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Utilities must commit to invest in communities in move from coal

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in northeast Arizona provides almost 1,000 jobs between the plant and the mine that supplies it, but the plant's operators have said they plan to shut it down after 2019. (Photo by Amber Brown/Courtesy SRP)

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in northeast Arizona. (Photo by Amber Brown/Courtesy SRP)

At the end of June, Arizona Public Service submitted its long-term energy plan to the Arizona Corporation Commission. Over the next couple of years, APS customers will be powered by significantly more clean energy, with less of their electricity coming from fossil fuels. But this cleaner and brighter energy future excludes a community whose sacrifices have powered Western cities for decades: the Navajo. The Arizona Corporation Commission has a responsibility to hold APS accountable to all communities impacted by the utility as it reviews the wholly inadequate plans.

Since the 1960s, the Navajo people have lived in the shadows of three coal plants: the Four Corners Power Plant, the Navajo Generating Station and the San Juan Generating Station. At one time, this region was the largest collective source of air pollution in North and South America. By 2022, only APS’s Four Corners coal plant will still be operating. At the beginning of the year, APS announced it will retire the plant by 2031. Yet, in that announcement, in its most recent rate case, and in the long-term energy plan submitted on June 30, the utility included no action plan to compensate the Navajo communities who have sacrificed their health and environment to these coal plants and the associated mines.

Our communities’ needs are two-fold: we seek a rapid end to the pollution that has wreaked havoc for decades and a transition away from coal that ensures our economy can rebuild itself sustainably and safely. 

Carol Davis

Carol Davis

Fifty years ago, our communities got stuck with a power plant that has disproportionately impacted our air and water, while depleting our resources, destroying our land, and harming our health. In most instances, we do not even get any of the electricity generated by the plants. In moments of crisis, like during the current global pandemic, the exploitation of our resources comes back to haunt us. Depleted water sapped by coal mines owned by non-Navajo companies is making it difficult for us to wash our hands as frequently as we need to, to control the spread of coronavirus. 

But the energy landscape is changing quickly as clean renewable energy out-competes fossil fuel generation. This was demonstrated by the early closures and retirements of the Navajo and San Juan Generating Stations. APS, however, appears to think it is impervious to the conditions that are taking out other coal plants in the region. But we know that the era of coal is coming to an end, much sooner than APS’s current timeline for Four Corners, and we need them to help plan for that future.

Without a near-term transition plan, coal-impacted communities will have little time to seek other forms of livelihood. We know utilities that have exploited our resources for half a century owe us economic support to transition. Fortunately, opportunities exist. The massive amount of energy infrastructure connecting our lands to other cities offers a prime opportunity to invest in clean energy on Navajo land. Currently, the city of Los Angeles and the Navajo are working through a proposal to build solar projects on our land as a means to economically compensate our sacrifices in a clean and sustainable way. Additionally, smart financial tools, like securitization, are being used in other Western states to reduce rate-payer risk of retiring coal plants early while producing savings that can be directly re-invested in clean energy technologies in coal-impacted communities. 

In a world where coal plants are retiring faster than ever, utility commissioners not only have a responsibility to electricity customers, but to all communities impacted by a utility’s actions. And the pathways to do this already exist 

The rapidly changing energy landscape makes it critical for the burdens of fossil fuel workers and communities to be assessed in all utility planning, so that we aren’t left behind, once again. The Arizona Corporation Commission has the chance now to ask Arizona Public Service to be accountable to all the communities its actions impact, including our Diné communities. The transition to renewable energy cannot resolve the injustices fossil fuel companies have gotten away with for decades, but it is a step in the right direction for our communities to begin recovery. This new energy world must be fairer, more just, and more equitable than the dirty fossil fuel energy world we are leaving behind. 

Carol Davis is executive director at Diné C.A.R.E., an indigenous nonprofit located on the Navajo Nation that works with many Navajo communities affected by energy and environmental issues.

3 comments

  1. Utilities are utilities. They answer only to shareholders and regulators, of which Arizona has only the former. Why should utilities play it straight? Ever filed a customer complaint with the ACC? What a joke.

    In the telecom sector, where utilities across the nation are supposed to be investing in community broadband services per an FCC program that encouraged them to do so by allowing them to vastly increase their rates, the largest participating telecom providers, including Arizona’s major telecom providers, were found to be hoarding their “incentives” and making only token noises about improving broadband service in Arizona’s most-deserving communities.

    If the people of Arizona, via the constitutional route or the ballot box, don’t empower an effective utility-regulatory authority, these stories of collective being ripped off will go on and on and on and on. They’re already boring, dog-bites-man fluff.

  2. That being said, the Dine Peoples must be honored as the most determined actors in Arizona fighting to get square deals, in all public-service domains. Carol Davis rocks.

  3. Ironic! Utilities (plural) are being forced to end the use of coal plants by liberal green activists, billionaires like Tom Steyer, and legislative cronies, resulting in the closure of the Four Corners Plant (APS), the Navajo Plant (SRP) and most likely the complete shutdown of the San Juan Plant (PNM – Public Service Company of New Mexico). They were forced into shutting down these plants by draconian EPA mandates, even though many costly upgrades were made over the years to greatly reduce emissions.

    They did not want to shut down these plants with much concern on the economic impact of the loss of Navajo jobs and revenue. The loss of the Navajo Plant also means the loss of the Kayenta Mine, whose coal production was exclusively for the Navajo Plant.

    These plants and the coal mine helped the Navajo Nation significantly, financially. So much so, that the Navajo Nation made a failed effort to purchase the Navajo Generating Station.

    The guest opinion only goes after APS. She does not go after SRP, which is a government owned corporation, or PNM. APS is always an easy target. Now, APS, alone, is the culprit? Maybe pay attention to who you elect and who you let persuade outcomes like EPA mandates with their money.

    This is simple cause and effect. An unfortunate but obvious reality. Maybe Tom Steyer and other liberal activist billionaires can infuse some investment to the Navajo Nation.

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