The debate swirling around Navajo Generating Station in Page, AZ has followed a predictable script. The 40-year-old power plant represents the West’s largest single source of greenhouse gasses and air pollution. Grassroots Navajo organizations, environmental groups, and many members of the public are making the case that now is the time for a transition to renewable energy at the site, with the station’s lease expiring in 2019.
The Navajo Nation government, utility-backed groups, and coal interests are focusing on the jobs that would be lost should the station be shut or phased down.
With public hearings set for late July, the future of energy in Arizona is being decided before our eyes. As the largest coal plant in the West, the fate of NGS could be a bellwether for the fate of coal in Arizona and the West in general, and indicate whether renewable energy will break into the mainstream or remain a relative curiosity.
As with any decision holding this much magnitude for Arizona’s economy and environment, it is essential that the haze of talking points is cut through and reality brought forth.
According to Scott Harelson of Salt River Project, the utility that operates and owns a portion of the station, NGS provides roughly 920 jobs. That number is derived from combining 520 jobs at the station itself and 400 at the associated Kayenta coal mine. The station generates 2250 megawatts of electricity, meaning NGS accounts for about .4 jobs per megawatt.
In comparison, the newly announced 100 megawatt Quartzsite, AZ solar power tower project will result in 50 permanent jobs, translating to .5 jobs per megawatt.
This suggests that a similar solar power tower, scaled up to replace the 2250 megawatts of NGS, would result in a net-increase of 205 jobs available for Navajo tribal members and residents of Page, AZ. That analysis, of course off the cuff, assumes all factors remain equal – which is not usually the case. According to a report from the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, solar pv creates 7 times the jobs per unit of energy compared to coal, suggesting even more job-creating potential is possible in a NGS transition scenario.
No one is proposing (yet) a 2250 megawatt solar pv or power tower to replace NGS. But those who portend that the only way to provide Navajo jobs in northern Arizona is to burn the dirtiest form of fuel on the planet – fouling our air and cooking our planet in the process – are not thinking very hard.
In a recent Arizona Republic My Turn, energy expert and exploratory candidate for the Corporation Commission Nancy LaPlaca argued that Arizona should seize the future and invest in renewable energy rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars reinvesting in outdated coal technology.
Defenders of status quo energy sprang into action with a responding My Turn authored by representatives from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Their main point? You guessed it. Arizona cannot afford to lose the jobs NGS provides. You would think the authors, whose primary purpose should be to fight for jobs, would know that solar energy creates more jobs per unit of energy than coal. It makes more sense when you view the “Trustee Level” funders list of the Chamber.
There is no way to prove if SRP, APS, or major energy player Freeport McMoRan requested or even wrote the Chamber’s My Turn. But you can bet there were motivations behind the letter – motivations that had very little to do with Navajo jobs. SRP and APS have calculated that keeping the coal-fueled revenues at NGS flowing for another three decades is in their interest.
In the end we all want the same thing. Everyone wants to see the state of Arizona grow and mature into the 21st century, and its people prosper. Folks in the Navajo Nation need and deserve good-paying jobs. The Navajo jobs struggle extends well beyond one power plant.
Just like the Chamber, most of us have a master to answer to, one way or the other. But as the fate of NGS is decided, the citizens of Arizona deserve better than to be hoodwinked when so much is at stake.