A coal plant closes. A solar plant is coming. In the meantime, a Navajo community braces for more hardship

For nearly half a century, the San Juan Generating Station in northern New Mexico burned coal that provided power for millions of people living in the Southwestern United States.

Last Thursday, it ceased operations. The closure, announced five years ago, is part of the nationwide push to close coal power plants and fight against climate change.

But it comes at a cost, as jobs and economic benefits are stripped from the local community.

Rather than celebrating the closure of one of the country’s most polluting coal plants, the power station’s absence is set to perpetuate inequality for nearby Navajo communities, where poverty and unemployment are significantly higher than the national average.

Alongside the loss of hundreds of jobs, which is not an insignificant number for the 125,000 people living in New Mexico’s San Juan County, the region will lose millions of dollars in tax revenue that was used to fund schools and a community college, according to a recent Associated Press report from the area.

“This whole transition, everything that’s happening, the closures, that’s what is threatening our ability to keep funding education,” said Christine Aspaas, an electrician at neighboring Four Corners Power Plant and a board member of the local school board. “When you go down to what it impacts, it is the education of our people, of the Navajo people, our students.”

Fossil fuel businesses related to the plant in the region represent about 80% of the property tax revenues that fund the Central Consolidated School District, which is about 3,000 square miles, according to a September 2022 school district report. The student body is 93% Navajo. Poverty is four times the national average and unemployment sits at around 70%, according to the report.

The issues mirror the plight experienced by the widespread closure of coal mines and related businesses throughout the country from the 1950s onwards, including West Virginia and other Appalachian regions. The Appalachian Regional Commission was established in the 1960s to help the region raise living standards to match the rest of the country. In later years, the commission helped out-of-work coal employees retrain and gain other employment.

In San Juan County, two solar projects will eventually replace the power plant, but work on those has not yet begun, according to a report published one week ago. In its final five years, the power plant could generate 847 megawatts of power. According to various reports, the solar facility will generate 650 megawatts of power while a nearby battery facility will store 350 megawatts

The parent company of the power plant is providing $12 million toward severance packages to help the 240 laid-off workers. Approximately $9 million will go to severance payments, while $3 million will be set aside for job training. To reach the ambitious climate goals announced by the White House and contained in the recent Inflation Reduction Act, coal-powered power plants across the country will have to close. The Biden administration has targeted net-zero climate emissions by 2050, while the bill aims to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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