The West’s Largest Coal Plant Could Soon Go Dark

It’s big. It’s coal-fired. And it’s about to go bye-bye. The West’s largest coal-fired power plant — the Navajo Generating Station — is facing closure because it’s no longer a cost-effective method of generating energy.

Opponents of coal power who are concerned about its contributions to climate change are thrilled, but there’s a catch: A changing administration could mean some shifts in energy policy that alter the future for this plant and other coal-fired stations in America.

There are 968 coal-fired generators in the US, a number that is slowly declining — much like emissions. Coal is a fuel source that’s dirty all the way down, from the mining practices used to extract it to the greenhouse gases emitted when it’s burned for power.

Even with various tools that trap and filter emissions, coal plants contribute a heavy load to a struggling planet — one reason US energy companies are under pressure to phase out coal and replace it with cleaner sources of energy.

In 2014, the Navajo Generating Station was put on notice over its emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency collaborated with the plant’s owners to develop a plan that would drastically reduce emissions, with the intent to eventually shut down the plant.

The Navajo Generating Station doesn’t just provide electricity to the surrounding area. It’s also involved in water transportation — and that presents another problem. Burning tremendous amounts of fossil fuels to power a series of canals is bad enough, but the drought-prone region can’t really afford to spare the amount of water being transported by the plant. Thus, it has an unusual secondary climate impact that officials had to take into account when regulating its activities.

Conditions at the Navajo Generating Station are also complicated by another issue suggested by its name: The plant generates not just electricity, but also revenue for the Navajo. The tribe counts on the plant as part of the local economy, as do the Hopi, who jointly own the land where the station’s supplying coal mine is located.

Eliminating the plant could create economic hardship for the tribe. This concern was significant enough that it played a role in decisions about establishing a schedule for cutting emissions. The plant was actually exempted from some requirements to give it more time to catch up.

However, the regulatory climate isn’t the only thing affecting the future of the plant. As it turns out, economics might decide the issue before the plant’s official expiration date.

A glut of inexpensive natural gas has made coal an unexpectedly expensive fuel for electricity generation, and the plant can’t keep operations competitive as a result. The plant’s operators are facing difficult decisions about whether to keep the plant open or prepare to wind down operations before the lease expires in 2019. If they do decide to close, operators must make up their minds soon to get the plant decommissioned in time.

Of course, the rise of natural gas as a replacement for coal isn’t exactly something to cheer about. It’s also a fossil fuel, and fracking has made it plentiful and cheap. The incredibly destructive process has caused problems in communities all across the US Renewable alternatives like wind and solar are a much more suitable replacement for long-term change.

Energy markets like those that dictate the price of fuel and electricity are also dependent on the regulatory climate. Some evidence suggests that President Donald Trump’s nominees to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy may be supportive of continued fossil fuel use, which would definitely influence their perspective on regulating plants like this one.

The Trump administration could very well roll back regulations and cut funding to incentives designed to encourage conversions to renewable energy. It might not be enough to save the Navajo Generating Station, but it could determine the fate of other coal plants currently on the line.