PHOENIX – The Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant burned the last of its coal Monday, marking the end of the plant's 45-year run, Salt River Project, an Arizona utility company, announced.
The plant was the largest coal plant in the West, and its closure will affect the entire region.
The mine supplying the plant closed in August after sending the final shipment of coal to the plant via an electric railroad that stretched 78 miles between the two locations.
Since then, the plant had burned down its coal stockpile, which covered more area than a Walmart superstore and parking lot.
The last bit of usable coal burned Monday and the power plant, which could produce 2,250 megawatts of power at full capacity, sent its last electrons down the transmission lines to Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas at about 12:09 p.m.
SRP General Manager/CEO Mike Hummel said closing the plant was a difficult but necessary decision based on economics, with natural-gas prices and renewables such as solar becoming much more cost competitive.
“NGS will always be remembered as a coal-fired workhorse whose employees made it one of the safest and most reliable power plants in the nation,” Hummel said in an announcement of the closure.
“After more than 40 years of generating electricity for millions across the West, NGS and its employees are one reason why this region, the state of Arizona and the Phoenix metropolitan area has been able to grow and thrive.”
Now begins the work of decommissioning the power plant, which is expected to take years.
Two years ago, Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power and NV Energy voted to close the plant. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power already had sold its interest in the plant to SRP.
The decision to close came after years of the utilities fighting to keep the plant running economically while remaining in compliance with air-quality regulations.
But after a deal was struck with the Environmental Protection Agency to keep the plant open at two-thirds capacity, economics prompted the closure vote.
The utilities co-own the plant with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which, along with the Navajo and Hopi tribes, tried unsuccessfully to keep the power plant and Kayenta Mine running.
But the financials didn't work out for another buyer, with more than $100 million in maintenance required to keep the plant running and no anticipated buyer for the electricity.
The Bureau of Reclamation's share of the plant's power was used to pump water on the Central Arizona Project canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. But CAP officials said they would save money procuring power elsewhere.
The coal facilities employed 750 people before operations began to wind down two years ago, and nearly all of the workers were Native Americans.
Most of the miners were laid off, though some will work on reclaiming the land.
Most plant workers already transferred to new jobs at Salt River Project.
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Tribes face financial losses
The closure also marks the beginning of a new era for the Navajo and Hopi tribes, which both will have to plug significant holes in their budgets without the royalties from the mine.
Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma said dealing with the fallout of the closures is a challenge he's accepted and will deal with throughout his term.
"It's hard work, but we're Hopi and we've always been survivors, so we'll survive,” he said. “We share the same concern as the Navajo Nation. It's definitely an impact, but as far as Hopi goes, we're working hard at trying to mitigate this because our community members matter.”
The biggest challenge the Hopi Tribe faces with the closures is revenue. Nuvangyaoma estimates that 80% to 85% of the Hopi Tribe's general fund budget will be affected with the closure, which equals a $12 million or more revenue loss.
“We have to take a hard look at what we're doing right now in order to make sure that services still remain as a priority to our community members,” he said.
The Hopi Tribe is considering a variety of options, such as mineral and land development or tribal gaming.
Navajo leaders tapped into government reserves to make up for the loss of the mine in its latest budget.
But leaders said the tribe must try to replace its coal revenue with new ventures, possibly tied to renewable energy or tourism.
Leaders estimated a $30 million to $50 million decline in coal revenues for 2020, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said they took that responsibility "head on."
“It’s the beginning of a new era for the Navajo Nation and the state of Arizona — the start of new opportunities," Nez said in a statement on Monday. "We recognize that NGS provided many benefits for the workers and their families. We thank all of the workers and their families for their service and contributions over the years."
"Times are changing and energy development is changing — the demand for coal-based energy is no longer at its peak not only in our region but across the country," he added. "As Diné people, we have always been resilient in times of change, and that’s what we are doing by pursuing renewable energy options. We are looking to become the leader in renewable energy throughout the Southwest and Indian Country.”
Follow Ryan Randazzo on Twitter @UtilityReporter.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Navajo Generating Station coal plant in Arizona closes