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Carbon Capture Technology for New Mexico Power Plant Wins More Support



By John Purcell

October 11, 2020
- Local leadership and businesses are continuing to garner support as they negotiate plans to modify New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station with carbon capturing capabilities.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes joined a roundtable discussion this week in Albuquerque with Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett and Enchant Energy CEO Cindy Crane. Enchant Energy is the company expected to oversee the modification of the coal-fired power plant.

Menezes presented a report prepared for the Department of Energy that found retrofitting the plant with carbon capture technology would provide more jobs and tax benefits for Farmington than the alternative plan of replacing the plant with renewable energy resources.

“Rather than driving out fuels that produce emissions, we drive down emissions while producing from the same fuels,” Menezes said. “CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) is an incredible example of innovation, one that has the potential to drive emissions down to zero.”

The Public Service Co. of New Mexico originally applied to decommission the plant by 2022 after the state Legislature passed the Energy Transition Act in 2019. The law seeks to transfer the state’s power systems from reliance on coal, oil and gas to 100% renewable and zero-emission sources by 2045.

Enchant Energy proposed the carbon capture project as a way to help New Mexico reach the goal while maintaining the many jobs the plant and its adjacent mine provide in San Juan County. The proposed modifications to the San Juan Generating Station would make it the largest carbon capture utilization and storage project in the world.

Duckett said there are 1,500 jobs associated directly or indirectly with the generation station and the mine that supplies it. He said if the plant was to go away, the impact on the community would be immense, comparing it to the loss of jobs in the natural gas industry that led to workers to leave Farmington for Texas, Pennsylvania and other gas hot spots.

“The city of Farmington has faced over the past decade job losses due to the continued decline of natural gas prices and activity in our area,” Duckett said. “Many went to Pennsylvania, many went to North Dakota, and left a wide gap in our community in regards to our economic stability.”

Duckett said PNM’s announcement that it applied to close the San Juan Generating Station was a “shock” to the community. He said there would be an even larger economic impact if the plant and the San Juan Mine were shut down, both in Farmington and nearby communities, including throughout the Navajo Nation.

Besides providing jobs, the plant and the mine provide significant financial support for local schools through tax revenue. The carbon capture, utilization and storage proposal, he said, would help prevent the loss of those economic benefits and also give San Juan County the opportunity to be a model for other carbon capture efforts around the world.

“I hope that the San Juan Generating Station and the future that we have there represents a new beginning for the United States in energy through CCUS technology,” he said.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage has not been tested in a large-scale project such as this before. The technology was recently used successfully on a much smaller scale in Texas.

Crane said the San Juan Generating Station is a good candidate for a larger-scale carbon capture project because the coal plant’s emissions already have low levels of particulate matter. The plant is also close to the Cortez Pipeline, which could carry captured carbon dioxide to oil fields in Texas. Carbon dioxide is used in enhanced oil recovery during the drilling process. When the plant is retrofitted, Enchant Energy’s plan says that it could strip 90% of carbon dioxide from the emissions.

The project has not yet been green-lit. Currently, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is researching and testing some aspects of the mechanical process. In addition to transporting carbon dioxide via pipeline, the plant would store sequestered carbon underground. William Ampomah, a researcher at the school, said he hopes a permit can be obtained to construct the carbon-injection equipment by 2023.

Enchant Energy and the city of Farmington are undergoing negotiations with PNM and the New Mexico government to finalize purchase of the plant. Critics have expressed doubt about the viability of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology because the technology remains expensive and has not yet been tested on a large scale. The plan also seeks to sell the sequestered carbon but has not secured a long-term buyer for it.

However, the parties involved say they are working to negotiate a destination for the captured gas. Several New Mexico state officials at Monday’s discussion also hailed the economic benefits described in the report. Many are hopeful that if the San Juan Generating Station operation is successful, it will lead to widespread innovation in carbon sequestration across the world once it has been demonstrated on a large scale, which could make future projects less expensive.

New Mexico State Sen. Bill Sharer, whose district covers the plant, echoed that statement.

“If we make this happen here, all of a sudden we become the world leader in carbon capture, use and sequestration – and I mean world leader,” he said. “There are places all over the world that are looking at this, thinking about it, but they want to see it really happen. And this is where it can really happen.”

John Purcell is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.