New Mexico meeting on power plant's future gets hijacked

San Juan Generating Station (file photo)
Posted at 2:11 PM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 14:11:14-04

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - An online meeting that was meant to decide the future of a major coal-fired power plant in New Mexico was derailed Wednesday by a group of young people who interrupted the proceedings by playing rap music laden with racial epithets and posting derogatory messages.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission was hosting the meeting regarding the planned closure of the San Juan Generating Station virtually due to the coronavirus public health emergency. The interruption came as the chairwoman was speaking about needing to protect the rights of customers of the state's largest electric utility.

Commissioners and staff were discussing how to proceed. They planned to resume in the afternoon.

The incident highlighted one of the pitfalls that officials face as public meetings, news conferences and other business is having to be conducted online or through virtual meeting apps due to the limits on public gatherings and the need to encourage more social distancing as the number of coronavirus cases grows.

"The racist hack of today's open Public Regulation Commission shows us how vulnerable our democracy is to interference and it's something we need to defend against," said Camilia Feibelman with the Sierra Club. "We applaud the PRC for attempting to move forward on the urgent business of taking action to address the climate crisis and to protect workers and communities."

Wednesday marks the last day the commission can vote on Public Service Co. of New Mexico's application to abandon the power plant as part of the state's move toward emission-free mandates and more renewable energy. The commission's decision will spell out just how much liability will be shouldered by PNM customers and utility shareholders.

Without a vote, the utility's application will be approved as filed.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico is seeking to recover investments in the San Juan Generating Station by selling bonds that will be paid off by utility customers. The bonds would raise roughly $360 million to fund decommissioning costs, severance packages for displaced workers and job training programs.

San Juan will be just the latest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. to close as regulatory pressures mount and New Mexico and other states enact more ambitious renewable energy targets. PNM plans to replace San Juan with a mix of natural gas, wind, solar and battery storage, but regulators have yet to sign off on that plan.

PNM has proposed collecting a monthly energy transition charge from customers over a 25-year period to cover the debt service payments on the bonds. The monthly charge would be either $1.90 or nearly $5 depending on how much electricity is consumed, with higher users paying more.