New Mexico regulators approve abandonment of coal-fired power plant

Regulators in New Mexico have signed off on allowing the state’s largest electric utility to abandon a coal-fired power plant that’s been operating for nearly 50 years near Farmington.

The decision by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission was unanimous on Wednesday and will allow shareholders in Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover investments.

The vote came after a public video meeting Wednesday morning was reconvened following prank callers shouting, singing and making racist remarks. The interruption spurred the commission to end the call according to the Santa Fe New Mexican

The video meeting was cut short by a so-called Zoom bomb — named for the popular video-conferencing app — just as commissioners appeared to be preparing to vote on whether to allow Public Service Company of New Mexico to abandon its coal-fired San Juan Generating Station.

Wednesday was the last day for the PRC to make a decision on the matter.

If commissioners did not decide whether to allow PNM to abandon the coal plant, the electric utility’s application to do so automatically would have gone into effect, said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.

Following the decision, a broad coalition of environmental groups applauded the vote. Whether PNM would be allowed to leave the coal plant behind, offer financial aid to displaced workers and repay shareholder investments by selling bonds worth about $360 million had been shrouded by uncertainty for months.

“As PNM transitions to cleaner energy, the closing of San Juan Generating Station provides an opportunity to fundamentally re-define economic development to incorporate renewable energy in the Four Corners Region,” said Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, in a statement issued after the vote.

PNM Resources Chairwoman, President and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn said in a statement that customers and the environment “will benefit as we move to exit all of our coal-fired generation and replace it with lower-cost, cleaner energy resources.”

Vincent-Collawn also said the company’s ability to recover costs will help it offer $40 million for workers who will lose their jobs and for economic development in the community of Farmington if the coal plant idles.

But whether the plant will actually close as a result of PNM leaving it behind is still unclear. A company called Enchant Energy is pursuing a separate plan to buy the station and install carbon-capture technology to keep it running.

Prior to the meeting’s unexpected cutoff, commissioners appeared to be finished asking questions about the application, and PRC Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar was remarking on the “extraordinary time” being endured everywhere.

But a caller interrupted: “Minorities don’t have rights.”

Becenti-Aguilar asked for the name of the person. The man offered several names, including one that was an obvious crude joke, before the meeting was overwhelmed with noises of laughter, singing and yelling.

The meeting then devolved into complete audio insanity — as if 12 radio dials were turned rapidly between channels while a chorus of pranksters yelled and sang over the cacophony.

Then the call was cut.

“My first reaction was just utter shock,” said the Sierra Club’s Feibelman. “The nature of the hack really was just so shocking and racist, and it honestly just made me want to cry. It made me realize how vulnerable we are all, how vulnerable our democracy is to interference.”

The decision Wednesday comes after months of legal proceedings that delayed certainty over whether PNM could leave the coal plant behind.

Commissioners approved recommendations from the regulatory agency’s hearing examiners to allow the PRC to abandon the coal plant under provisions in a new renewable energy law that gives PNM the ability to sell bonds to earn back investments made by shareholders.

Months ago, commissioners delayed a decision on PNM’s request, saying they were unsure whether the new law applied to it. In January, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled the new Energy Transition Act does apply to PNM’s plans for the San Juan plant.

New Energy Economy, which has a history of opposing PNM’s applications with the PRC, already intends to appeal the commission’s decision, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Mariel Nanasi.

The group is preparing to file an appeal of the commission’s decision to the state Supreme Court and a separate lawsuit in state District Court, arguing the Energy Transition Act violates the due process clause of the state constitution.

Despite assurances to the contrary from state lawmakers, PNM and a broad coalition of environmental groups, Nanasi argues the law will raise costs for electricity customers.

“The PRC had no choice under the Energy Transition Act but to approve PNM’s request for financing in its entirety because the PRC’s authority was stripped from them by the Legislature and the Governor, at the request of PNM,” Nanasi said in a statement.

“Especially in these challenging economic times, to shower PNM with money … is a travesty of justice,” she continued. “We have no other choice but to protect ratepayers and appeal the constitutionality of the ETA because it allows PNM, a monopoly, to bill the ratepayers without regulatory oversight and without any due process for ratepayers.”

Source: Santa Fe New Mexican