The Real Cost of Santa Fe’s ‘Cheap’ Energy and ‘Clean’ Air | - March 5, 2012

"For the second time in the past decade, there is a movement afoot to pursue the concept of a publically owned, renewable municipal energy grid for Santa Fe and Santa Fe County"

Though Santa Fe New Mexico, and its constant stream of international visitors, can all take pride in some of the finest air quality of any U.S. city, it comes at a notable cost to the inhabitants of the Navajo Nation, which is home to five various coal power plants in and around the reservation. The San Juan Generating Station, the primary source for Santa Fe’s electricity, is rated as one of the most polluting coal plants in the U.S. Countless Navajo children are being born with asthma, and coal is viewed as a culprit for the high rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease among the Navajo.

The relentless exposure to toxins such as mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde and lead (to name a few), which rain down on the environment, extracts a tremendous toll. The coal mining, also located on the reservation, has a decade-long history of negative health effects on the miners, along with the resultant coal ash, which is placed in unlined holding bins to the tune of millions of tons annually. The coal ash, which contains many of the same toxic chemicals, continues leaching into the ground water and poses a potential environmental hazard for generations to come. So, the question arises, isn’t it about time to clean things up and move toward a more sustainable means of generating electricity? It’s a known fact that New Mexico averages over 300 days of sunshine annually.

Powers Square Off

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), given some real teeth under the Obama Administration, has recently targeted the most polluting coal plants in the U.S. The San Juan Power Station and the Four Corners coal burning plants, both located in northwest New Mexico, have been determined to be two of the most polluting plants in question. This, along with recent California laws prohibiting utilities from investing in most coal-fired power plants, have helped trigger an imminent shift in New Mexico that regulators and environmentalists hope will lead to cleaner air for the entire Four Corners region. Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), the main operator of the Four Corners plant has committed to shutting down 3 of the 5 generating units that are the biggest polluters.

The San Juan Generating Station, again the primary source for Santa Fe's electricity, is owned and operated by PNM (Public Service Company of New Mexico). They also own 13% of the remaining two generating units at the Four Corners Plant. Recently PNM has teamed with New Mexico Governor Suzanne Martinez in fighting the EPA rulings and appears determined to maintain the status quo at San Juan at all costs. PNM's perspective is that this source of “cheap” energy cannot be replaced affordably. Ironically, despite PNM’s continuing mission to maintain profits for its investors, rate hikes have been granted by the PRC (New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission) on a regular basis. There has been a 45% increase in electricity rates since 2008.

A New Mexico law, passed during the Richardson administration, had mandated that PNM produce 10% of its electricity generation requirements from renewable sources by this year. Instead of meeting this mandate, PNM’s most recent lobbying effort at the PRC has gotten the amount reduced to 5%. The fast-dwindling Renewable Energy Credits supplied to residential producers of solar electricity, are being lobbied away by PNM’s highly paid legal team down at the PRC.

Of course, all these efforts and expenditures are financed with rate payer proceeds. Homeowners had received 13 cents a kilowatt hour, for all renewable energy produced, as recent as 2010. The credit is now down to 5 cents a kilowatt and will soon disappear altogether. The fact that the New Mexico Legislature approved a bill several years ago guaranteeing PNM’s profits for the next 30 years certainly doesn’t help the move toward renewable energy. Does any other private enterprise you know have a business model of guaranteed profits?

If PNM would commit to spending its (our) money in cleaning up its act, along with New Mexico’s environment, instead of funneling massive dollars into lawyers, lobbying efforts and PR spin, some progress certainly could be made. But, as mentioned, the company is determined to continue fighting for maintaining the same technology that has been demoralizing Navajo Nation for the past 50 plus years.

The Energy-Water Nexus

Water is ultimately the most precious resource in the arid Southwest. The San Juan Generating Station alone, a primary source of Santa Fe electricity, consumes 1.5 times more water than the annual usage of the City of Santa Fe. The San Juan River is a major tributary of the Colorado River, but as a result of man-made diversions, it also is a tributary of the Chama River, which flows directly to the Rio Grande and supplements Santa Fe and Albuquerque’s municipal water supplies. Given diminishing water tables and falling yearly averages of snow pack, this massive consumption of water is truly unsustainable.

A little known and perplexing aspect of our antiquated power distribution system is that a mere 29% of energy production from the coal plant is typically available at point of use.  Between the inefficient burning of coal and the 223 mile transmission journey from the San Juan Station to Santa Fe, the other 71% is lost.  Hardly an efficient system, especially considering the environmental and human costs involved.  This level of inefficiency seemed permissible during our rise through the industrial revolution, the seeming endless supply of cheap fossil fuel and little knowledge of the consequences.  We are now moving steadily forward in the 21st century with maximum profits to investors being the primary reason to maintain a mid-twentieth century technology. So, the question arises…what might be the solution to this unsustainable mess?


First of all, anyone with any knowledge of PNM’s history and corporate mission to maintain the old ways at all cost knows there’s a steep slope to climb in overcoming this politically entrenched corporate monopoly. In many ways, PNM represents what’s absolutely worst about single bottom-line business as usual profiteering. Profits from this “free enterprise” operation directly leave the state and go into the pockets of investors, creating a drain rather than a stimulus for our local economy. This, along with the nicely funded lobbying efforts and teams of lawyers compromise the environment, and typically, the will of the people, with undue influence in the legislative process. So what solutions may be present to begin the move away from dirty coal and to secure a truly sustainable future for New Mexico?

For the second time in the past decade, there is a movement afoot to pursue the concept of a publically owned, renewable municipal energy grid for Santa Fe and Santa Fe County. The first attempt, which had gathered much support and momentum, mysteriously fizzled out about six years ago. Changes in economic conditions appeared to be the culprit, but one can only wonder about the influence of the powers that be.

Now the time has arrived for another conscious attempt to bring this obvious solution into play. Locally owned and generated renewable power, would solve the issue of keeping proceeds in the community, be a catalyst for potential green jobs, alleviate the issue of transmission loss and bring about the ultimate goal of clean energy as the source of our power. The City of Boulder, Colorado recently passed a public referendum after conducting a feasibility study, and is now rapidly moving toward its own municipally owned utility. One can look at numerous, successful examples of this approach from around the country. Help build the groundswell of public support here in Santa Fe by signing a petition in support of this concept, whose time has come. Go to and click Petitions.

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(Correction: An earlier version of this article originally stated: "The San Juan River, the source of water for the San Juan Station, is a major tributary to the Rio Grande." The passage was updated to "The San Juan River is a major tributary of the Colorado River.")