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The future of the West's largest coal-fired plant remains in jeopardy

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Tay Wiles | Aug 15, 2013 01:00 PM

The West's largest coal-fired power plant, the Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona, is in transition. It provides 520 jobs—85 percent of which are held by Navajos—supplies the juice that pumps Arizonans’ share of Colorado River water, and keeps the lights on for millions of people in three states. But the plant also churns out a lot of pollution, and is facing a requirement from the EPA to cut emissions.

Now, a coalition of environmental and Native American groups has released a plan that they hope will direct the plant's long-term future. The move comes as a response to the EPA’s own detailed proposal to bring the station into compliance with the Clean Air Act’s haze rule and reduce emissions by 84 percent. Some estimates put the price tag for meeting that goal to be upwards of $1.1 billion. Some of the stakeholders in the plant are worried that the cost may force them to shut the entire facility down.

The stakeholders’ new proposal, called a “Reasonable Progress Alternative,” aims to strike a compromise by reducing emissions of nitrogen oxide while keeping the plant running until at least 2044.

The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.

This alternative would shut down one of the plant's generating units by 2020 and retrofit to reduce emissions by 2030. The proposal would also stop "conventional coal-fired generation," or shut down the plant, by 2044. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Western Resources Advocates—both groups that are critical of coal—had a hand in creating the proposal. Yet Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter director, says that the plan should be more definitively geared toward ending coal burning in the region. She says that it does not provide an enforceable path to that end, nor does it sufficiently protect air quality in the Grand Canyon and ten other nearby parks.

“It includes huge question marks…and several off-ramps,” Bahr wrote in an email. “There is no guarantee that a unit will close. There is no commitment to stop burning coal, just way out in 2044, they say they will not burn ‘conventional coal.’”

Complicating the issue, two of the plant’s power purchasers have announced exits from the plant by 2020. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power aims to shake its coal dependence by 2023 and Nevada Energy has also made moves to pull out. Bahr says that they have “read the writing on the wall” that coal energy is on the decline in the Southwest. Unless the Navajo Nation fills the ownership gap that those purchasers will leave, and becomes a co-owner, the plant has no clear future beyond 2044, and perhaps even beyond 2020.

This possible co-ownership route would be an interesting twist of fate, as Emily Guerin wrote for HCN: “(It’s) a reversal of a decades-old pattern in which the tribe leased land, resources and water to outside companies but had no ownership in the resulting businesses.”

More and more the nation is interested in becoming an owner or having a much higher stake in the interests than just being a lessee,” says director of the Navajo Nation EPA, Stephen Etsitty.

For the past several years, while emission reductions of the plant have been discussed, “the economic analysis (has been) focused on the impacts to rate payers, and most of the rate payers are off the reservation because most of the electricity goes off the reservation,” he says. Though the Navajo signed on to the alternative plan, it still falls short of addressing economic impacts that shifts in production or eventual closure would have on residents of the reservation, where the plant is located, Etsitty says.

Plant closure would also have a massive impact on far-flung communities in Arizona, Nevada and California. “Losing this source of power would mean a 200 percent increase in water-delivery costs, along with the loss of jobs and the ability for Arizona to use the sale of excess energy to pay for state obligations, including the building of the (Central Arizona Project),” reads an Arizona Daily Star editorial.

Yet the positive environmental impacts of closing could be equally important. Currently, it’s one of the largest sources of nitrogen oxide pollution in the country, producing an annual average of about 30,000 tons, as well as 4,200 tons of sulfur dioxide, 19 million tons of carbon dioxide and 420 pounds of mercury, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

NGSmapwithcirclelabelsmeasurewithoutlines.jpg
Protected Lands Near the Navajo Generating Station. Created by Nathan Miller/National Parks Association.

In addition to plans to reduce emissions, the stakeholders’ proposal includes a $5 million fund for community improvement projects; a federal commitment to work with the Gila River Indian Community to develop solar energy; and $100 million for Arizona tribes that rely on water from the Central Arizona Project, which receives power from the plant.

“The strongest part (of creating the alternative proposal),” says Etsitty, “was that we were able to have a dialogue for about five months with all the different people with different perspectives.” Tonight, community members and business owners from in and around Page, Ariz. are meeting to hear plant managers explain the new alternative proposal. A public comment period ends October 4.

Tay Wiles is HCN's online editor. News tips and follows welcome @taywiles.

NGS photo by Flickr user .H0oT.

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