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Earth Notes: The Navajo Generating Station Goes Dark

Sometime next year the skyline of Page will look very different. That’s when the owners of the Navajo Generating Station plan to demolish the three 775-foot smokestacks that, in the last four decades, have become synonymous with the area’s otherwise iconic natural beauty.

NGS had become a relic in many ways. Natural gas and renewable energy have made coal less economical, and after years of lead-up, the owners are shutting it down for good this week.

The plant emerged from a political bargain in the 1960s. The Southwest’s energy needs were growing rapidly, and two hydroelectric dams were proposed on the Colorado River near the Grand Canyon. Environmental groups and the National Park Service helped defeat the plans, but federal officials still needed a power source to pump river water to Phoenix and Tucson.

NGS was a marvel of modern engineering when it opened in the mid-1970s. It was the West’s largest coal-fired plant, and at full load was able to generate 2,250 megawatts, burning more than 16 tons of coal every minute. It was also the only power plant co-owned by the federal government.

Many conservationists, however, saw NGS as an environmental abomination. It emitted toxic particulates like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and arsenic. They blamed the plant for haze over the Grand Canyon and even pollutants found in the region’s fish. NGS also consumed more than 6 billion gallons of water a year for operations.

With the era of coal winding down on the Navajo Nation, the tribe has increasingly pursued renewable energy. It’s completed a solar project that’ll bring power to thousands of homes, many of which have never been connected to the grid.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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