September 29, 2022

As the last coal burned, San Juan Generating Station employees expressed a mixture of emotions

Hannah Grover

The final day of operations at San Juan Generating Station

In the more than four decades he worked at the San Juan Generating Station, Allen Palmer saw units three and four come online. Then he watched unit three close in 2017 and now, as he prepares to retire, he is watching unit four close down.

He sat in the control room on Wednesday as the plant burned through the dwindling supplies of coal. Unit four’s life was no longer measured in years, months or even days. Instead, maybe a dozen hours or so remained until workers would begin the process of shutting down the unit. Unlike past shutdowns, this time it will likely be permanent.

“I’ve been out here for 43 years and now I can’t believe it’s all going away,” he said.

The remaining employees had a lot of emotions on the final day. Some were facing exciting new careers or, like Palmer, retiring. Others felt as if their jobs and the economy of their community are the casualties of a transition to clean energy. The jobs often touted in the renewable energy sector have not materialized for most workers in the area.

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The San Juan Generating Station has provided workers with good, high-paying jobs. Many employees measure their time at the plant in decades. As they took the job, many believed they would retire from the plant. They list their experience. 15 years for one. 17 years for another. Now they are facing a new chapter in their lives. 

“I’ve spent over half my life out here,” Palmer said.

Some, like Palmer, have that opportunity. Others had to find new jobs. Some are moving out of San Juan County. Others are staying. A couple dozen have been able to transfer to other positions with PNM.

Dennis Begay said he felt a little scared and a little nervous. He’s spent 15 or 16 years at the plant. 

“It’s all come down to this now,” he said.

Begay is one of the people who has not lined up a job. He said he plans on taking some time off before looking for employment.

Tidus Padilla has been at the plant since 2007 and is now preparing to transfer to Glen Canyon Dam where he will continue working as a mechanic.

“I’m anxious to get out to start a new career,” he said. 

At the same time, Padilla said it is bittersweet not being able to stay and finish his career at San Juan Generating Station.

Rodney Warner, the plant manager, first began his work at the San Juan Generating Station when unit three started, before unit four was built. 

“I did not think the coal industry would ever go out of existence or that a coal-fired power plant would go out of existence,” he said. “So in my career I’ve seen one built and now it’s shutting down.”

Decommissioning the plant

Warner has a few years before his retirement and will spend that time working on decommissioning the plant as the decommissioning agent. A county ordinance requires that the power plant be demolished, though the City of Farmington is working to try to acquire it so a partner company, Enchant Energy, can retrofit it with carbon capture technology. Warner said PNM has had to prepare for each scenario.

Related: San Juan County passes ordinance requiring demolition of San Juan Generating Station

Warner outlined the next steps for work at the shuttered San Juan Generating Station.

The next 21 days will involve draining water out of the boilers and condensate tanks. Workers will also open breakers up and make sure breakers can’t accidentally be switched from off to on. Ash will be moved from the power plant to the adjacent San Juan Mine, where it is placed inside surface mining pits prior to reclamation.

Workers will also wash the boiler down and remove all of the combustible material.

Warner said about 48 employees are staying on for those 21 days to do that work. Afterwards, only six employees will remain. 

He anticipates that it will likely be about three years before the smokestacks are demolished and PNM would contract a demolition crew to do that work.

Bitter feelings amid an energy transition

With coal running low and the supply of limestone used for running some of the pollution controls also dwindling, some employees felt bitter and saw the pressure from groups advocating for an energy transition as being at fault for the job losses and economic impacts.

Leo Dempsey said it’s not just the workers at San Juan Generating Station that are affected by the closure.

“It’s affecting the whole county,” he said.

Dempsey was one of the employees who expressed feeling like the push to transition the grid from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is causing the power plant to close and leading to job losses not just for people at the plant and its associated mine but also for contractors.

Dempsey questioned why green energy is better than fossil fuels. For him, coal is a dependable resource. It doesn’t need battery backup. It can run when there is no sun or when the wind isn’t blowing.

“I guess everybody wants cleaner skies and everything, but it’s not like that,” Dempsey said.

Employees point to the retrofits to reduce emissions from the plant. 

Ivan Bryant said people sell renewable energy as a cheap form of electricity.

Related: Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it

“Nothing’s cheap or nothing’s free,” he said. “Everything’s either upfront costs or you’re going to have to pay long term.”

Like Dempsey, Bryant questioned renewable energy technology. 

“We’ve known for a long time that you can’t just make a quick switch,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time before you do that because the technology is not up to it.”

PNM’s integrated resource plan in 2017 that announced the plans to close the power plant stated that closing the San Juan Generating Station would save its customers money. At the time, natural gas prices were low and the cost of renewable energy was declining.

The cost of renewable energy has continued to decline. Last year, solar costs fell by 13 percent compared to 2020 and onshore wind costs also declined by 13 percent, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

While 2022 has seen an increase in the costs of utility solar and wind, fossil fuel sources have increased in cost at a faster rate, according to a BloombergNEF report.

At the same time, federal legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act includes incentives for renewable energy like solar and wind.

After lengthy discussions that began in 2019 and lasted about a year, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission approved a replacement power portfolio that included only renewable energy sources with battery backup. PNM’s preferred plan included some gas turbines, but the PRC ruled that renewable energy sources could meet the grid’s demands.

Related: ‘New Mexico is leading the nation’: Renewables set to replace coal-fired San Juan Generating Station

Two solar projects are planned for San Juan County as part of the replacement resources, though construction has not yet begun on those facilities.

PNM will continue to receive fossil fuel power from gas generation sources in other parts of the state, though state law requires the utility to phase out fossil fuel generation over the upcoming decades.

A paper published in the journal Joule this month states that the last 10 percent of transitioning to 100 percent renewable or clean energy will be the hardest to achieve. The paper looks at six possible strategies to reaching 100 percent carbon-free energy and the challenges associated with each strategy.

Dempsey said he already has several career opportunities that he could transition into, but he knows some of his colleagues are having more trouble finding work. Good paying jobs, he said, are hard to find.

Warner said that PNM has tried to be transparent with its employees and to provide training opportunities to help them with skills like resume writing.