October 21, 2021

San Juan County takes steps to require power plant demolition upon closure

Hannah Grover

The San Juan Generating Station is pictured Monday, April 19, 2021, in Waterflow.

With less than a year left before San Juan Generating Station’s scheduled closure, San Juan County officials are concerned that the facility could become an eyesore if it is retired in place rather than immediately demolished.

In the past, the plant’s majority owner, Public Service Company of New Mexico, has said retirement in place—which means making the facility safe and fencing it off but not demolishing it—would save customers money. If the owners choose to go that route, it could be decades before the facility is demolished.

But an ordinance that the San Juan County Commission is expected to adopt would require demolition of coal-fired power plants upon closure.

The commission approved publishing a notice of intent to adopt the ordinance during its Tuesday meeting and a final vote on the measure is scheduled for Nov. 9.

The ordinance requires the owner of a coal-fired power plant located in San Juan County to submit a proposed remediation plan at least three months prior to the retirement of the facility.

San Juan County has two coal-fired power plants—San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant—however the Four Corners Power Plant is located on Navajo Nation lands and falls under the tribe’s jurisdiction.

In addition to PNM, the San Juan Generating Station is owned by Tucson Electric Power, the City of Farmington, Los Alamos County and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. The ordinance states that these owners can jointly submit a remediation plan or the plans can be submitted separately, but each owner would be required to submit a plan.

San Juan County Attorney Joe Sawyer said the plans must describe how the remediation will occur and how it will be funded.

These plans would be evaluated by a qualified engineer, which San Juan County will hire.

“After the plan is approved by the county with the assistance of a qualified engineer, the facility will be demolished upon requirement according to the plan and in accordance with state and local law,” Sawyer said during the commission meeting.

San Juan County maintains that the ordinance falls in line with the Energy Transition Act, which the state Legislature passed in 2019.

This act provides a funding mechanism for power plant decommissioning through securitization, which allows PNM to access low-interest bonds to refinance past investments into the power plant. These bonds are also intended to fund economic development efforts in impacted communities as well as workforce training for the workers who will lose their jobs when the plant closes.

The City of Farmington is working to take ownership of the San Juan Generating Station in 2022 and transfer the majority ownership to Enchant Energy, a company with plans to retrofit the power plant with carbon capture technology.

If that occurs, County Manager Mike Stark said Enchant Energy would be required to submit the remediation plan.

“When the facility ceases to operate…the right thing [for the owners] to do would be to make sure that we don’t have a visible eyesore on the landscape or any lingering negative environmental consequences,” he said. “This ordinance would help to ensure that.”

Not all of the infrastructure at the power plant will be required to be demolished as some of the infrastructure is needed for other projects. The substation at the facility will continue to be used, including possibly as a tie-in for the Invenergy transmission line. Prior to discussing the ordinance, the San Juan County Commission heard a presentation from Invenergy about the transmission line that would transport renewable energy generated in Union County to San Juan County and would cross eight counties in New Mexico.

The water conveyance infrastructure at the San Juan Generating Station also has future uses. In an update to the Indian Affairs Committee on Tuesday, State Engineer John D’Antonio said the Navajo-Gallup water supply project could use that infrastructure as an intake location for the San Juan lateral.

The San Juan Generating Station takes water from the San Juan River and stores it in a reservoir for use in the power plant. These facilities could be repurposed to provide additional storage and water conveyance, D’Antonio said.

Stark said the large infrastructure, including the smokestacks that can be seen for miles, will have to be demolished under the ordinance.

County Commissioner GloJean Todacheene said PNM has met with community leaders in the past and spoke about being good neighbors and good stewards of the land.

“They need to be held to what they used to tell us,” she said.