Market forces may be working against the Navajo Generating Station, but supporters of the power plant, and the coal mine which fuels it, are still working to ensure that it stays open. On Thursday, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on the benefits of the Navajo Generating Station to local economies. The committee was looking into ways to potentially keep the mine and power plant open by pushing the Central Arizona Project, a massive water infrastructure program, to return to buying its power from the plant.
The testimonies before the committee acknowledged the complexity of the situation. Like other coal-fired plants around the country, the Navajo Generating Station has struggled to remain cost-competitive in the face of a surge in natural gas supplies. In the middle of last year, the investment banking adviser Lazard began a search for a new owner who would be able to keep the power plant and mine open. Lazard eventually found fifteen potential investors who expressed interest in the project and received proposals from a handful of them.
According to Lazard, with changes to the mine operation process, both the mine and the generating station could compete more favorably with natural gas generation. Furthermore, they told the committee that they had found a potential investor who had worked to determine a solution that would allow the plant to supply power at market competitive prices. This potential investor has met with the Hopi and Navajo tribal governments, made site visits to the mine and power plant, as well as met with the utility customers.
“We are pleased to report that, to date, the ownership transition process remains on track, within the timeframe set forth by Salt River Project,” said George W. Bilicic, global head of power, energy, and infrastructure for Lazard.
Supporters of the plant stress that keeping it open can be part of a balanced energy portfolio, which helps the trip to both keep jobs and to transition towards more environmentally friendly generation methods.
LoRenzo Bates, speaker of the tribal council, told the committee that “even the most environmentally friendly places have found middle ground to maintain the jobs and revenues of their citizens” and the tribe was no different. He described how the Navajo Nation had announced the second phase of the Kayenta Solar project, adding 50 MW of solar power to their grid.
Even so, much of the Navajo Nation’s economy is based on the reservation’s natural resources, meaning that changes to this sector would have wide ranging impacts.
“The Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine together represent approximately 22 percent of our overall Navajo Nation general revenues, over 800 of our highest paying jobs and our local Navajo Nation Utility Authority’s largest power purchaser,” Bates told the committee. “The adverse effects of a potential shutdown of these facilities to our Nation translates to an across the board cut of 22 percent of all revenues to each of our governmental functions, from law enforcement and fire departments to elderly and child care.”
These cuts would come at the same time as increases in the utility rates paid by tribe members. Changes to the mine and the power plant would also impact the rest of the state of Arizona.