Letter To The Editor: Consequences Of BPU’s Vote And Suggested Obligations Of County Council

ROBERT FALCO, PhD.
Los Alamos

The Los Alamos Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has just voted (Wednesday evening) to keep the coal fired San Juan power station alive and running for at least seven more years.

If they voted no, PNM said it couldn’t go forward, implying that San Juan would be shut down. Los Alamos still has it in its power to say NO at the Los Alamos County Council vote July 28. The irony is that the DPU will pay more for San Juan Power than for power it buys on the open market. And, today coal is more expensive than either solar or wind.

There were tremendous contradictions during the proceedings of the meeting (see below), but in the end the vote to continue with San Juan was unanimous. Why? The only thing apparent was that the smell of money overwhelmed the monumental opportunity for the Alamos community to be the catalyst of change that shut down the San Juan Station and pushed both us, and New Mexico into the new age of clean renewables.

The potential for good, the potential for Los Alamos leadership in reducing pollution and GHG, easily fell away before the prospect of short term profits. Even the DPU admits there is substantial risk to the foreseen profits. The defined risks, plants breakdowns etc., by agreement, has been limited to $3,600,000 for Los Alamos County (LAC) plus the $6 million already put in.

However, the risks of lawsuits by local residents and their Navajo neighbors under the new rules are not included in the cap assessment. And seven more years of air and water pollution to the detriment of the health of the people of the four corners region, and of the further warming of our earth are not easily assessed.

By staying in and insuring the continuation of the plant:

Over seven years, the remaining two Units will spew out more CO2 than Los Alamos would need for 182 years if it stayed with coal fired electricity, clearly flying in the face of the intent of the Future Energy Resource Committee for a carbon neutral LAC by 2040. [The remaining two Units of San Juan will spew out 6 million tons of CO2 per year * 7 = 42 million tons of CO2, as it produces 924*24*365*7=56.7 million MWh, of which Los Alamos receives 36*24*365*7 = 2,207,520 million MWh.

Thus, the plant will produce 26 times more electricity each year than Los Alamos County needs from it, or enough coal fired electricity to supply LAC needs for 26*7= 182 years.] Furthermore, the San Juan coalmine will emit another 4,200,000 tons of CO2 equivalent GHG over that timeframe.

Over the seven years that we will keep the San Juan Plant alive, it will discharge an additional 500,000 *7=3,500,000 tons of toxic coal ash, 14,000 tons of sulfur dioxides, 42 million pounds of soot, hundreds of pounds of mercury.  Over the seven years it will spew tons of arsenic, and 8,500*7 = 59,500 tons of NOx, although our $6 million contribution to the Non-catalytic NOx controls will somewhat reduce this (although it is not the best technology to achieve NOx removal).

Over the seven years the plant will consume more than 3*7 = 21 billion gallons of clean water, and return it as dirty water.

The question before you, as a citizen of Los Alamos County: “Is this the way we want to be remembered”? Do we want to continue to be responsible for this pollution – especially now that we have clean choices?

At Wednesday’s meeting, the BPU first voted to accept the report of the FER committee’s recommendations, whose major goal was to make Los Alamos carbon neutral by 2040. Then, in completely juxtaposition, DPU staff presented its reasons to stay with the San Juan Power Station for Seven more years. 

Reason given:

  • They want to recover monies spent to add minimal NOx pollution controls to the remaining two stacks. 
  • The new coalmine owners have projected a cost the per ton of coal to PNM that will be less than they paid before, adding profit the DPU. When it was questioned about giving it back to the town, DPU said it was not clear whether they would keep it or not, they would have to look into it. 
  • Furthermore will get a share of monies that four of the other Utilities that have partial ownership in San Juan, but who have opted to get out of the ownership agreement must pay to get out. 
  • If Los Alamos gets out now it will cost 2-3 million dollars because they own 7.2 more of one of the Units, Unit 4. However, if Los Alamos gets out in 2022, it will still cost $2-3 million. 

On the negative side: 

Economically it will cost 5.5 cents a kilowatt hour for San Juan electricity (assuming no new EPA regulations or lawsuits are forthcoming, see below), while the Final Report of the Future Energy Committee, which the BPU voted Wednesday evening to accept, stated that the DPU paid 4 cents per kWh on the open market for electricity last year, and the report projects DPU will pay an average of 4.6 cents per kWh over the years 2016-2025. (Nevada Energy is paying 3.87 cents a kWh for solar energy under a fixed contract for 20 years.)

The compromise cleanup plan that PNM engineered for San Juan coal ash remediation, which the BPU just unanimously voted yes to, will be to cover over 40,000,000 tons of coal ash poured down the open pit mine — ash that is laden with heavy metals — with soil, which will leave unknown tons of the ash to leach into ground water for decades to come.

EPA estimates that living near coal ash ponds is more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and that living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond results in a 1 in 50 lifetime risk of cancer – more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA cancer risk standard.

It is not clear whether covering the coal ash pond with dirt will meet the conditions of the EPA’s new Coal Ash Disposal Rule of Dec. 19, 2014.

The EPA’s new Clean Power Plan, governing CO2 emissions, will go into effect this year. The costs of compliance have not been estimated by the DPU, who responded to questions saying we have been partners in emitting CO2 for more than 30 years.

7. The Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Act, proposed a Stream Protection Rule last Thursday, July 16:      

a. It states that it is “A rule that would better protect streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations and provide mine operators with a regulatory framework to avoid water pollution and the long-term costs associated with water treatment. Since no remediation has been done so far, the San Juan river will need a lot of attention. The costs of meeting the spirit of this ruling are unknown.

