November 27, 2019 Read More →

Closure of Navajo Generation Station tests Green New Deal


The sun has set on the Navajo Generating Station, which burned its last pile of coal earlier this month. Economics finally caught up with the West’s largest coal plant, forcing it to shutter as cheap natural gas and renewables made it irrelevant to the energy grid.

The plant leaves behind a complicated legacy. The power station depleted groundwater and polluted skies and landscapes. It also brought jobs and revenue to one of the poorest places in the U.S. The Navajo and Hopi tribes supported by the plant fought to keep it open, going so far as to consider buying it. With that plan failing, it’s possible to imagine a new future for the area. One that cleans up the scars the coal plant left behind and puts the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribe at the forefront of the just transition, a framework that ensures vulnerable communities aren’t left behind as the world moves to renewable energy.

When you hear the words “coal country,” Appalachia likely comes to mind. But the Navajo Nation lies at the center of the Southwest’s coalfields. The territory’s Kayenta Mine fed the Navajo Generating Station from 1974 until it delivered the plant’s last load of coal in August.

The plant and mine kicked millions of dollars in revenue into the coffers of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, which sits surrounded by the former. And they provided hundreds of jobs for the nearby communities.

“It fit into the cultural rhythm in terms of the way our people adopted the Western way of working,” Tony Skrelunas, the president of the Black Mesa Water Coalition and founder of the Navajo Power Solar Company, told Earther. “A lot of my family worked at a power plant and at the coal mine. But we didn’t know what a bad deal we were getting.”

In addition to low rates for the lease and mining royalties, Skrelunas pointed to the environmental degradation that comes with a mine and massive coal-fired power plant. The Navajo Generating Station consistently ranked as one of the top 10 sources of carbon pollution in the U.S., belching out 8.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually as well as heavy metals and other pollutants. And while dumping toxic stuff into the atmosphere and onto the landscape, the Navajo Generating Station sucked up more than 9 billion gallons of water per year. The nearby mine that supported it used a further 391 million gallons annually.

A research brief co-authored by Skrelunas earlier this year identified four key opportunities that could transform the Navajo Nation’s economy in the wake of the Navajo Generating Station’s closure. The first two are working to decommission and remediate the plant and mine. The Salt River Project, the utility company that ran the plant, has five years to decommission the plant and planning is underway to do so. The company told the Navajo Times it would award two contracts, and Skrelunas argued that they should be given to local contractors.

He also pointed to tourism as another way to replace lost revenue. Clean energy also presents a huge opportunity for the tribe, which has lands bathed in bountiful sunshine and transmission infrastructure left over from the Navajo Generating Station. Investing in solar panel manufacturing on the reservation could slow the climate damage the power plant started and put residents who worked there back to work in a growing sector. (Skrelunas spoke highly of the work of Navajo welders, including his dad, employed by the coal industry.) It would also keep money in the nation and could help local businesses flourish.

For all the proclamations and ideas, the tribe still has to overcome decades of disinvestment. To ensure those opportunities are there, Karl Cates, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, pointed to a congressional bill that, if you squint, wouldn’t look out of place as part of the Green New Deal. Except it wasn’t introduced by one of the members of the Squad. It came from the office of Representative Tom O’Halleran, one of the House’s more conservative Democrats, who represents the Navajo Nation along with a large swath of Arizona that went for Trump in 2016. He also used to be a Republican.

“This is a way for this country to reinvest in communities that have given so much to the national economy over the years,” Cates told Earther, calling it a bipartisan approach to help coalfield communities through the transition in “Kentucky to the Powder River Basin to Appalachia to the Illinois Basin” and beyond.

More:  The Closure of the West’s Largest Coal Plant Could Be a Test For the Green New Deal

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