The case against Desert Rock: Proposed power plant faces worsening odds

The haze of uncertainty hanging over future coal-fired power plants has local environmental groups hopeful it will bode well in the fight against the Desert Rock power plant and a search for viable coal alternatives.

The $2 billion Desert Rock project is undergoing environmental review, after public outcry led to an extension on the draft environmental impact statement comment period, which ended Oct. 9. The Diné Power Authority and Desert Rock Energy Co., an affiliate of Sithe Global Power, are proposing a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Reservation, about 30 miles southwest of Farmington. Supporting facilities would include a well field that would draw 4,500 acre-feet per year from the local aquifer, a water-supply pipeline and an expansion of existing surface coal-mining at the Navajo Mine.

“Sixteen coal-fired power plants have been cancelled in recent months,” said Chris Calwell, a member of the Southwest Colorado Renewable Energy Society, citing a report last week in the Washington Post. “It’s important as it pertains to Desert Rock, because it’s basically building a case against it.”

The report goes on to say that the coal boom hasn’t panned out, with only 15 out of 151 coal plants proposed actually being built since 2002. Of those remaining, more than half are listed as “uncertain” by the government. The report lists increasing concerns over global warming as well as a 40 percent spike in construction costs as the reason for the cooling reception to coal.

However, Calwell, an energy consultant with Ecos Consulting, said he believes the market will have the final say in the future of coal. “Desert Rock will fail because the market will say, ‘I don’t want that power,’”

he said. “The same Wall Street that’s investing in those plants will say they want out because they can’t make any money.”

Coal or no coal, though, the United States’ thirst for power is not expected to go away. Industry officials predict a 40 percent increase in electrical demand by 2030. But Calwell said there are alternatives. In fact, for the last several months he has been working on an environmental and financial analysis of the Desert Rock project versus alternative energy scenarios. Calwell said the study, which was funded by various public interest groups, should be done within a few weeks.

“We are building a case for alternative energy to Desert Rock and what those alternatives would cost,” he said. “The news on that should be coming out before too long.”

– Missy Votel