Environmentalist joins Enchant Energy's efforts to keep San Juan Generating Station open

The newest member of the Enchant Energy team is focused on convincing his friends from the environmental community to support a carbon capture project

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • Peter Mandelstam has decades of experience in solar and wind energy development.
  • Mandelstam said carbon capture will help transition the electric grid from fossil fuels to renewables.
  • An OXY representative spoke about enhanced oil recovery during a meeting at San Juan College.

FARMINGTON — Peter Mandelstam has dedicated decades to developing renewable energy, so his latest efforts to keep a coal-fired power plant open may come as a surprise to some people.

Just weeks ago, Mandelstam accepted a position as chief operating officer for Enchant Energy and flew to New Mexico to promote efforts to install carbon capture on the San Juan Generating Station.

One of his focuses over the past week has been promoting the carbon capture project Enchant Energy is undertaking in partnership with the City of Farmington. 

More:Farmington, Enchant Energy one step closer to keeping San Juan Generating Station open

Mandelstam plans listening tour as he reaches out to environmentalists

Water vapor and carbon dioxide are the main things that come out of the units at the San Juan Generating Station following multiple environmental upgrades over the years.

The project has received criticism from members of the environmental community, who point to the cost of the technology and the fact that it is still being developed. If successful, San Juan Generating Station will be the largest carbon capture coal power plant in the world.

Mandelstam said he will be doing a listening tour after he moves to New Mexico and hopes to meet with people who oppose the carbon capture plans.

More:'Decision by the utility has been made.' New Mexico unions prepare to transition from coal

He said he wants to explain to environmental activists why he believes “this is the most important work I can do, which is to take existing legacy coal plants and decarbonize them.”

“San Juan will be the cleanest... fossil (fuel) plant,” Mandelstam said. “And so what I say to my environmental friends will respect is all the wind and all the solar I’ve been involved in, none of it keeps the lights on.”

Karl Cates asks a question, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, during an Energy Transition Act committee meeting at San Juan College.

Karl Cates, the transition policy analyst for Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, criticized Enchant Energy's proposal.

"The project is a pig in a poke," Cates said in an email to The Daily Times. "The technology remains expensive and unproven."

More:Environmental advocacy group looks for signs of contamination while touring power plant

He said it is troubling that Enchant Energy's partners, including the technology provider, have not been announced, and that the company does not have a record of success in carbon capture.

"That is unlikely to change with this project," Cates said.

San Juan Mine as well as coal stock piles can be seen from the San Juan Generating Station, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Waterflow.

Mandelstam said Enchant Energy will announce which company will provide the carbon capture technology by the end of the year. He told state officials on Oct. 29 that people will recognize the company's name.

He described carbon capture as a transition technology that will help provide reliable power while people like Elon Musk develop utility-scale, reasonably-priced battery storage technology.

More:Challenges loom as Farmington works to keep San Juan Generating Station open

“To my environmental friends, I say, ‘I know you don’t like it, but you need San Juan carbon capture ... and I’m waiting for you to come up with storage so that we can safely and appropriately turn off San Juan and we’ll have a 100 percent renewable grid,’” he said.

Mandelstam helped develop renewable energy for decades

“I’ve been in the energy business full time exclusively since 1990,” Mandelstam said on Oct. 29 while taking a break between meetings. “I set up a solar energy nonprofit then called Solar Technology Institute, now called Solar Energy International. We had offices in New York and Carbondale, Colorado. I wired my first solar panel in 1991 with welding cable and you can’t imagine how crude it was and rudimentary.”

More:Scientists want to help save the Earth by storing carbon dioxide in the ground

His journey in renewable energy began in 1989 when he read an article in the Sept. 11, 1989, edition of The New Yorker magazine. This article was written by Bill McKibben, who would later author the book “The End of Nature,” which brought awareness to climate change.

The article spoke about carbon dioxide contributing to increasing global temperatures. At the time, Mandelstam was in Hawaii on a return trip from Australia. Mandelstam said he still has the Sept. 11, 1989, edition of The New Yorker.

More:Climate change could zap clouds, bake the Earth even more

The Shiprock pinnacle can be seen, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, from the San Juan Generating Station. Meanwhile, transmission lines transport electricity away from the power plant.

He returned home and told his parents that he was an environmentalist and was going to dedicate his life to combating climate change.

While he started by focusing on developing solar energy, he changed focus in the mid-1990s.

More:Global warming could mean fewer fish for sport fishing, more die-offs across US

“I thought solar was too expensive to be mainstream and it was too rudimentary,” he said.

Mandelstam began working on developing wind energy. He started a consulting agency and eventually began developing offshore wind generation.

Most recently, he served as executive director for a nonprofit renewable energy group known as GRID Alternatives Tri-State. He finished his work there a few months ago.

Enchant Energy Board Chairman Larry Heller speaks about the plans for carbon capture at San Juan Generating Station, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, during a meeting at the San Juan College School of Energy.

A few weeks ago, Mandelstam went to meet with Larry Heller, the board chairman of Enchant Energy. Mandelstam had known Heller for years, having gone to high school with Heller’s wife. After hours of discussion, they drew up a contract and Mandelstam became the chief operating officer for Enchant Energy.

“I went to work the next business day for them,” Mandelstam said.

More:NM Climate Change Task Force confirmed by State Senate, energy industry cuts emissions

He spent four days working in the New York office before flying to New Mexico, where he spent more than two weeks.

Mayor says Farmington is excited about Enchant Energy’s new COO

“We are excited about the addition of Peter Mandelstam to the Enchant Energy team,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett in a statement to The Daily Times. “This shows commitment and vision by the company to relocate an incredibly smart and experienced representative in our community to build a strong foundation and base of operations that will help make this critical project successful.”

Enchant Energy Board Chairman Larry Selch and Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett sign an agreement, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, transferring 95 percent ownership of the San Juan Generating Station to Enchant Energy in 2022.

Duckett highlighted Mandelstam’s more than two decades of experience working on large renewable energy projects.

More:Selch: Plans for carbon capture at power plant will help develop an emerging technology

“In the brief time that we have been able to interact it is clear that he has a strong sense of what Enchant’s and our community’s mission is and has the know-how and ability to bring people together and get it done right,” he said.

OXY representative speaks about enhanced oil recovery, carbon capture

Mandelstam’s work to change minds and gather support for Enchant Energy’s carbon capture proposal included speaking to the New Mexico Rural and Economic Development interim legislative committee on Oct. 28 at San Juan College. He was joined by a representative from Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY), which uses carbon dioxide in enhanced oil recovery, and a professor from the University of New Mexico who has studied ways to reduce the price of carbon capture technology.

Occidental Petroleum celebrates the opening of a new frac sand transloading facility about 15 miles south of Carlsbad during a ribbon cutting ceremony, Feb. 22, 2018 at the facility near Brantley Road.

OXY Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs Al Collins presented carbon capture and enhanced oil recovery as opportunities to reduce carbon emissions.

“The carbon footprint of the oil we produce using man-made CO2 is much less than a traditional barrel of oil,” Collins told legislators. “We know this because places like (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford University and the International Energy Agency have done reports verifying this.”

Collins said enhanced oil recovery and carbon capture presents opportunities to “help decarbonize this part of the fossil fuel chain” and could be beneficial to long-haul transportation and aviation, which he said are not amenable to using batteries and electric power.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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More:OXY transloading facility opens in Carlsbad, marks regional expansion