Category Archives: Power Plants

Navajos Hope to Shift From Coal to Wind and Sun

By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: October 25, 2010

BLUE GAP, Ariz. — For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation.

But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.

“At some point we have to wean ourselves,” Earl Tulley, a Navajo housing official, said of coal as he sat on the dirt floor of his family’s hogan, a traditional circular dwelling.

Mr. Tulley, who is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation in the Nov. 2 election, represents a growing movement among Navajos that embraces environmental healing and greater reliance on the sun and wind, abundant resources on a 17 million-acre reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development,” said Mr. Tulley, the first environmentalist to run on a Navajo presidential ticket.

With nearly 300,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest tribe, according to Census Bureau estimates, and it has the biggest reservation. Coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation and on lands shared with the Hopi provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget, the largest source of revenue after government grants and taxes.

At the grass-roots level, the internal movement advocating a retreat from coal is both a reaction to the environmental damage and the health consequences of mining — water loss and contamination, smog and soot pollution — and a reconsideration of centuries-old tenets.

In Navajo culture, some spiritual guides say, digging up the earth to retrieve resources like coal and uranium (which the reservation also produced until health issues led to a ban in 2005) is tantamount to cutting skin and represents a betrayal of a duty to protect the land.

“As medicine people, we don’t extract resources,” said Anthony Lee Sr., president of the Diné Hataalii Association, a group of about 100 healers known as medicine men and women.

But the shift is also prompted by economic realities. Tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled 15 percent to 20 percent in recent years as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining.

Two coal mines on the reservation have shut down in the last five years. One of them, the Black Mesa mine, ceased operations because the owners of the power plant it fed in Laughlin, Nev., chose to close the plant in 2005 rather than spend $1.2 billion on retrofitting it to meet pollution controls required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Early this month, the E.P.A. signaled that it would require an Arizona utility to install $717 million in emission controls at another site on the reservation, the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico, describing it as the highest emitter of nitrous oxide of any power plant in the nation. It is also weighing costly new rules for the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.

And states that rely on Navajo coal, like California, are increasingly imposing greenhouse gas emissions standards and requiring renewable energy purchases, banning or restricting the use of coal for electricity.

So even as they seek higher royalties and new markets for their vast coal reserves, tribal officials say they are working to draft the tribe’s first comprehensive energy policy and are gradually turning to casinos, renewable energy projects and other sources for income.

This year the tribal government approved a wind farm to be built west of Flagstaff, Ariz., to power up to 20,000 homes in the region. Last year, the tribal legislative council also created a Navajo Green Economy Commission to promote environmentally friendly jobs and businesses.

“We need to create our own businesses and control our destiny,” said Ben Shelly, the Navajo Nation vice president, who is now running for president against Lynda Lovejoy, a state senator in New Mexico and Mr. Tulley’s running mate.

That message is gaining traction among Navajos who have reaped few benefits from coal or who feel that their health has suffered because of it.

Curtis Yazzie, 43, for example, lives in northeastern Arizona without running water or electricity in a log cabin just a stone’s throw from the Kayenta mine.

Tribal officials, who say some families live so remotely that it would cost too much to run power lines to their homes, have begun bringing hybrid solar and wind power to some of the estimated 18,000 homes on the reservation without electricity. But Mr. Yazzie says that air and water pollution, not electricity, are his first concerns.

“Quite a few of my relatives have made a good living working for the coal mine, but a lot of them are beginning to have health problems,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

One of those relatives is Daniel Benally, 73, who says he lives with shortness of breath after working for the Black Mesa mine in the same area for 35 years as a heavy equipment operator. Coal provided for his family, including 15 children from two marriages, but he said he now believed that the job was not worth the health and environmental problems.

“There’s no equity between benefit and damage,” he said in Navajo through a translator.

About 600 mine, pipeline and power plant jobs were affected when the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada and Peabody’s Black Mesa mine shut down.

But that also meant that Peabody stopped drawing water from the local aquifer for the coal slurry carried by an underground pipeline to the power plant — a victory for Navajo and national environmental groups active in the area, like the Sierra Club.

Studies have shown serious declines in the water levels of the Navajo aquifer after decades of massive pumping for coal slurry operations. And the E.P.A. has singled out the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station as two of the largest air polluters in the country, affecting visibility in 27 of the area’s “most pristine and precious natural areas,” including the Grand Canyon.

The regional E.P.A. director, Jared Blumenfeld, said the plants were the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 emitters of nitrogen oxides, which form fine particulates resulting in cases of asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks and premature deaths.

