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San Juan Deal Raises Questions: How Long will New Mexico Run on Coal?

Noah Long

Posted February 22, 2013

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A deal to reduce emissions from the San Juan Generating Station, the huge coal plant polluting the Four Corners region, was announced last week. The deal marks potentially significant progress, but it left open major questions. First among them: How long will New Mexico run on dirty coal? 

Recent analysis of government weather data shows at least 3,527 monthly weather records were broken for heat, rain, and snow throughout the United States last year. In New Mexico, there were a total of 26 broken heat records, five broken precipitation records, and 27 large wildfires. There’s no doubt that global warming is here and one of the main causes of climate distruption is carbon dioxide pollution like the millions of tons of it spewing from the San Juan plant not only over New Mexico, but also portions of Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

The plant is one of the largest coal power plants in the west and affects the entire southwest.  It is a massive polluter: It dumps 13,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide – a key cause of climate disruption -- into the atmosphere each year. The emissions are equal to the amount released by 2.3 million passenger vehicles, which is more than all of the cars registered in New Mexico. Pollution from the plant is also responsible for 33 premature deaths, 600 asthma attacks, 31 asthma-related emergency room visits, at an estimated cost of more than $254,000,000. 

Although it often seems debates on energy and climate change are centered far away in Washington, D.C., some of the biggest decisions about New Mexico’s energy future are decided much closer to home. Those decisions include whether the state should:

  • Continue to rely on climate-warming coal and gas power… or develop clean, renewable energy, harvesting the huge potential of New Mexico’s sun and wind; or
  • Invest in making our homes and businesses more energy-efficient to save money, energy and reduce pollution. 

Last week, New Mexico state officials released a pollution control deal for the behemoth San Juan Generating Station coal plant, which is operated and half-owned by Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM. (The other portion is owned by a variety of utilities in New Mexico, Arizona and California). The deal would close half the plant (two of the four generators) and reduce the pollution control requirements on the remaining units.

The deal has several more hurdles, including sign off in federal court, including at nearby parks. So far, no details on whether and how the deal complies with federal air quality laws have been released.  If that occurs, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission will determine whether to approve the expenditures required by the deal. Without question, this resolution will largely determine the fate of clean, renewable energy in our state because San Juan provides so much of New Mexico’s energy, whether PNM and the other utilities retire their share or not will determine whether they can replace the plant with clean energy.

While the deal represents a step forward for the plant with significant emissions reductions, big questions remain:

  • Which owners will retire their interest in the plant and which will stay in? 
  • Why does PNM want to continue investing in San Juan even though other utilities in Arizona and California that also own the facility have indicated they would rather retire it? The California utilities, MSR, SCCPA and Anaheim have all indicated they are getting out. That is good news for California, but it may mean PNM owns just as much coal at the facility as ever.
  • Will there be an economic supply of coal at the plant’s mine after its expensive contract ends in 2017?
  • The deal includes support for a new gas plant, but is another new gas plant necessary? Why not include renewable energy?
  • And perhaps most importantly, just how long do PNM and any other continuing owners intend to continue providing energy from coal? Coal remains the dirtiest fossil fuel available with serious health and air quality threats to New Mexicans and harm to our parks.

A move in the right direction would be for the New Mexico Commission, which is also charged with implementing New Mexico’s renewable energy law, to ensure New Mexico[s utilities that currently provide less than 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources get to at least the legally mandated 20 percent by 2020 as a condition of approving any new expenses at San Juan- or approval of any new gas plant. Replacing power from San Juan with clean energy such as solar and wind power would be a significant step forward. To put things in perspective: PNM’s recent renewable plan recommended adding only enough renewable energy  to match about 2% of the dirty coal power they own at the San Juan plant.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that the cheapest, cleanest and fastest way to power New Mexico is from investing in renewable sources and making our homes, schools and businesses more energy efficient to reduce the need for power plants.

We don’t have to wait on Washington to make progress on clean energy: These decisions will all be made in New Mexico. The New Mexico Commission can and should make the decisions necessary to help New Mexico set clean energy records, instead of scorching weather record breakers like last year.

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AnonymousMar 2 2013 12:53 AM

What the Mayor fails to take into account when he makes these promises is that the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power would have to replace 1653 Megawatts of power if they stopped using coal power from Intermountain and Navajo. These new Megawatts have to be there when needed, and until find a way to make the wind blow or the Sun to shine on command these Megawatts cannot come from renewables. The dirty coal Megawatts represent about 1/3 of Los Angeles' load on an average day, so the other option would be to build more Natural Gas plants which no one wants, or black out 1/3 of the city which no one wants. Short answer is until people stop spending money on renewables which you have little or no control over and start putting that money into Natural Gas Units Coals not going away.

Noah LongMar 2 2013 10:05 AM

Thanks for joining reading and joining the conversation. It looks like you meant to comment on my other recent blog:

I disagree that getting off coal is only possible with increased use of gas. First, energy efficiency is a key resource that can reduce the need from all power sources. Here a recent blog from one of my colleagues on that:

Second, Renewable resources can meet our needs: Geographic and technological diversity of renewable resources ensures we don’t have to count on any one resource all the time. While the wind never blows all the time in one place, it is always blowing someplace; while it’s never sunny all the time in one place, the suns is almost always shining during the day somewhere. Hydro, geothermal and sustainably sourced biomass/gas can also contribute to renewable resources diversity. Grid and power operators are improving their forecasting – which allows smaller reserve margins and better utilization of demand/response to match supply and demand.

Third: All power supply resources, including fossil fuels, require “backup.” Fossil fuel power plants require scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and are not available 100% of the time. The nature of the electric grid is to rely on a variety of resources and constantly rebalance supply of electricity with demand for it. Here is a recent blog from another colleague on that subject:

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