Sometime in the near future — whether it’s this year or the end of 2019 — Navajo Generating Station is likely to turn off for the final time.
When that happens, the power plant will be torn down and removed. But there will be one important part of the electric distribution system left — the transmission lines that currently carry electricity from outside of Page to Phoenix, Tucson and Nevada.
Once the plant is no longer making electricity, what should happen to those lines — hundreds of miles of transmission lines that will no longer have electricity to move from NGS.
Last month, the Four Corners Wind Resource Center, held a discussion and proposed the possibility the transmission lines could be used to carry clean energy — electricity made by either wind or solar farms.
Charlie Reinhold, an independent consultant with West Connect, and Jessie Audette Muniz, senior director of project development for APEX Clean Energy, led the discussion.
Reinhold, who has 35 years of experience in the electrical industry, including time with SRP, tried to explain the current transmission system.
Electricity made at Navajo Generating Station moves primarily west and south. Combined, the two lines have the ability to carry more than 10,000 megawatts of power south to Tucson and west as far as Los Angeles. While Los Angeles Power gave up its ownership in NGS, it has retained ownership of its share of the transmission lines.
When NGS does eventually close, the current owners will retain ownership of the transmission lines.
“The capacity on the line will probably become available for purchase at some time,” Reinhold said. “They all have their own timetable for relinquishing transmission if they make that decision.”
Muniz, whose company is primarily involved with wind energy, said the existing line can carry power from existing wind farms to the west and has enough transmission to add new wind or solar farms if they are feasible.
“There is a very strong wind resource in New Mexico that can be supplied to the west,” Muniz said.
One option she sees is building a new solar farm near NGS, likely on Navajo or Hopi land. That would benefit the Native people with jobs and the tribes with tax money.
“There is a robust solar resource in the region,” Muniz said. “We envision a 250 mw solar plant could be built over the next couple of years. It would create a significant number of jobs, probably 750 to 1,000 during construction and 40 jobs upon completion.”
Muniz said such a plant is feasible, but to have it completed before NGS closes, work would need to start soon.
She said a similar size solar farm recently opened in Nevada. If permitting is quick, which is possible if the land used is on the reservation, construction would likely be 20 months.
“You could certainly do a much bigger project,” Muniz said. “You could do a 20,000 megawatt project if you want to.”
The larger project would take longer to complete, she noted.
And while there is competition for solar plants, Reinhold said one big advantage that would be found locally is the existing transmission lines. If someone were to build a similar plant 100 miles away, the developer would have to build a transmission system to get the power from the plant to the electric grid.
“I think the advantage might be the existing transmission system,” he said. “Another solar developer might have to pay for the transmission system. That’s something a developer would have to consider.”
And while a big solar farm might sound like a pipe dream, Muniz said it is certainly possible. The cost is a big draw for developers, she explained.
“We’re starting to see projects in Arizona and Nevada that average under $30 per megawatt hour,” Muniz said.
By comparison, that is cheaper than natural gas and much cheaper than coal.
Muniz said to make the idea a reality, she would like to see the Navajo Nation or the Hopi Tribe come up with a proposal for a possible development.
The existing plant could not be part of the proposal, but the land itself could be a part of a future green energy program.
Best of all, the transmission system is there, proven and ready to be used.
“It is a proven transmission system,” Reinhold said. “It’s been in operation 40 years transmitting a tremendous amount of electricity very reliably.”
While the discussion about using the system for green energy is just beginning, Muniz said she hopes it moves forward quickly.
“This is clearly a historic opportunity,” she said. “It’s a very unique opportunity for the industry and supporters of clean energy.”