plant and mine workers are Navajo — and environmentally.

“We’re just in a situation where the utility owners are deciding to close, so what do you do? You’ve got to do something else,” says Robyn Jackson, climate and energy outreach coordinator for Diné C.A.R.E., Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a nonprofit that works with Navajo communities on environmental issues. “It’s a hard thing. We are being left out, in a way, but people need to just figure out what they’re going to do and hopefully it’s something that has long-term stability and that doesn’t affect the area so negatively.”

Workers and a city looking for a parachute

When the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the state’s largest electricity provider and managing owner of the plant, was asked to retrofit the 50-year-old San Juan Generating Station to comply with the Clean Air Act, the company decided instead to cut emissions by closing two of four units, which it did in 2017. It then scheduled the rest of the plant to shut down in 2022. New Mexico lawmakers have now mandated a statewide transition to 80% renewable power — the other 20% will be nuclear — by 2045.

But that move would leave Farmington, the county, and local schools short of both hundreds of jobs with salaries above $88,000 a year and a significant chunk of their tax base — adding to a series of economic hits that have led to a declining local population. As the renewable power legislation worked through the state legislature, busloads of coal miners and plant workers made the seven-hour round-trip from Farmington to the state capitol to sit in every committee meeting and make the case for something like a parachute.

Enchant Energy offered that option in the form of carbon-capture and storage technology that could cut the plant’s carbon emissions by 90% while sparing the region an economic blow. The city, which owns a 5% share of the generating station, is working with Enchant to negotiate a buyout for the other utilities, including PNM, that own the generating station. State law requires the carbon-capture technology be up and running by January 1, 2023.

‘No technical barrier’

“We have that technology. We know how to do it,” says Bob Balch, director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, which received a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to research storing some of the San Juan’s carbon dioxide in a saline aquifer. He contends this technology provides a necessary bridge from current levels of greenhouse gas emissions to a future without. It’s also a chance to hone technology to export to other nations.

“In the U.S., we’ve already gone from 50% coal power to around 25% coal power, and more plants are being phased out all the time,” Balch says. “The problem is, the rest of the world isn’t doing the same thing.”

If the San Juan Generating Station could successfully deploy carbon capture technology, that could influence plant operators in China and India to pursue similar retrofits, Balch says.

Carbon capture experts at Los Alamos National Laboratory, with funding from the Department of Energy, assessed the proposal and found it “technically viable.” The approach uses an amine-based capture system manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries that’s been shown to capture more than 90% of carbon dioxide emissions. Similar systems were used at the 654-megawatt Petra Nova project in Texas, which low oil prices pushed offline earlier this year, and the Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan, Canada.

“I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s simple — you buy it and install it tomorrow and it would work, but it wouldn’t require R&D to make this work,” says George Guthrie, lead author of that assessment.

“The issue is really getting these projects on the ground and beginning to get the experience that they need to lower those costs,” Guthrie says. “There’s no technical barrier.”

But costs are a concern

“They’re absolutely right, it could be a huge game-changer in terms of technology,” says PNM spokesperson Ray Sandoval. “The problem is, we just haven’t seen them address some of these structural issues.”

When deciding the San Juan’s future, PNM analyzed carbon capture and determined it would be more expensive than renewable energy, flexible natural gas, or battery storage. Once captured, Enchant plans to pipe carbon dioxide to use in extracting oil, which PNM speculates could violate New Mexico’s new carbon emissions rules. The system would also require 50% more water in an already drought-stricken region, and use 29% of the power generated to run the carbon capture machinery — with 40% more coal. As a less-flexible source, it could lead to curtailing renewable power use. They also project it would cost $1.3 billion more than PNM’s plan to decommission the plant and build a solar array.

“When you take all this down, you have folks who don’t have any experience in running this type of project, trying to run a project on an older power plant on a scale that hasn’t been proven, with some economic models that keep changing and some real structural problems that they continue to fail to address,” Sandoval says. “That’s what’s kind of worrisome.”

Aware of the closure’s economic hit and its disproportionate effects to Navajo communities, New Mexico’s renewable power legislation included $17.8 million for severance pay and $8,000 per employee for job training, plus $1.8 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to be paid by PNM ratepayers. A total of 189 Navajo people work in the mine and plant, and another 115 Navajo contractors and suppliers work with it. How that money will be spent to help them transition is still being determined, but Jackson, with Diné CARE, says she hopes the Navajo community will get to weigh in.

“Some of our non-native workers could retrain and try for jobs that were outside of the area,” Sandoval says. “For our Navajo brothers and sisters, that’s much more difficult because they’re tied to the land and families and living on the Nation, so moving to get a job is not as easy for some of those folks.”

‘A huge impact’ on land, health

Just 20 miles from the San Juan Generating Station is the 1,540-megawatt Four Corners Generating Station. The region reports high levels of ozone, which can irritate lungs and aggravate conditions like asthma and emphysema. Working in coal mines — jobs half held by Navajo people at the San Juan’s mine — is also linked to lung diseases. This spring, the Navajo Nation saw one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the country, highlighting the need to improve air quality. Jackson knows people who have suffered asthma attacks or other health issues tied to chronic air pollution exposure, and seen emergency medical services delayed by rough, dirt roads.

The two power plants, she says, “have had a huge impact on the land and on the people’s health, particularly Navajo people. I know we have concerns with the economy, but we need to be doing things that will have less of an impact on the environment, on our climate, on our water.”

She’s skeptical that Enchant’s plans will deliver those changes.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, says the carbon capture technology represents an impediment to progress: “It would be locking us into running the San Juan Generating coal plant, which nobody should be doing anymore — it’s like building a typewriter factory.”

Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist who covers environmental issues around the West.