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PNM's Energy Future At A Crossroads

Rita Daniels

New Mexico’s largest utility company has a plan to use fossil fuels and nuclear power for the next 20 years. But opponents of the plan want to see the utility shift to wind and solar.

Two coal-burning stacks at the San Juan Generating Station will be shuttered in 2017 in order to reduce emissions.

PNM, which provides power to half a million people in New Mexico, wants to use a mixture of coal, nuclear and natural gas energy, plus a little bit of solar energy to make up for the loss.

When the Public Regulation Commission began hearings to examine the plan earlier this month, hundreds of people, many of them Native American, rallied in opposition in Santa Fe.

Chris Barney, who lives on the Navajo Nation, was there. 

“We’re always looking for something magic, some kind of way to speak to them, these bastions of power here,” Barney said. “How do we break through?”

Credit Rita Daneils
Native Americans from several tribes and Pueblo's across the Southwest spoke out in opposition of PNM's proposal during the PRC hearing.

The protesters talked about the health risks for people who live next to coal-fired power plants like the San Juan Generating Station and they called for PNM to invest heavily in renewable energy.  

But Richie Nez told commissioners that he supports PNM’s plan. He works at San Juan. 

“Over the past three years,” Nez said, “our community has been listening and providing perspective about the future of San Juan Generating Station.” 

He pointed out that the plant provides dozens of jobs to Navajo's and that he did not want to see those jobs vanish. 

Commissioners listened to public comments for hours that first day.

Then dozens of lawyers and expert witnesses went over PNM’s plan with a fine tooth comb. It took weeks.

“Everybody has a chance to look at the plan, and take it apart and turn it upside down,” Susan Sponar, a spokeswoman for PNM said. “They’ll present different evidence and different points of view.”

She said PNM’s plan provides the most reliable sources of energy with the lowest costs upfront. The utility’s parent company already owns the nuclear and coal energy for their plan and building large scale wind farms and solar arrays would require a lot of cash. 

“For our customers,” Sponar said, “it’s the most cost-effective option that we’ve identified.”

But just a few days into the hearing it came to light that PNM had miscalculated the cost of their plan by more than $1 billion dollars. That caused things to take a real turn. Three of PNM’s backers formally withdrew their support.

Mariel Nanasi is the executive director of New Energy Economy, a non-profit that advocates for renewable energy. They suggested an alternative plan that would replace the coal and nuclear energy PNM proposed with wind and solar energy.

“Our witnesses put forth a replacement power portfolio of 400 megawatts of wind and 260 megawatts of solar,” Nanasi explained. “It wasn’t challenged as not feasible or not credible.” 

Nanasi said when the cost for their alternative plan was run through the same modeling software program that PNM used it was $44 million cheaper than PNM’s plan. 

The Cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, representing nearly all of PNM’s half million customers, have come out in opposition to PNM’s plan. 

Commissioners are expected to vote on the plan this spring. 

Kimberly Smith is with the group of young Navajos who kicked off the PRC hearing with protest earlier this month. Now they’re walking across their reservation that’s littered with hundreds of abandoned uranium mines. 

Credit Rita Daniels
A group of Navajo youth are walking across their reservation.

The second most productive open-pit coal mine in the country, El Segundo, is about 40 miles northwest of Grants. 

“We’re breathing in all this toxic air,” Smith said. “You can feel it in your throat and you can feel it in your heart when you’re walking on the land. “

Smith said the Navajo people have been carrying the energy needs of the Southwest on their backs for too long.

“It’s very devastating,” she said. “And it’s something different when you’re walking through it. If you’re in a car you just drive through the area for five or 10 minutes, but we’ve been walking for miles and miles through this.”

The group is calling their 1,000 mile walk Journey of Existence. They want to show they’re resilient, Smith said. After all, they’ve been fighting these industries for a very long time.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect that PNM is proposing to shut down two coal-fired units at the San Juan Generating Station in order to reduce emissions, not because of emissions violations, as originally reported. We regret the error.   

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