PRC hears testimony on PNM power-replacement plan

More than two hundred demonstrators from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Silver City and several tribes gathered Monday morning outside the PERA Building in Santa Fe, asking the state’s largest electric utility to add more renewable energy to its plan for replacing coal power.

Inside the building, a standing-room-only crowd packed into the Apodaca Room for the first of 10 days set aside for state regulators to hear testimony on Public Service Company of New Mexico’s request to close two coal-fired units at the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

The company plans to replace the power with a combination of nuclear, natural gas and solar energy, as well as with additional capacity on one of the remaining coal units at San Juan. The state Public Regulation Commission also will decide if the company’s plan makes financial sense for ratepayers.

The plan, if approved by regulators, means PNM would reduce its use of coal by about 14 percent, increase nuclear by 10 percent and increase renewables by more than 5 percent. Shutting down the two units at San Juan will greatly reduce levels of polluting emissions and water use. PNM maintains that the plan it has presented to regulators will provide reliable energy at the most affordable price.

The San Juan power-replacement case could represent a crucial moment in the state’s utility history.

Barbara Chattergee, who called herself a Santa Fe ratepayer, said the San Juan situation is the perfect opportunity for PNM to be a leader in a new utility future. “Times are changing for electric utilities,” she said. “It will require long-term creative thinking for a smooth transition.”

Distributed generation, where people install solar panels at their homes and businesses and connect to the grid, is an ever-growing phenomenon, she said. But it presents financial challenges to companies like PNM that have made their money from large, centralized power generation like that at San Juan.

“It is time for PNM to rethink its business model and look at ways to encourage distributed generation,” she said. “They could be leaders.”

A handful of people said they worried the San Juan power-replacement plan, and increasing the amount of renewable energy, would increase customer rates unnecessarily. “Ratepayers will lose, no matter what,” said Donna Crawford of Tome.

Her husband, James Crawford, said it isn’t technically or economically feasible to replace all coal and nuclear power with renewables. “Any idea that renewables can completely replace coal generation is based on rainbows and fairy dust,” he told state regulators.

Most people, like Vicente Garcia, spoke against PNM’s plan for expanding coal capacity on one unit and not including more renewable energy.

“We’re here to call on the commissioners to send PNM’s proposal back to the drawing board,” said Garcia, director of Juntos, a program of the Conservation Voters of New Mexico Education Fund. “PNM needs to map out a plan that invests in clean energy and invests in the present and future health and well-being of our communities.”

Camilla Feibelman, executive director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that while it’s great the company plans to close two of the four coal units, increasing coal capacity on one of the remaining units isn’t the right answer. “We’re concerned the plan will tie PNM to coal for three more decades,” she said.

“Will PNM be the Kodak of utilities? Kodak failed to see the future of digital, and the company went the way of dinosaurs,” she added.

PNM also has agreed to provide job-training funds for workers whose jobs will be lost in the transition from coal to other fuel sources. Currently, the generating station and the nearby San Juan coal mine employ more than 850 people, of which about 300 are Navajo. The power station and mine also contribute more than $47 million a year to Navajo Nation, state and San Juan County tax coffers.

Elouise Brown, a longtime Navajo activist who lobbied with others to prevent a new coal-fired plant called Desert Rock from being built a few years ago, spoke against PNM’s plan because, she said, it would continue the utility’s reliance on coal. She said that while Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has talked about the jobs the generating station and coal mine create for Navajo people, she prefers to discuss the health impacts of coal power on people living near San Juan. “What’s more important, jobs or health?” she said.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

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