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Enchant Energy wants to install carbon capture on San Juan Generating Station. Here's how the technology works. Farmington Daily Times

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FARMINGTON — A state senator this week questioned how Enchant Energy will deal with the political winds favoring renewable and clean energy over coal as it plans to retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology in an effort to keep it open after 2022.

The political winds have shifted away from coal and in favor of renewable and clean energy sources, state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said during a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 4.

Enchant's chief operating officer, Peter Mandelstam, as well as Enchant’s partners Farmington Electric Utility System Director Hank Adair and Sean McHone, the senior vice president and project at Sargent & Lundy, went to Santa Fe to present details about the proposal to the Senate Finance Committee.

The meeting can be viewed online at nmlegis.gov and the presentation has been posted to the Enchant Energy website, enchantenergy.com.

Muñoz credited pressure from environmental groups, as well as politicians, as being one of the factors spurring the early closure of the Escalante Generating Station in McKinley County. Like San Juan, the Escalante plant is a coal-fired power plant. It is scheduled to close at the end of this year. 

Muñoz said power plant closures can have extreme impacts on communities, including leading to lost jobs.

Others are reading: Agreement between Enchant Energy, Westmoreland another step in keeping power plant open

But Mandelstam said he believes Enchant Energy will be able to win the support of the environmental community through intense dialogue and conversation.

“We’re going to go to every meeting and answer every question and reassure people that we can be good neighbors,” he said.

Environmentalists not fans of Enchant's plans

Enchant Energy has not yet managed to convince these groups that the project is feasible.

Following the presentation, the advocacy organization ProgressNow NM issued a press release criticizing Enchant Energy’s proposal.

ProgressNow NM Deputy and Managing Director Lucas Herndon compared the presentation to the movie “The Music Man” and described Enchant Energy as the “con man trying to get one over on New Mexico.”

“Enchant Energy is blowing a lot of smoke about their cost, job and clean energy projections,” Herndon said. “The fact is that (carbon capture and sequestration) is highly risky. That’s why massive budget overruns and delays have shut down virtually every CCS project tried in this country.”

There have been two successful retrofits of commercial coal-fired power plants in North America, including the Petra Nova project in Texas. Members of the same team that worked on Petra Nova have been brought on board for the San Juan Generating Station retrofit.

Keep reading: Enchant Energy plans to partner with colleges to study carbon dioxide storage wells

In response to Herndon's statement, Mandelstam said Enchant Energy appreciates the concerns. He said any stakeholders who have concerns about the project can reach out to Enchant Energy and he will attend any of their meetings to provide information.

Mandelstam said he was gratified by the high level of engagement from the senators during the committee meeting.

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, also questioned the feasibility of the retrofit. The presenters highlighted a recent independent analysis conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratories that stated the proposed project is technically viable.

“This will be the first of its size, but it will not be the first of its scale,” McHone said, explaining that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will use three units the size of the one at the Petra Nova project in Texas.

He also expanded on the political and environmental pressures to move away from coal-fired generation.

“The view of that lump of coal is pretty poor in the public space,” he said. “None of us disagree that renewables need to be a larger part of the solution. But there is no one solution.”

While battery storage is being deployed, many utilities and power providers are hesitant to invest a lot of money into battery storage at this time. Officials from both Public Service Company of New Mexico and Guzman Energy have publicly stated that battery storage technology still needs to mature.

That means these utilities and power providers are opting to back up the renewable generation with flexible natural gas.

More: Meetings roundup: Enchant Energy will present updates to Farmington, San Juan County

McHone said the retrofitted San Juan Generating Station will create less carbon emissions than a natural gas plant.

Where will the power go? Nobody knows, yet

Munoz then went on to ask about transmission of electricity from the power plant.

Enchant Energy has contracted a transmission study and is expecting the results in March.

Adair said it is possible for Enchant Energy to use transmission lines owned by other utilities. For example, both Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association and Aztec Electric Utility rely on Farmington-owned transmission lines.

“We charge a little bit of a toll on the freeway to get it across our lines,” he said.

However, Adair said Enchant Energy needs to know where the electricity will be sent before it determines if there are transmission lines available to transport that power.

Rodriguez asked if there were any power purchase agreements in place.

Mandelstam said Enchant Energy must complete other steps before entering into power purchase agreements with utilities, including completing the Front End Engineering and Design study.

“It’s still early days,” he said.

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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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