8. EPA’s Clean Water Rule was just finalized June 29, 2015.

a. The rule will ensure protection for the nation’s public health and aquatic resources, and increase CWA program predictability and consistency by clarifying the scope of ‘‘waters of the United States’’ protected under the Act. The San Juan River, so long polluted from both the mine and the plant will come under new scrutiny. The costs of compliance are again unclear.

9. New EPA National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Regulation Aug. 15, 2014. Costs for compliance and or mitigation were, again, not discussed.

10. The DPU after voting to accept the Future Energy Resources (FER) Committee Report then proceeded to vote YES to continued use of the San Juan Facility, without putting any stipulations on the DPU to lay down a time table for implementing the FER report. This leaves an opening for the DPU, to stay with San Juan even beyond the seven years (PNM is asking them to make a decision on this by 2018), because, 

a. They will argue that have had to put even more money into keeping it legally running to comply with the new regulations listed above, and they need to once again recover their costs, and/or

b. As they stated, they are comfortable with the use of the plant, and continue to desire the flexibility it gives them to tweak electricity production to current needs. 

11. What can the council do now to truly represent the desire so often expressed by the people of Los Alamos and White Rock to go carbon neutral, and implement the intent of the FER report? 

a. First recognize that continuing with San Juan is unnecessary. For example, PV solar is currently being sold for under 4 cents a kilowatt hour, and is completely clean. Power from the grid, of mixed origin, has been purchased last year for 4 cents a kWh. 

b. If the Council does not feel confident in leading the town, and the world, out of  with the DPU, it at the very least should lay out a roadmap for the DPU to proceed towards carbon neutrality while they are under the umbrella of support, as they suggest, of the San Juan plant. 

c. Among the possible constraints the Council should put on the nefarious time table of the DPU, which are needed to move our community away from coal, the Council should consider requiring: 

1. The DPU to create a plan to implement solar and other renewables, that must be presented to the Council within six months of their approval of the San Juan restructuring plan. 

2. That DPU and the Council work to reconstruct the cooperative agreement with the Lab, so that the towns can use Lab land, and we both share the batteries, or salt storage, which are needed for emergencies in the day at the Lab, and are needed for cloudy/rainy days, but needed daily at night in the town. 

Of note:

The DOE has restructured itself to help with solar (just announced), so let’s work together to get the monies and support to implement renewable strategies in Los Alamos. 

The Lab has many sites previously considered to be excellent for solar. 

3. That the DPU cannot receive an extension of the use of San Juan beyond the seven years. That means that DPU informs PNM now, as part of agreeing to move forward with the restructuring plan that they are not going beyond seven years, no matter what. 

4. That they create a plan to get out of the coal fired Laramie power station contract — from which we draw 10 MW — in the same seven-year time frame, by selling it. As the cost of solar is rapidly approaching the cost we pay for Laramie electricity now, and as Laramie is required to add pollution controls in the near future, the costs of Laramie coal fired electricity will even more rapidly exceed the cost of solar. Thus, as the FER report suggests, selling our interest in the Laramie Plant has a very small window of opportunity. 

5. That the DPU start implementing their solar plan with at least 2 MW within one year, for example, to offset Laramie sales, and to begin limiting open market purchases so as to regain budget control. DPU’s plan must be to incrementally build to the capacity that the County needs to replace both San Juan and Laramie in seven years. That is 36 MW + 10 MW with adequate storage. 

i. Concentrated solar technology using parabolic mirrors and salt storage technology is already mature and will not go down in cost. Solar PV and battery storage are decreasing rapidly. 

6. That they initiate a fund to retrain the workers at San Juan plant and coal mine to install solar, so as to provide jobs and help bring electricity to the deprived four corners region. 

Because of the opportunity to get out of the San Juan contract at the same time that four other utilities are leaving for a minimal cost, and because of PNM’s statement that PNM can’t go forward without LAC’s participation we recommend that the Council vote no, cut its losses and get out and be a catalyst for change to the new energy economy. This will, of course, require the DPU to move ahead with renewables as soon as possible (during transition time the county can “fall back” on power from the grid that is cheaper than San Juan power they are leaving).

From a purely monetary stand, with all the uncertainty going forward, particularly the uncertainty of the cost of implementing all the new Federal regulations outlined above, and the potential for further lawsuits related to coal ash leaching into ground water, ultra high cancer rates, etc., we also recommend saying no.

If the Council decides to accept the risks/rewards as favored by the BPU, without stipulations such as those mentioned above, the Council will be making a dangerous decision that has little upside versus solar (cheaper solar over the seven years will pay for the $6 million bond loss if San Juan is left behind, and of course the NOx abatement equipment could be sold), and one that possibly has significant downsides.

By acquiescing to the DPU’s seven year delay, Los Alamos will be using coal long after renewable solar has become cheaper and more widely accepted than coal. At some point during this period it will be clearer, crystal clear in fact, that the Council’s support is not representing the will of the citizens of Los Alamos, but the commitment will have been made.

A version of this has been sent to all LAC Council members. If you really want your future to be marked by renewable, clean energy that doesn’t associate you with health and environmental degradation, then going forward with the vision of the Future Energy Resources Committee Report, now, when the opportunity has been given to us with minimum backside risk is the intelligent action.

The arguable need to find the “right” moment is just putting off our future. Leaving the issues to the DPU, who initially recommended San Juan’s purchase will not work. Remember what Einstein said,  “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.”

Tell your Council members what you feel about this situation; that protecting the world we live in is as important to the legacy of Los Alamos as being a place of great ideas.

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