In need of a jolt
Farmington grapples with post coal-fueled future

In need of a jolt

The now-closed San Juan Generating Station./ Courtesy photo

Dave Marston - 06/01/2023

by Dave Marston

 

The good news these days about Farmington is that the air looks clear. That’s a huge change.

For 60 years, the air was dingy, polluted by two enormous coal-fired power stations in nine units that produced 3,723 megawatts – enough to power 2 million homes. Now, just 1,540 megawatts remain in two units equipped with modern, air-pollution control systems.

Starting in the 1960s, the town’s giant smokestacks could be seen from miles away, and their dangerous emissions helped add the designation of “national sacrifice zone” to the Four Corners. Pollutants included “beryllium compounds, chromium compounds, cobalt and five other carcinogens,” reports ProPublica.

But these days, you might describe Farmington, population 46,422, as an attractive river town where “you can see mountains 100 miles away,” Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said.

Farmington is becoming known for its recreation, ranging from nearby national parks and monuments to river walks and mountain biking.

“Jolt Your Journey!” is how the town promotes itself to visitors. A cultural battle, though, is being fought over what replaces coal as the city’s power supply.

Given the town’s near-constant sunshine and underused grid tie-ins to Sunbelt cities, solar might seem the obvious replacement. However, the people with clout in town – Mayor Nate Duckett, City Manager Rob Mayes and the nonprofit Farmington Electrical Utility – yearn for the good old days of fossil fuels.

Power from the now-closed San Juan Generating Station was cheap, says Duckett, who enjoys broad support, having won his seat with 86% of the vote in his last election in 2018. “It was also homegrown,” he adds, “and there were good jobs.”

To keep its coal plant open, Farmington chased a carbon capture scheme even though the technology’s history is one of failure. All 11 of President Obama’s carbon capture projects have either gone belly up or were never built. A Mississippi coal project alone cost $7.5 billion, leaving only mountains of scrap.

Farmington’s failed carbon-capture scheme cost millions of dollars in legal fees and precious time. Without power-purchase contracts, Farmington Electric had no steady electrical supplier when its coal-fired electricity was switched off. The local utility burned through a good portion of $100 million in reserves buying gas and electricity on the open market.

To rebuild a financial cushion, the utility raised rates in April. This angered residents, though resentment had been simmering for years. Everyone knew coal was nearing its end, yet no plans had been made for a replacement.

Aztec, a town of 6,163, was once a customer of Farmington Electric, but it rebelled. It now buys carbon-free electricity from Guzman Energy, a Denver-based wholesaler that serves smaller towns and rural communities, including Taos. Neighboring Bloomfield, population 7,371, says it also wants to partner with Guzman. Meanwhile, solar development has been flourishing around Farmington, with 1,300 megawatts of utility-scale generation either planned or under construction.

Farmington could easily get into the action, because it can self-permit. It also owns valuable grid tie-ins through its substations. In fairness, it has vague plans for a solar array, but an inefficient, gas-powered plant is what’s in the works to augment a big gas plant they already own.

Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, which gave a boost to nonprofit utilities like Farmington Electric, there’s federal money available to help build solar arrays. The Act allows a utility to build and sell renewable electricity while also raking in generous government incentives. Farmington’s need is pressing, as both New Mexico and the region aren’t producing enough homegrown energy.

All of the financial support right now for developing solar power adds to the frustration of area conservationists.

Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, says, “Farmington … wants to export chemicals manufactured from natural gas. But they have the means to export a finished product – electricity made from the sun.”

The Alliance’s Eisenfeld thinks a tipping point is approaching. “You need the philosophical buy-in that the transition from coal is upon us,” he says. “Then it all happens quickly.”

But for now, the good ole boys are still in charge.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango.

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