Chicago company seeks to buy Navajo coal power plant slated to close in 2019

(Ross D. Franklin | Associated Press file photo) In this Sept. 4, 2011, file photo, smoke rises from the stacks of the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. The investment firm tasked with finding a new owner for the Arizona coal plant says it's focused on one potential investor while a handful of others are on the sideline.

Phoenix • A Chicago-based company said Thursday it is putting together a proposal to buy the coal-fueled Navajo Generating Station, a move that could forestall the plant’s scheduled closure in late 2019 and save hundreds of jobs and funding for Native American tribes.

Joe Greco, senior vice president of Middle River Power, on Thursday did not disclose a possible price for the plant or provide other specifics when he addressed the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. He said his company could operate the plant efficiently and economically for customers.

The future of the plant on the sprawling Navajo reservation in northern Arizona remained unclear after the announcement by Middle River Power, a portfolio company of Avenue Capital responsible for managing its power plant investments.

But the hundreds of members of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe who work at the plant and the mine that supplies its coal have been heartened that their livelihoods could be saved by the only potential buyer to emerge since the utilities that own the plant announced they would close it.

Greco spoke at a regular board meeting of the water conservation district, which uses power from the generating plant to operate an aqueduct system that moves Colorado River Water to cities, farmers and tribes in central and southern Arizona.

He characterized his company’s intentions as serious and said it was looking at options “to keep the NGS operating well into the future.”

“Let’s slow this process down, answer questions and give the prospective owner a chance,” said Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma, the Hopi Tribe chairman. He said that because the tribe gets about 85 percent of its operating budget revenues from the power plant and coal mine, closing them would result in “economic catastrophe.”

Board members denied Greco’s request to delay approval of agreements to buy power from several firms for some of the energy necessary to move Arizona’s water, saying it needed to move ahead and noting the aqueduct has relied on multiple power sources in the past.

The energy purchase agreements the board approved Thursday will cover about 14 percent of aqueduct’s energy needs.

The utilities that own the Navajo Generating Station decided earlier this year to shutter it when its lease expires in late 2019. While supporters of the plant insist it can produce economically priced energy, utility operators say the station is more expensive to run than natural gas-burning plants.

Several hundred demonstrators rallied in Phoenix on Wednesday to ask for more time to allow a potential buyer of the plant to work out details of a purchase.

People rally outside the Capitol in Phoenix, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Hundreds of Navajo Generating Station employees, relatives and union and tribal leaders rallied at the state Capitol in Phoenix on Wednesday to request a 90-day pause in steps to close the coal-fueled plant by the end of 2019 as scheduled. (AP Photo/Matt York)