Reduction in coal use tied to improved air quality

Stakeholders gather for annual meeting at San Juan College

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Patrick Cummins, senior policy analyst for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, speaks about power plant emissions Wednesday during the Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting at San Juan College's School of Energy.

FARMINGTON — Data presented at the Four Corners Air Quality Group's annual meeting today at San Juan College show the region's air quality has improved in recent years, with several presenters crediting that change to a reduction in the number of units operating at local coal-fired power plants.

The annual meeting brought scientists, industry officials and environmental activists together at the college's School of Energy.

There have been several coal-fired generation units used at various sites in the Four Corners, including at the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant in San Juan County. Two of the four San Juan units have closed, and three of the five Four Corners units have closed since 2015.

In addition, the Four Corners Power Plant underwent a $1 billion environmental upgrade this year to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, which are caused by the burning of coal at the power plant.

Power sector is changing

“The power sector in the West and around the country is going through tremendous change, and it’s happening very quickly,” said Patrick Cummins, senior policy adviser for the Center for New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

He said since 2008, coal-generated electricity production has declined by 26 percent while nuclear power has declined by 18 percent, and hydropower and natural gas electricity generation have remained relatively flat. In contrast, renewable energy production has tripled since 2008.

Lisa Devore of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment points to a map detailing ozone emissions Wednesday during her presentation at the Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting at San Juan College's School of Energy.

While sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions declined by 83 percent and 64 percent, respectively, between 1997 and 2017, carbon dioxide emissions saw only a 2 percent reduction, according to Cummins. He said the emission controls on power plants, such as scrubbers, are designed to reduce sulfur and nitrous emissions.

He said coal-fired generation is responsible for more than 90 percent of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions in the western United States.

Cummins anticipates coal-fired generation will decline in the United States over the next several years. He said half of the coal units that were online in 2017 are scheduled to be retired within the next 10 years.

Among those units are the remaining units at the San Juan Generating Station. The Public Service Company of New Mexico, which is the plant's primary owner, said it plans to file for abandonment of the plant next year so the units can be retired by June 2022.

Cummins said he expects 90 percent of all coal-fired generation will be retired within the next 20 years because of the age of the plants. He said most coal-fired power plants in the United States were built by the late 1980s. He also highlighted economic reasons for the decline in the use of coal, including fracking making natural gas more affordable and the decrease in the cost of renewable energy production.

Fire increasingly impacting air quality

As emissions go down for energy production sources, including coal, emissions from wildfires have gone up, according to Josh Hall, an air and water quality specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.

“What we’re seeing is bigger and bigger fires, the seasons are longer, the emissions are greater from these fires and that’s been a steady trend over the last 20 years,” Hall said.

Smoke from the 416 Fire north of Durango, Colo., negatively impacted air quality in the Four Corners region this summer.

That development has significant health and economic impacts, according to Hall. One in three households has someone with respiratory issues, he said, adding that $11 billion to $20 billion in medical costs nationwide each year are due to the impact of wildfires on air quality.

This year, the 416 Fire north of Durango, Colorado, impacted air quality in the Four Corners area.

Hall said there are generally not many particulate matter monitors in the Four Corners due to the good air quality. But there were at least 10 monitors used to monitor the air quality impacts of the 416 Fire, Hall said. He said there were many days of unhealthy to hazardous conditions in the area as a result of the fire.

Officials of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe based in Ignacio, Colorado, where one of the permanent particulate matter monitors is located, noticed particulate matter exceeded air quality standards in June during the 416 Fire.

“We’re looking at having smoke impacts in the West pretty consistently in the near term,” Hall said.

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