A couple of miles outside the town of Page, three 775-foot-tall caramel-colored smokestacks tower like sentries on the edge of northern Arizona’s sprawling red sandstone wilderness. At their base, the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest power generating facility, thrums ceaselessly, like a beating heart.
Football-field-length conveyors constantly feed it piles of coal, hauled 78 miles by train from where huge shovels and mining equipment scraped it out of the ground shortly before. Then, like a medieval mortar and pestle machine, wheels crush the stone against a large bowl into a smooth powder that is sprayed into tremendous furnaces – some of the largest ever built. Those furnaces are stoked to 2,000 degrees, heating tubes of steam to produce enough pressure to drive an 80-ton rod of steel to spin faster than the speed of sound, converting the heat of the fires into electricity.
The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water – lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles – has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand.
This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.
At sunrise, a reddish-brown snake slithers across the sky as the burned coal sends out plumes of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead and other metals. That malignant plume – containing 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every year – contributes to causing the very overheated…