Last week, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin proposed a Settlement Agreement to keep one of the oldest, most polluting coal plants in the Western U.S., Navajo Generating Station (NGS), running for another five years.
Tobin also wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposing that the federal government “effectively double” its payments to keep NGS running, according to the Arizona Republic.
What are the reasons why Tobin wants to push coal, rather than Arizona’s native resource of solar, and how does he want to do it?
First, he wants it done with even less transparency, as he pushes to “waive [the] Navajo [Nation’s] right to regulate, directly, or indirectly, the decommissioning of NGS.” After subjecting the Navajo to pollution from this power plant for nearly 50 years, now Tobin wants to take away the Nation’s ability to oversee the plant’s decommissioning when that does happen.
And while Tobin voted to reduce solar net metering benefits on the basis that it was a subsidy to solar owners, he now wants huge federal subsidies to repair and maintain NGS during the five-year extension. One might think that Tobin, a former member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), would be well aware of the conservative push to ‘let the market decide.’ A representative from Tobin’s office told the Republic that the proposal is “not intended to be a subsidy” but that is exactly what it is.
The market, such as it exists for electricity, has decided to close NGS. SRP, with a 42% interest in NGS, as well as non-owner Central Arizona Project, see shutting the plant down by 2019 as the best possible outcome. A series of reports by the National Renewable Energy Lab have shown that keeping NGS running was costing ratepayers considerably more than purchasing power on the open market.
Tobin doesn’t want to face the reality that keeping NGS running could be fantastically expensive, a jaw-dropping $100 million per year, according to the General Manager for the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CAP’s interest in shutting down NGS stems from the fact that it uses a significant amount of NGS’ output to pump water nearly 3,000 feet uphill, over 336 miles of scorching desert heat to Tucson.
Tobin also wants to exempt NGS from environmental regulations.
Tobin claims that NGS will increase reliability and ‘secure the grid,’ but does not recognize the potential of high capacity factor concentrated solar thermal projects, like Arizona’s Solana concentrated solar plant, or the innovative potential of batteries, wind-solar combinations and other means to generate electricity after the sun sets.
Tobin’s actions may be motivated by helping to stem job losses from NGS’ closure. That transition is inevitable though, and if Tobin wants to act in the interests of the people who live near the plant, he could help them to secure solar and wind that experts tell us are cost-effective and would greatly benefit both the Navajo and Hopi people.
One of NREL’s studies on the cost estimate to replace NGS with solar shows that, depending on where the solar is located, the cost could be as low as $52/MWh. While this is more expensive than the current cost of market power at $32/MWh, solar has no fuel costs, no risk of fuel cost increases, and no water or air pollution, coal ash clean-up, or nuclear waste costs.
If Tobin is actually interested in the future, and in jobs, he needs to look up to the sun, not underground. Solar employs far more people per dollar spent and per MWh generated than coal. As the New York Times recently reported, solar now employs nearly 374,000 people directly and indirectly.
Compare this with the coal industry, which peaked in jobs creation in the 1980’s, before automation and cheap natural gas; coal now employs 160,000 people directly and indirectly (54,000 coal mining jobs).
As a former ALEC member, perhaps Mr. Tobin needs to be reminded of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “you can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of reality.” The consequences of reality are that the NGS must close. Tobin would do his constituents a much greater service by planning for what comes next, not remaining in denial.