July 23, 2021

Legislators told of possible low-emission cement production at Escalante Power Plant

Jerry Huddleston

An Escalante-Western coal trains works at the Escalante Generating Station near Prewitt, NM in 2017. (Flickr/cc)

Beyond coal plants, carbon capture and sequestration may help with cement manufacturing and create new industry in New Mexico, according to a presentation at the Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday. Others, however, remain skeptical of the industry’s viability.

Wiley Rhodes, co-founder of Escalante H2 Power, said a retrofit of the shuttered Escalante Power Plant could do more than just generate electricity.

Escalante Power Plant is currently owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., Escalante H2 Power is planning on purchasing the plant.

Rhodes’ company is working to make Escalante Power Plant the first coal-fired power plant to be transformed into a hydrogen facility. This would be done using methane from natural gas extraction. The carbon will be stripped from the hydrogen and then sequestered underground.

Tri-State CEO Duane Highley described the plan as breathing life back into the facility.

The facility remains equipped for coal generation and some of this infrastructure could be used to make low-emission cement, Rhodes said.

Cement production is an emissions-heavy process, but Rhodes said with upgrades to the pulverizer and the addition of a new hydrogen keel, the Escalante Power Plant can produce cement in a more environmentally-friendly manner.

And the proximity to rail and interstate makes it so the products produced at Escalante Power Plant can be marketed to buyers around the world.

Rhodes said if his company only does hydrogen power generation, the facility will employ 110 people after construction, which is similar to the number of employees who worked at Escalante Power Plant prior to its closure. During construction, Rhodes said there would be more than 300 jobs generated.

But environmental advocates remain skeptical.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, said his group opposes any hydrogen project that uses natural gas.

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, was optimistic about the Escalante Power Plant proposal, but is more skeptical about another unconnected carbon capture project in northwest New Mexico—the San Juan Generating Station retrofit.

Unlike the Escalante Power Plant, the San Juan Generating Station project would continue burning coal and the carbon dioxide will be stripped from the post-combustion flue gas.  

Small pointed to a cooling tower collapse at San Juan Generating Station as a reason for his skepticism.

Enchant Energy Chief Operating Officer Peter Mandelstam said, once Enchant Energy takes ownership of the power plant in 2022, the company plans to replace both cooling towers at the San Juan Generating Station.

These retrofits are being pushed as a way of saving jobs in coal-impacted communities while also providing baseload power that can balance the renewable energy on the grid.

Enchant Energy’s presentation included operating the power plant without carbon capture technology starting next year. The carbon capture units would not be fully operational until 2025.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, pointed out that, without the carbon capture technology in place, the emissions from the San Juan Generating Station will exceed emission standards that go into effect at the start of 2023.