Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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PNM’s shutdown date for the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station at the end of June 2022 is written in smoke. State utility regulators told PNM at their Feb. 23 meeting that the utility company has the right to extend operations at the San Juan Generating Station for three months instead of shutting down the facility on June 30.

PNM sought the three-month extension of the facility from the Public Regulation Commission to make up for a projected 120-megawatt shortfall in generation capacity during the summer’s hottest months if the generating station was shut down in June as planned. During the extension period, the utility plans to keep one of the plant’s two functioning units in service.

PNM already has the authority to run the plant longer than the June shutdown date that PNM chose voluntarily, PRC General Counsel Michael Smith told commissioners.

“No provision of the ETA (Energy Transition Act) actually mandates PNM abandon San Juan Generating Station by July 1, 2022, or even by Sept. 30, 2022. “We’re not saying ‘yes,’ because ‘yes’ in this order would be conferring an approval on PNM’s actions,” Smith said. PNM’s decision to continue operating the plant is a voluntary action.

PNM’s dialog about potential brownouts, power supplies and the need to keep the generating station online past the original shutdown goal was criticized by some of the commissioners.

Commissioner Cynthia Hall (Dist.-1) noted that PNM investors were recently told everything was covered for the summer, then the utility was telling others there might be rolling brownouts without an extension of operations at the generating station. Commissioner Stephen Fischmann (Dist.-5) said he takes “a very dim view” of the utility’s mixed communication efforts during this time. “Transparency and clarity are important.”

The PRC’s unanimous “yes” vote allows PNM to carry out a new, short-term coal contract with Westmoreland, which runs the mine that feeds the coal-fired plant.

Questions remained about any costs associated with the plant staying open a few more months. “PNM proposed its plan to make up for a 120 MW shortage and developers’ delays that created obstacles in implementing the Commission’s selected portfolio to replace coal power,” PNM said in a statement after the hearing. “PNM was put into a tough position, but quickly jumped to action with its plan that extends operations of just one unit of its San Juan coal plant through the 2022 summer peak season.”

Environmentalists rebutted PNM’s claims. “It is hard to believe installation of new gas turbines and construction of a new gas pipeline would not have been subject to the same kind of delays industries worldwide are experiencing due to Covid-19,” the Sierra Club statement said. “And PNM’s preferred portfolio contained two of the same solar-plus-storage projects that the PRC approved and are delayed due to Covid-19.”                         

Once the coal plant is finally abandoned by PNM, Enchant Energy and the City of Farmington plan to take over running the coal plant without carbon capture technology until studies are done and financing of the venture plan is finalized.At this point, Enchant’s retrofit of a carbon capture for the coal-fired plant facility is almost two years behind schedule. Enchant is now planning to start construction in July 2022 and plans to keep the plant running until 2036.