Ripples Felt Across Arizona As The Navajo Generating Station Closes

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 11:57am
Updated: Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 9:15am

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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Navajo Generating Station
Andrew Bernier/KJZZ
The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.

LAUREN GILGER: But first, the Navajo Generating Station is shutting down, creating a ripple effect felt from the families left searching for jobs to the Grand Canyon, where its absence may mean improvements to the air quality. This moment does not come as a surprise. The plant's owners announced it would close in 2017, but it is no less momentous. To mark the end of the NGS, the Arizona Republic is releasing a series of stories exploring those many effects, and how similar closures are likely to happen elsewhere as renewable energy grows more popular. Utility reporter Ryan Randazzo has been covering the generating station for quite some time. And what will be left in its wake. And he joins us now. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN RANDAZZO: Good morning.

GILGER: So I want to start with a little bit of a brief primer on how we got here, how we got to this NGS closing moment.

RANDAZZO: So, it's the biggest coal plant in the West and it's shared by multiple utilities. And they realized in 2017 that it was costing them more money to run than it was worth. And they voted as an owner group to close the plant, but, in two years’ time. So, they had the communities around the plant and the mine, the supplies, it had two years to sort of figure out how they were going to fill this giant hole in their budgets and economy when these facilities closed.

GILGER: Yeah. And like we mentioned there, the effects of this will be rippled, like they will go on and on. I want to start with talking about the families, because the NGS has been such a job driver for much of the Navajo Nation and Page, the city up there where it's near. Start with how this will affect those families.

RANDAZZO: Well, when closure was announced, there was about 750 total workers between the power plant and the mine, and those two facilities are about 80 miles apart. And these are crucial jobs in this part of the state where the unemployment rate is very high. And they're high paying jobs. And so, they are definitely going to be missed. Not only were they lucrative opportunities for the mostly Navajo folks who filled those 750 positions, but they were very welcoming places for Native Americans. I remember being at the mine a few years ago and, over the radio, people were speaking in Navajo. At the power plant, you could get a health benefit to see a traditional Navajo medicine man if you didn't want to go to a traditional medical facility or, you know, a regular hospital in Page. So, they're good paying jobs, and they were very welcoming to the community up there.

GILGER: Yeah. Let's also talk about the effects this will have on the city of Page. This is the main source of a lot of the jobs there. What else do they have?

RANDAZZO: Well, they've got Glen Canyon Dam, but only about 80 folks work there. But Page really has a booming tourism industry. And so, that makes them pretty lucky, as far as coal communities are concerned, because they get millions of people a year driving through Page to see Horseshoe Bend, the Grand Canyon, the Canyon Lands in Southern Utah, so Page is really going to have to make a pivot. They're losing several hundred jobs at the power plant, but they happen to be building some new hotels and really doubling down on the tourism industry. They're hoping that that will fill the void left by the power plant closing.

GILGER: And that transitions nicely to talk about the environmental impacts of this. So, we've talked to you before about how this plant is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the country. How will its closure affect emissions, affect the environment in that part of the country?

RANDAZZO: Yeah, as you said, when the thing was running at full tilt, which has been a while, but when it was, it was about the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, but also a contributor to haze. And it depended on the season. Sometimes the Grand Canyon gets haze impact from big cities like L.A. and Phoenix, and other times of the year when the winds are blowing a different direction, the emissions from this plant would create a haze impact there at the Canyon. So, that's something that, when this ceases to burn, that'll be an immediate environmental benefit. There's also the massive mine, you know, open pit mine that is going to be reclaimed now, and the power plant site, which is massive. I mean, this thing is, the stacks are taller than any skyscraper in Arizona. There's 775 feet tall. You see them for miles around when you're in the Page area and Lake Powell, and those are gonna be erased from the skyline.

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GILGER: Yeah. Last question on this for you. This also is sort of an indicator of much of what's happening in this industry in general. Page will not be the only city like this, it sounds like.

RANDAZZO: No. We looked at the 70 power plant, the 70 coal plants still burning coal around the West, and more than half of them have plans to retire in the next decade. So there are several other communities in Arizona and the Southwest that have coal plants and rely heavily on them for their economies that are going to be facing the same thing that Page and Northern Arizona is seeing today.

GILGER: Yeah. And before we let you go, Ryan, we also want to talk about another story you've been covering as utility reporter there. So today also marks the end of a moratorium on electric utility shutoffs. Ryan, a Prius program manager and net carrier told you about 88,000 customers owe more than $30 million for electricity charges that went unpaid during this moratorium. Let's talk about what this will mean for those customers as they kind of face these mounting charges that now they'll have to pay.

RANDAZZO: Sure. So since June, regulated utilities like APS have not been allowed to shut people off if they're late on their bills. That moratorium ends today. So starting tomorrow, they'll begin this process again of getting people to pay their overdue bills. APS says that they will not shut someone off who owes less than $300 and they're going to automatically put those people on a payment plan. So what they're going to see is, their next bill is going to include all the charges for the last month, like normal, and also a quarter of their bad debt, you know, what they haven't paid. And they're going to have four months to pay off however much money they have racked up since June when the moratorium was in effect. The important thing from APS is they say, if people are not going to be able to make those payments, that they should contact the utility to prevent a shutoff and try and work out some sort of a payment plan and access some of the myriad forms of assistance that that are out there for those folks.

GILGER: Alright. That's the Arizona Republic's Ryan Randazzo. Thank you for coming in.

RANDAZZO: Thank you.

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