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Know the West

Coal’s big breakdown

A half-century ago, the ‘Big Buildup’ transformed the West; now, it’s all coming to an end.

For nearly five decades, the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks towered over the sandstone and scrub of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, churning out greenhouse gases and other pollutants and serving as symbols of coal’s unquestioned dominance of the nation’s energy mix. But the plant shut down in December 2019, and the towers were demolished a year later. Now they symbolize something else entirely: The Big Breakdown of coal power and the ongoing transformation of the West’s economic and energy landscape.

In the late 1950s, several utilities across the Southwest teamed up to create a cabal called WEST, or Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates, to construct six massive coal-fired power plants and their accompanying mines across the Colorado Plateau. The plants would then ship power hundreds of miles across high-voltage lines to the region’s burgeoning cities. It was the first and most ambitious phase of what scholar and author Charles Wilkinson would later dub “The Big Buildup.”


Four of the six proposed plants — Four Corners, Mojave, San Juan and Navajo — sprouted on or near the Navajo Nation in the 1960s and early ’70s. Huntington was built in central Utah, but the sixth plant never made it past the drawing board.

The Buildup’s real beneficiaries lay west and south of the Colorado Plateau, in the cities, where an abundance of cheap power lit the neon of Las Vegas and ran air conditioners in LA. The Navajo Generating Station powered the pumps that pushed Colorado River water into central Arizona, sending Phoenix’s suburbs sprawling into the desert and enriching the Southwest’s growth machine — all those real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives.

For a half-century, the coal plants churned, pumping electricity onto the grid, cash into state and tribal coffers, and pollution into the water, land and air, unruffled by recessions or environmental protests and lawsuits, impervious to the booms and busts that plagued oil, gas and hardrock mining. Just as the coal leviathan maintained a steady stream of “baseload” power to the grid, so too did it provide an economic foundation for coal-dependent communities, together with a baseload level of smog.

Now that foundation is crumbling.

Coal as a power-generating fuel reached its apex in 2007. Soon thereafter, the price of natural gas came crashing down and that, along with renewable-energy tax credits and the decreasing price of solar and wind energy, wiped away coal’s cost advantage. States mandated that at least some of the electricity they consumed had to come from clean sources, California ordered the state’s utilities to break their coal habit for good, and the Obama administration implemented a variety of regulations that increased the cost of operating coal plants.

$54 million
Total annual royalties, bonus payments and water-use fees paid to the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation by the owners of both the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Coal Mine, which were lost when the plant and mine shut down. 

$20.6 million
Compensation paid to Peabody CEO Glen Kellow in 2017 as the company exited bankruptcy. Peabody owns the now-closed Kayenta Coal Mine. 

Number of coal-mining fatalities in the U.S. in 1913.12
Fatalities in 2019.

Fatalities in 2020.

20 million
Metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases emitted by the Navajo Generating Station (CO2) and the Kayenta Mine (methane) annually while they were in operation. 

472; 4,370; 259
Pounds of mercury, arsenic and selenium, respectively, emitted by the Navajo Generating Station annually when it was still operating.

1.3 million
Tons of coal combustion waste produced by the plant each year.

9 billion gallons
Amount of water drawn from Lake Powell each year for steam generation and cooling at the plant. This was all consumptive use, meaning none of this water was returned to the source.

3 million
Megawatt-hours of electricity the Central Arizona Project uses to lift, transport and deliver 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson annually — enough to power about 240,000 Arizona homes for one year. Most of that power previously came from the Navajo Generating Station.

Approximate number of households on the Navajo Nation that lack electricity.

Today, the products of the Big Buildup are coming down as surely as the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks. 

Today, the products of the Big Buildup are coming down as surely as the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks. Mojave shut down in 2005; Reid-Gardner in southern Nevada went dark in 2019, as did the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it. San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico will close next year, and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant is unlikely to run beyond 2031. Domestic coal consumption is down 65% since its 2007 peak, and some 45,000 coal miners have lost their jobs during the last decade. The Big Breakdown is reverberating across the West despite President Donald Trump’s market-meddling and regulation-eviscerating efforts to save the coal industry.

The transition won’t be easy: Coal-dependent economies are suffering mightily, from the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation to towns like Farmington, New Mexico, and Gillette, Wyoming. Yet the Big Breakdown also opens up space for hope and opportunity, for a rethinking and refashioning of energy systems and economies. And already the air over the Southwest is a little bit cleaner than it’s been since the 1960s.    

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Energy Information Administration, Navajo Generating Station-Kayenta Mine Complex Draft Environmental Impact Statement (2016), St. Louis Dispatch.

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.