Carbon Capture Proposed to Save New Mexico Coal Plant

The New York-based hedge fund aiming to take over New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station (SJGS), targeted for closure by state lawmakers, wants to refit the 46-year-old, coal-fired plant to use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.

Acme Equities LLC said last week that retrofitting the 847-MW plant with CCS technology would cut carbon emissions by 90% and offer the plant another revenue stream—selling the captured COto help produce oil. Acme is negotiating with local Farmington, N.M., officials to take over the San Juan plant, a major employer in the area, and keep it operating.

Injecting carbon dioxide into older oil fields has been done for years to encourage wells to continue producing oil.

But state lawmakers expressed doubts about the technology even as they pushed a bill (Senate Bill 489) that would close the plant by 2022, limit the financial hit to the plant’s current ownership, and preserve tax revenue for local schools.

Lawmakers wondered about the economic viability of the CCS technology during discussions March 2 with the state’s Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.

The state Supreme Court, meanwhile, on March 1 granted a request from Public Service Co. of New Mexico (PNM), the state’s largest electric provider, to delay regulatory proceedings related to the closure of the SJGS. PNM now has until March 8 to submit a plan that includes details on costs, effects, and plans associated with the San Juan shutdown.

Acme Equities, a private, New York-based real estate investment company that focuses on North American energy projects, reached an agreement February 23 with officials in Farmington to keep the SJGS open beyond 2022. The city is part-owner of the plant. The facility’s other owners— including Tucson Electric Power, Los Alamos County, and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, along with majority owner Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM)—have said they do not plan to receive power from the SJGS after 2022.

Farmington officials have worked to find a new operator for the plant after PNM in 2017 said it would close the plant’s two remaining units in 2022, 30 years ahead of schedule. Two units at the plant were retired in 2017. A plant fact sheet shows PNM owns 46% of the SJGS. Several California-owned utilities formerly owned some of the plant’s generation, but they ended their ownership agreements in 2017 after 2015 legislation in California required them to divest from coal-fired generation.

Doubts About CCS Technology

Nathan Small, a Democrat from Las Cruces and a co-sponsor of SB 489, told the committee that, “Carbon capture has failed more often than it’s succeeded.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration has said there are just two North American plants using the technology proposed for the Farmington plant: the Petra Nova plant in Texas (POWER’s Plant of the Year in 2017), and Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan, Canada (the Plant of the Year winner in 2015), near the North Dakota border.

Another carbon capture project was designed in Kemper County, Mississippi, but it was scuttled before coming online. The coal gasification project from Mississippi Power was supposed to be a way to burn coal more cleanly, while the plant captured carbon dioxide. Mississippi Power never was able to get the technology to work reliably. The 582-MW Kemper County energy facility was designed as an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant, which would convert locally mined lignite to synthesis gas, using novel TRIG technology to capture up to 65% of its carbon emissions. Several technical hurdles continually delayed the project; it originally was scheduled to be placed into service in May 2014. The project’s costs steadily rose, topping $7.5 billion when factoring in mine, carbon dioxide pipeline, and other accounting costs.

Anthony Wilson, Mississippi Power’s CEO, in February 2018 said, “The economics really didn’t work out and the technology was hard to perfect.”

Public Hearing Before Senate Committee

The New Mexico Senate committee took public testimony on SB 489, also known as the Energy Transition Act, for more than three hours Saturday, though it took no action on the legislation. Committee Chairman Clemente Sanchez, a Democrat from Grants, said his group would meet March 4 to vote on the bill, along with several proposed amendments. The amendments include a proposal by Republican Sen. Bill Sharer of Farmington that would allow the SJGS to continue operating as a coal-fired plant until 2030 without having to comply with clean air standards included in SB 489.

The SJGS and its adjacent San Juan coal mine are major employers in northwestern New Mexico. More than 40 coal miners attended Saturday’s hearing and urged lawmakers to adopt Sharer’s amendment to keep the SJGS operating at least another decade. City officials in Farmington have said they support the amendment as well. Some committee members, though, including Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat and the bill’s major sponsor, have said that amendment would basically render the bill useless.

The bill includes a requirement for the state’s electric utilities to produce at least 50% of their power from renewable sources by 2030, rising to 80% by 2040.

The San Juan Mine is operated by Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal, which filed for bankruptcy in October 2018. Westmoreland, which began operating in 1854 and is the oldest independent U.S. coal company, is the fourth major U.S. coal producer to file for bankruptcy protection in the past four years. Alpha Natural Resources went into bankruptcy in 2015, and Arch Coal and Peabody Energy filed bankruptcy petitions the following year.

Securitized Bonds Would Lessen Financial Hit

SB 489 also includes language designed to lessen the financial obligations of PNM, the state’s largest utility. The measure, similar to legislation being considered in neighboring Colorado, would allow PNM to issue securitized bonds to pay off debt from the SJGS. The bonds have lower interest rates than other payment products; Candelaria said the bonds would have rates as low as 2%.

The legislation also would set up a $20 million economic redevelopment fund. The money could be used by Farmington and surrounding towns to help displaced workers. It also mandates that any energy sources used to replace generation from the SJGS be located in the Central Consolidated School District around Farmington, which Candelaria said would help mitigate the loss of property tax revenue earmarked for education.

The bill also includes $2 million for New Mexico’s Department of Indian Affairs to help research how a move away from coal-fired power toward renewable energy would affect the Native American community. A majority of workers at the San Juan Mine are from the Navajo Nation.

Candelaria told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper: “We can choose not to [pass this bill] with the hope that the global price of coal will rebound, but I can tell you it’s not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, Steve Pierro, president and general manager of the mine, told the Senate committee that a federal court last week approved Westmoreland’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection plan. Pierro told the committee he is optimistic about the company’s future.

Who Is Acme Equities?

Saturday’s committee hearing also was notable for what was not discussed, as the players involved with Acme Equities remain mostly unknown. POWER has found that Acme Equities was incorporated in Delaware in 2013. A news release from the city of Farmington last month said Acme is a hedge fund founded by Jason Selch in 2012. Selch lists himself as a co-founder of the entity on his LinkedIn page.

An article on the Energy & Policy Institute website last week called Acme “a mysterious hedge fund with no experience in the power sector.” The author, institute Executive Director David Pomerantz, wrote that Selch has a background in energy investments, but noted, “None of the work that Selch did as an oil and gas investor earned him the notoriety that he gained from a 2005 incident, when he was fired from his job at Wanger Asset Management after 11 years of employment. After new management from Bank of America, which had bought the firm, fired Selch’s colleague, Selch dropped his pants and ‘mooned’ two of his new employers in protest. Bank of America fired Selch, who sued, appealed, and finally lost for good in 2012, leading to a round of tabloid headlines over the incident.”

The Energy & Policy Institute describes itself as “a watchdog organization working to expose attacks on renewable energy and counter misinformation by fossil fuel and utility interests.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @DarrellProctor1).