Cooling tower collapses at San Juan Generating Station

The San Juan Generating Station west of Farmington is seen in November 2019. A cooling tower recently collapsed at the coal-fired power plant. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s largest electric utility is working to bring a unit at San Juan Generating Station back online after the recent collapse of a cooling tower caused it to be knocked off the grid.

Public Service Company of New Mexico spokesman Ray Sandoval said in a statement no one was injured by the June 30 cooling tower collapse at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and an investigation as to the cause of the incident is underway.

He also said PNM has “adequate resources” to handle customers’ electricity needs and said New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission, which regulates electrical utilities, has been updated about the situation.

A state Environment Department spokeswoman said Friday that PNM had also notified the agency of the cooling tower collapse, which caused the unit’s boiler to shut down.

PNM officials also indicated they plan to submit an air quality permit application in order to bring new cooling towers and, in turn, the power plant’s Unit 1 generating unit back online, Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said.

Cooling towers are the only wooden structures on the power plant site and are vital to coal-fired power production.

The San Juan Generating Station, located near Farmington, is slated to be abandoned by PNM and other facility co-owners in June 2022, though there is a plan afoot to turn it into the world’s largest carbon-capture power plant.

The collapse of a cooling tower could prompt new questions about the plant, which began producing power in the 1970s. Already, two of the plant’s four units were shuttered in 2017, leaving the facility at limited power production.

The five-member Public Regulation Commission will hear an update on the issue next week, and commissioners are expected to then discuss whether the cooling tower collapse warrants formal action, PRC spokeswoman Sarah Valencia said Friday.

PNM currently uses a mix of renewable energy – including solar and wind power – and traditional energy sources like the San Juan Generating Station to supply power to more than 525,000 residential and business customers in New Mexico.

But the electric utility is undergoing big changes, including a pending acquisition by energy giant Avangrid and complying with the landmark 2019 state Energy Transition Act that requires PNM to derive at least 80% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2040.

The law, which generated fierce debate at the Roundhouse, also allows PNM to recover its investments in coal plants paid for by customers and, in certain circumstances, when closing other fossil fuel facilities.

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