Environmentalists are now advocating for a more diversified Navajo economy and trying to push power plants to invest in wind and solar projects.

“It’s a new day for the Navajo people,” said Lori Goodman, an official with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a group founded 22 years ago by Mr. Tulley. “We can’t be trashing the land anymore.”

Both presidential candidates in the Navajo election have made the pursuit of cleaner energy a campaign theme, but significant hurdles remain, including that Indian tribes, as sovereign entities, are not eligible for tax credits that help finance renewable energy projects elsewhere.

And replacing coal revenue would not be easy. The mining jobs that remain, which pay union wages, are still precious on a reservation where unemployment is estimated at 50 percent to 60 percent.

“Mining on Black Mesa,” Peabody officials said in a statement, “has generated $12 billion in direct and implied economic benefits over the past 40 years, created thousands of jobs, sent thousands of students to college and restored lands to a condition that is as much as 20 times more productive than native range.”

They added, “Renewables won’t come close to matching the scale of these benefits.”

But many Navajos see the waning of coal as inevitable and are already looking ahead. Some residents and communities are joining together or pairing with outside companies to pursue small-scale renewable energy projects on their own.

Wahleah Johns, a member of the new Navajo Green Economy Commission, is studying the feasibility of a small solar project on reclaimed mining lands with two associates. In the meantime, she uses solar panels as a consciousness-raising tool.

“How can we utilize reclamation lands?” she said to Mr. Yazzie during a recent visit as they held their young daughters in his living room. “Maybe we can use them for solar panels to generate electricity for Los Angeles, to transform something that’s been devastating for our land and water into something that can generate revenue for your family, for your kids.”

Mr. Yazzie, who lives with his wife, three children and two brothers, said he liked the idea. “Once Peabody takes all the coal out, it’ll be gone,” he said. “Solar would be long-term. Solar and wind, we don’t have a problem with. It’s pretty windy out here.”

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative Energy, Power Plants, Solar Power

Refitted to Bury Emissions, Plant Draws Attention

NEW HAVEN, W.Va. — Poking out of the ground near the smokestacks of the Mountaineer power plant here are two wells that look much like those that draw natural gas to the surface. But these are about to do something new: inject a power plant’s carbon dioxide into the earth.

Multimedia

Captured, Then Buried 

Photo: Kevin Riddell for The New York Times

The inside of the plant.

The New York Times

The Mountaineer plant in New Haven is ready to inject carbon dioxide into the earth.

A behemoth built in 1980, long before global warming stirred broad concern, Mountaineer is poised to become the world’s first coal-fired power plant to capture and bury some of the carbon dioxide it churns out. The hope is that the gas will stay deep underground for millennia rather than entering the atmosphere as a heat-trapping pollutant.

The experiment, which the company says could begin in the next few days, is riveting the world’s coal-fired electricity sector, which is under growing pressure to develop technology to capture and store carbon dioxide. Visitors from as far as China and India, which are struggling with their own coal-related pollution, have been trooping through the plant.

The United States still depends on coal-fired plants, many of them built decades ago, to meet half of its electricity needs. Some industry experts argue that retrofitting them could prove far more feasible than building brand new, cleaner ones.

Yet the economic viability of the Mountaineer plant’s new technology, known as carbon capture and sequestration, remains uncertain.

The technology is certain to devour a substantial amount of the plant’s energy output — optimists say 15 percent, and skeptics, 30 percent. Some energy experts argue that it could prove even more expensive than solar or nuclear power.

And as with any new technology, even the engineers are unsure how well it will work: will all of the carbon dioxide stay put?

Environmentalists who oppose coal mining and coal energy of any kind worry that sequestration could simply trade one problem, global warming, for another one, the pollution of water supplies. Should the carbon dioxide mix with water underground and form carbonic acid, they say, it could leach poisonous materials from rock deep underground that could then seep out.

Given the depths to which workers have drilled, they also fret that the project could cause earthquakes, although experts at the Environmental Protection Agency discount the risk of catastrophe.

More broadly, some environmentalists argue that the carbon storage effort could give corporations and consumers another excuse to drag their heels in supplanting coal dependence with an embrace of renewable energy sources like the sun and wind.

“Coal is the drug of choice of a major industry with a lot of political power,” said David H. Holtz, executive director of Progress Michigan, an environmental group.

Instead of adopting carbon capture, which Mr. Holtz likens to a methadone cure for addiction, he argues that the industry would do better to go cold turkey.

