The Navajo Generating Station located near Page, Arizona, is the largest coal-fired electric generation facility west of the Mississippi. With an output of 2,250 megawatts, it has been supplying electricity to Arizona, California, and Nevada residents since 1976. “NGS and its employees are one reason why this region, the state of Arizona and the Phoenix metropolitan area have been able to grow and thrive,” says Mike Hummel, deputy general manager of the Salt River Project which operates the plant. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in a 2014 survey, NGS was listed as the 3rd largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the United States by the EPA.
The story of the Navajo Generating Station brings together several disparate threads. The plant is owned by a consortium of utility companies, including the Salt River Project, and the US Bureau of Land Reclamation. The coal it burns comes from the Keyenta Mine located 80 miles away. The generating plant and the mine employ about 800 people, the majority of them members of the Navajo and Hopi Native American tribes. Both tribes collect royalties from the operation of the generating plant and the mine.
Last week, the utilities that own the NGS made a decision to close it down at the end of 2019, about a decade earlier than planned. The cost of electricity from burning natural gas has plummeted, making it unprofitable to keep operating NGS. “The utility owners do not make this decision lightly,” Hummel told the Washington Post. “However, [its owners have] an obligation to provide low cost service to our more than 1 million customers, and the higher cost of operating NGS would be borne by our customers.”
The closing of the Navajo Generating Station gives the lie to Donald Trump’s campaign bluster about bringing back jobs for coal miners and relaxing environmental restrictions on coal fired plants. Facilities such as NGS were the target of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Trump has promised to eviscerate that plan and has installed just the right head of the EPA to make that happen, but in the end it won’t make any difference. Simple economics are dictating the end of the coal era in a way that regulations could not.
Coal is also taking a drubbing in Ohio, one of the states that went heavily in favor of Trump, swayed by his promise of more jobs for coal miners. Things aren’t working out that way though. Last week, Dayton Power and Light reached an agreement with the Sierra Club to close its Killen and Stuart coal fired power plants in Ohio by June of this year.
The Stuart plant, built in the early 70s, has a capacity of 2,440 megawatts. The Killen plant, built in 1982, has a capacity of 666 megawatts. Combined, the two coal plants are some of the largest polluters in the country, with their emissions affecting millions of people as far away as the Mid-Atlantic region.
The plant closures raise two important considerations. What should be done to help the workers who will lose their jobs find other employment, and who should pay for it? At the national policy level, it is good news that three large carbon polluters are being taken off line. At the local level, it is unfair to simply throw people out of work without planning for how to keep the closures from having devastating financial consequences on the workers.
A national carbon tax would provide a pool of money to help retrain workers but, given current policies, those workers will receive only whatever unemployment benefits their states and the Congress provide them and nothing more. In fact, if Republicans have their way, the workers will suffer the indignity of being drug tested before they can qualify for any benefits at all. Some people think members of Congress should be drug tested instead.
There is also a fine irony here for the Native people who will be affected by the NGS closure. The tribes will lose money once the royalties stop and hundreds of their members will become unemployed. The tribes could elect to continue operating the plant themselves but digging coal and burning it is at odds with the Native American ethos of being good stewards of the earth — the motivation behind the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline project in North Dakota.
The closing of three old coal plants is cause for celebration, but America must develop a comprehensive plan to replace the electrical power lost with electricity from renewable sources. It’s wonderful that natural gas is cheaper than coal and has lower emissions when burned, but it still comes largely from fracking, a process that is as destructive to the land as coal mining. It also is associated with massive releases of methane into the atmosphere, a gas that is far more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide.
Unless America transitions to renewable energy, closing coal plants and replacing them with natural gas plants is at best a mixed blessing. As the cost of grid scale solar energy continues to fall, the day is getting closer when simple economics will put an end to natural gas generating plants just as natural gas has put and end to coal fired plants. For the health of all Americans, that day cannot come soon enough.
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