by Will Greene
Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Page, Arizona is the West’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, causing the deaths of an estimated 16 northern Arizonans every year, with 25 heart attacks, 11 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 15 asthma ER visits to its credit for good measure.
The 40-year old coal powered behemoth runs the CAP canal pumps, and provides a steady source of revenue and jobs to the Navajo and Hopi nations.
While the devastating effects of its air pollution are startling, even more insidious is NGS’s contribution to the long-term threat of climate change. Every in-depth look at the expected impacts of climate change on the southwest point to severe and permanent drought (think dust bowl), unbearable heat (add 5-10 degrees to the hottest Arizona summer days), and crippling fire seasons (see here, here, here, and here for a taste of references). There can be no doubt that dramatically reducing our contribution to climate change is in Arizona’s long-term interest, especially considering we have relatively affordable alternatives available.
Enter the Environmental Protection Agency, which has proposed a compromise solution that would leave NGS operating exactly as-is for the next 10 years, allowing the health devastation and climate footprint to continue for a decade. The payoff would come in 2023 with the installation of aggressive pollution controls, reducing haze and particulate-causing nitrogen oxide emissions by 84%. The upgrades would do nothing to address the climate footprint of the facility.
There is no question this proposal has merit, especially if we weren’t living in an age in which half the arctic went missing last year due to climate change. The proposal would save lives. We know from experience that investment in pollution controls returns tremendous benefits for society - benefits that universally exceed implementation costs. But the EPA proposal does nothing to address the largest long-term threat to Arizona’s citizens, climate change.
Instead of spending up to $1 billion addressing only a part of the problem, Arizona deserves a proposal to hybridize NGS with solar or wind energy. A 2011 survey of Arizona voters by two bipartisan polling firms found “voters strongly prefer an investment in more renewable energy, rather than in pollution-control technology to help coal-burning power plants meet updated air quality standards.” Significantly, 79% of the electorate in the study agreed with the statement “we should start replacing coal with other energy sources like wind and solar power.”
Allocating up to $1 billion in ratepayer funds to extend the life of a climate-destroying coal facility is not the wise path forward. A phased transition to renewables, involving the shut-down of one coal-burning unit (NGS has three), to be replaced with renewables, would protect Navajo and Hopi coal jobs and create new clean-tech jobs for tribal members. The replacement of a third of the facility with renewable energy would also address health impacts, haze over the Grand Canyon, and crucially, climate pollution.
You can submit a comment to the EPA about its proposal here.