“There’s no evidence that burying carbon dioxide in the earth is a better strategy than aggressively pursuing other alternatives that clearly are better for the environment and will in the long run be less costly,” Mr. Holtz said.

But power company officials say the effort is the energy industry’s best hope of stanching carbon dioxide emissions over the next few decades.

“I really believe, in my heart of hearts, that coal is going to be burned around the world for years to come,” said Michael Morris, chairman and president of American Electric Power, which owns the plant here. “Retrofitting is going to be essential.”

American Electric Power is the nation’s largest electricity producer, with a coal-fired grid stretching across 11 states.

If all goes smoothly, this week engineers will begin pumping carbon dioxide, converted to a fluid, into a layer of sandstone 7,800 feet below the rolling countryside here and then into a layer of dolomite 400 feet below that.

The liquid will squeeze into tiny pores in the rock, displacing the salty water there, and assume a shape something like a squashed football, 30 to 40 feet high and hundreds of yards long.

American Electric Power’s plan is to inject about 100,000 tons annually for two to five years, about 1.5 percent of Mountaineer’s yearly emissions of carbon dioxide. Should Congress pass a law controlling carbon dioxide emissions and the new technology proves economically feasible, the company says, it could then move to capture as much as 90 percent of the gas.

For now the project consists of the two wells and a small chemical factory. In the factory, smoke diverted from the plant’s chimney is mixed with a chilled ammonia-based chemical. The chemical is then heated, releasing the carbon dioxide, which is pumped deep into the wells.

American Electric Power is spending $73 million on the capture and storage effort, which includes half the cost of the factory. Alstom, the manufacturer of the new equipment, paid for the other half of the factory, hoping to develop expertise that will win it a worldwide market. Alstom would not say what it spent, but public figures indicate that the two companies are jointly spending well over $100 million.

For energy planners, a crucial question is how much this technology would cost if refined and installed on a bigger scale. The answer remains elusive.

Still, many scientists emphasize that Mountaineer is within a dozen miles of four other big coal plants with a combined capacity of 6,000 megawatts, a concentration so great that industry insiders have nicknamed the area Megawatt Alley. If the technology spread to all of them in a cost-effective way, many say, it could have a broad impact on the coal industry.

S. Julio Friedmann, leader of the carbon management program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, calls this corner of the Ohio River Valley a “must win” region for carbon dioxide storage.

Robert Socolow, a Princeton University engineering professor, echoed that sentiment. The nation’s fleet of coal-burning plants “completely dominates our national emissions,” Professor Socolow said.

It is also far easier to corral several million tons flowing from a single chimney than a comparable amount coming from tens of millions of car tailpipes or home heating systems, experts point out.

Far larger projects for capturing and storing carbon dioxide underground have been under way for several years in Europe and North Africa. In North Dakota, the Great Plains Synfuels plant, which converts coal to methane, takes the leftover carbon dioxide and pumps it through a pipeline to Canada to stimulate oil production there. But Mountaineer is the world’s first electricity plant to capture and store carbon dioxide.

A state permit issued to American Electric Power limits the pressure it can use to inject carbon dioxide into the rock. This is to reduce the risk that the injection will crack rock layers above that engineers are counting on to keep the carbon dioxide in place.

A nonprofit research group, Battelle Memorial Institute, has installed monitoring wells around the rock that will measure changes in pressure and temperature. Engineers can also send energy pulses through the earth between the wells and measure how fast these travel, as a guide to how the carbon dioxide is spreading.

Asked whether the injections of carbon dioxide could increase the frequency or magnitude of the small earthquakes that are common in the area, an E.P.A. official said it seemed unlikely.

“With proper site selection and good management, we should be able to implement this safely,” said Dina Kruger, director of the agency’s climate change division. Ms. Kruger also emphasized that the carbon dioxide would be monitored to see if it was seeping.

Some local residents are skeptical.

“It doesn’t matter to me if a scientist says it may or may not leak,” said Elisa Young, an anti-coal activist who lives nearby on the Ohio side of the river. “That’s not going to stop it from leaking when push comes to shove.”

At the same time, many others in this coal-dependent region suggest that the notion that carbon dioxide is a menace has been overplayed.

Charles A. Powell, the manager of the Mountaineer plant, who has worked there since it opened three decades ago, pointed out that the gas is given off by every human and animal.

“You are breathing out?” he asked a visitor dryly.

By Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times, September 21, 2009.

Leave a comment

Filed under Power Plants