Arizona water utility chooses solar over coal

The decision tips the ailing Navajo Generating Station closer to its planned closure.

 

In one of the latest bids to save the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest coal-burning power plant, the Department of Interior has stepped in to try and stave off its closure. Last week, Timothy Petty, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, sent a letter to the Central Arizona Project, a regional water utility, pressuring it to continue purchasing electricity from the power plant, which is slated to close in 2019.

In the past, the water project, which is operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, has purchased most of its power from the generating station. However, with the impending closure of the plant, the utility began looking to new and cheaper energy sources, including renewables like solar. On Thursday, despite the Interior Department’s recommendation, CAP’s board voted to sign a 20-year power purchase agreement with a solar company.

The Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-burning power plant in the West, is expected to close in 2019.

Those working to save the plant fear that CAP’s decision to move forward with alternative suppliers will prevent any potential investors from coming forward to buy the generating station. However, the utility has said it will still consider purchasing electricity from the power plant if a new owner can “provide competitively priced power,” CAP spokeswoman DeEtte Person said in an email.

The battle to keep the coal-fired power plant running is emblematic of a larger national effort to keep coal in operation, despite market forces that favor natural gas. As part of his “energy dominance” mandate, President Donald Trump’s administration has tried to bolster the country’s coal production, moving to lift regulatory burdens to increase the profitability of the energy source. Time and again those efforts have proven inadequate to save the struggling industry.

Several attempts have already been made in the case of the Navajo Generating Station. In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that would provide a multi-million dollar tax break for coal in Arizona, as a way to attract a potential buyer for the generating station. A few weeks ago, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., revealed a draft bill that would require the operator of CAP to purchase as “much of its total power requirements as possible” from the station until the utility has paid off its $1.1 billion debt. In addition to that mandate, the bill would temporarily exempt any potential new owner of the plant from having to conduct a National Environmental Policy Act review, and would waive Clean Air Act requirements, according to AZ Central.

If no buyer comes forward — a Chicago-based company has said it might make an offer — the plant will close in December 2019. The generating station supplies over 700 jobs, 90 percent of which are held by citizens of the Navajo Nation. In a statement, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye asked for more time to find a buyer before utilities like the CAP pursue alternatives. “We should continue to work to find solutions to keep the plant operating while supporting both the Navajo economy and families,” he said. Both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation also receive royalties from coal production, with 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s annual budget coming from the generating station.

In the same week that the Interior Department put pressure on the Arizona utility to buy power from the generating station, a leaked White House draft memo directed the Department of Energy to save struggling coal and nuclear plants across the country. The memo described plans to order grid operators to buy energy from coal and nuclear plants for at least two years, allegedly to boost the resilience of the power grid, according to a statement from the White House.

Despite a coal-friendly administration, Thursday’s vote for solar by the CAP board suggests that coal is no longer considered an economically viable option for future energy generation. Addressing representatives from both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation at Thursday’s board meeting, CAP’s Board President Lisa Atkins stated that the utility was “not at war with coal.” Rather, it was seeking a “long-term, cost-effective, reliable and diverse power portfolio.” Coal, it would appear, no longer has a prime spot in that energy mix.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -