Time to give N.M. energy producer a push off coal

A few weeks ago, there was widespread attention to a report by a coalition of community groups that analyzed electricity rates, profits and energy priorities at PNM, New Mexico’s largest utility and owner of the San Juan Generating Station coal plant near Farmington.

Here’s one of the viewpoints that resulted: “The report should be used as a catalyst by PNM to stop warring with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and retire a couple of its coal plants in favor of renewable energy production” (quote in Farmington Daily Times, Feb. 29, 2012).

Sounds like the opinion of a clean-energy advocate or a resident concerned about coal pollution, right? Sure. But this particular statement came from a more unlikely source – one of New Mexico’s utility regulatory commissioners with oversight of PNM.

“PNM should redirect its resources toward the future, not the past,” Commissioner Jason Marks said in the Times story.

It’s not a radical notion, of course – nowadays, most people know that our energy future needs to be with renewable resources. But for a utility like PNM that has a hard time seeing beyond its massive, aging, coal-burning San Juan plant, it’s big news when regulators join residents in telling the company, quite bluntly, to get with the times.

Here in the Four Corners, we consider San Juan Generating Station’s effect on our air, health and water: The more than 2 million cars’ worth of carbon pollution a year that pour from its smokestacks. The plant’s 16,000 tons a year of nitrogen emissions that cause harmful ozone and fine-particulate pollution that gets deep into people’s lungs. The fact the plant uses more than two times as much water as a city the size of Santa Fe. Evidence that the plant’s pollution is contaminating the San Juan River.

Utility regulators consider PNM’s coal plant from the perspective of financial costs: San Juan Generating Station’s operating costs are already among the highest of any power plant in the region. A federal court’s recent decision to deny PNM’s attempts to stall requirements for necessary pollution controls on its smokestacks means millions more in costs. Recent issues at the San Juan Mine, which feeds the power plant, call attention to the increasing difficulties and costs associating with mining the coal.

Add to these costs the findings of the recent “Perspective on PNM” report that the utility has raised New Mexicans’ electricity rates 41 percent since 2008 and funneled 79 percent of that money into corporate profits with less than 6 percent going toward job-creating renewable-energy projects or cost-saving energy-efficiency programs.

When you consider it all, it’s no wonder utility regulators are speaking out. The more PNM is stuck in the past, the harder the shove needed to bring it into line with the priorities of residents and rate-payers.

Here’s to Commissioner Marks for giving PNM a push from coal to clean energy with his words. Now we look forward to action from regulators and the utility to make it happen.

(See a Sierra Club report at http://nmsierraclub.org/perspective-on-pnm.)

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.