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Time for Trump to follow through on coal promises in Arizona

Time for Trump to follow through on coal promises in Arizona
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The Department of Interior recently approved the lease renewal for the Southwest’s largest coal-fueled power plant, the Navajo Generating Station. Since its owners voted in February to decommission the plant far ahead of schedule, stakeholders in Arizona and throughout the nation have been working around the clock to find a way to preserve this crucial fixture of the region’s energy infrastructure.

Situated on tribal land outside of Page, Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station has provided reliable coal-fired electricity to millions of customers throughout the southwest for decades. It is also responsible for generating 95 percent of the power used by the Central Arizona Project to pump water from the Colorado River through canals to consumers throughout the Arizona desert.

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The facility, and the Kayenta Mine, which supplies the Navajo Generating Station with coal, also has a significant economic footprint — especially for tribal communities. Native Americans hold nearly all of the 825 direct jobs supported by NGS and the mine, and the tribal communities also derive billions in economic input and tax revenue from their operations.

 

Amid the many compelling reasons to keep NGS in service, analysis released early last month by Quanta provides perhaps the most sobering perspective yet of the potential impact of closure. 

Supporters of the plant and grid experts alike have argued throughout the debate that the closure of the NGS would have a considerable negative impact on grid reliability in the Southwest. In a letter to the plant’s owners last month, for instance, Arizona utility regulator Andy Tobin noted that plants like NGS are critical to the nation’s ability to withstand fuel disruptions and he points to the need for owners to keep the plant maintained. Are other Arizona leaders listening? 

The Quanta study, which was submitted to the Arizona Corporation Commission last week, highlights the problems that stem from overreliance on power sources with weaknesses like intermittency and supply disruption, and gives a window into their potential severity. 

The analysis reviewed three scenarios — each one entirely plausible and not without historical precedent: the shutdown of the Palo Verde Nuclear Station and disruption within either the El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline or Trans-Western Gas Pipeline.

The analysis found that problems with any one of the three sources of fuel reviewed — the two pipelines and the nuclear plant — would result in “unacceptable overloads” for the Arizona electrical grid. These overloads, in turn, would spark brownouts and blackouts not just in Arizona, but across the Western United States, from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

The study’s findings are critical to consideration of NGS’ future, and more broadly, relevant to discussion of the role of coal in our nation’s future power grid. In the Southwest, the power grid would be exceptionally vulnerable without the baseload generating capacity of coal and the Navajo Generating Station because alternative feedstocks, very simply, are not as reliable as coal. Natural gas has to be imported from out of state through pipelines like El Paso and Trans-Western. NGS draws its fuel from a dedicated mine with a dedicated rail line just miles away. It’s a non-intermittent source of power with an incredibly stable supply line ready to keep the lights on in any market condition.

In Arizona and around the nation, a diverse power grid is essential to energy reliability. Becoming overly reliant upon a fuel like natural gas weakens the grid because it removes the most reliable and available resource of all from the pool and opens the door to conditions like those outlined in the Quanta study: blackouts, brownouts and looming questions about the stability of the grid.

Keeping NGS open long into the future is the right move in the Southwest. And the Quanta study teaches us lessons that should be front of mind as we debate our energy future across the nation. Even as the power grid evolves, no fuel source can match the reliability of coal. 

The administration has put its weight behind NGS’ continued operation, but the current ownership needs to take further action. NGS’s stakeholders must step up in support of marketing the plant to new owners that see the value that baseload resources provide for Arizona’s future.

Darren Bearson, the president of Compass Point Strategies, worked in the White House’s Office of Political Affairs under President George W. Bush (2001-2005) and has advised Republican candidates in more than 30 states over the past 20 years.