Local Voices: Study a natural gas generating station option

Norman Norvelle
Special to the Daily Times
The San Juan Generating Station is pictured in 2016 in Waterflow.

The citizens of San Juan County and the local governments are facing a serious dilemma. With Public Service Company of New Mexico’s (PNM) San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and the adjacent coal mine shutting down many jobs will be lost and an important source of revenue will be gone. 

For years San Juan County has depended on coal and natural gas for supplying jobs and funding for the local economy. We now have some important decisions ahead of us. All must involve the reduction of carbon dioxide.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Energy Transition Act (ETA).  The ETA includes how PNM will replace the energy that is lost when the last two units of SJGS are shut down.  PNM has offered four replacement options: 

1) PNM’s preferred – Adds 370 MW of solar, 130 MW of battery storage, and 280 MW of natural gas located in Kirtland’s Central Consolidated School District. 

2) Mostly gas – Adds 476 MW of natural gas in San Juan County and 20 MW of Solar,

3) Renewables and battery – Adds 500 MW of solar and 410 MW of battery, with 40 MW in San Juan County,

4) Renewables without battery – Adds 975 MW of solar and 1,199 MW of wind, but no new resources in San Juan County.

Recently the City of Farmington, in conjunction with Enchant Energy, has come up with their own option for SJGS. That is to keep the coal-fired power station and the adjacent coal mine open. To meet environment compliance for carbon dioxide reduction they plan to add carbon capture technology. 

As an industrial chemist working over 25 years in the energy industry (PNM, EPNG, etc.) and based on my experience, education and much research, I do not think keeping a worn-out coal fired power plant with carbon capture technology is the best option.  

Even if there is a remote chance the technology would work on this coal-fired power plant, the cost of the power would be so high no one would buy it. Bottom line: Can the cost of power from this plant be competitive? The answer is no.

A more viable alternative would be a natural gas combined cycle generating plant with carbon capture technology located in San Juan County. There is increasing natural gas market competition due to an excess of natural gas. This would help ensure the viability of local natural gas production with jobs and a taxable revenue.  

There are many other reasons to use natural gas generation over coal. Natural gas burns 50% cleaner than coal in power generation.  The efficiency of a gas generating plant is 55% versus coal which is 33%. The type of plant built will need to be able to ramp up and down to match the electrical load demand. A natural gas plant does this much better than coal or nuclear.  Water usage for a natural gas generating plant is less than ½ that of a coal generating plant.

Finally, the chance of success with carbon capture technology in building, maintaining, and operating a natural gas generating plant would be much greater than a coal generating plant and the cost of power much lower. If Enchant Energy wants a more complete feasibility or Front-End Engineering & Design study, they should evaluate both coal and natural gas for power generation with carbon capture.  

Norman Norvelle is a Farmington resident and has lived in San Juan County since 1957.