As New Mexico swaps coal for renewables, San Juan County struggles to chart a new future
BLOOMFIELD, NM — Leaning against the wall in a corner of Geneva Griego’s white-paneled living room is a bag of coal. Like many people who live in the Farmington area —part of the coal-rich Four Corners region where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet — her family relies on a mixture of coal and wood to heat their home. A few feet away, in the kitchen, her 19-year-old daughter Sharon tosses a scoop into the wood stove and closes the small door.
For almost 50 years, coal has fueled not only homes in this region but also much of its economy. And the Griego family’s fortunes have been intertwined with coal almost from the beginning. Her mother and father worked at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, about 30 miles west of here, in the 1970s and ’80s; today, Geneva and her cousin work there, too. Her job can be stressful: as power production planner, she’s responsible for safely powering down the plant for maintenance. But she likes the challenge, she says, and the pay is good — in the $70,000 to $115,000 range, well above the state’s median household income of $47,169.
But soon, Griego and the community she grew up in will have to learn to live without the plant. Within two years, the San Juan Generating Station and the coal mine that supplies it will close, and Griego, along with 449 other workers, will lose their jobs. A few years ago, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the plant’s majority owner and the state’s biggest electric utility, announced that the plant — New Mexico’s largest and at one time its most polluting — would be shuttered in 2022, as a consequence of high costs, falling renewables prices and the utility’s new commitment to convert to cleaner energy sources. The mine will close next year.
The closings are part of a larger power switch. Last year, amid a nationwide decline in the coal industry — as solar and wind became cheaper than coal and as public concern about climate change increased — New Mexico lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham cemented the state’s transition away from coal. A landmark 2019 bill called the Energy Transition Act (ETA) set one of the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy targets: utilities like PNM must switch to 100 percent “zero-carbon” power sources like solar and wind by 2045; rural electric co-ops have until 2050 to de-carbonize. These mandates are the centerpiece of Lujan Grisham’s effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
To help smooth the economic turbulence from the resulting loss of jobs and tax revenue, the act established a $40 million “just transition” fund, including $20 million for severance pay and worker retraining and $20 million to help Farmington diversify its economy.
Supporters have lauded the plan as a way to cut carbon pollution in the nation’s second-fastest-warming state and capitalize on New Mexico’s abundant solar and wind resources without leaving displaced workers in the lurch.