Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Utah News

Navajo Generating Station Brings Money To Workers And Community

Every year, one of the three 750 megawatt generating units of the massive Navajo Generating Station is overhauled. In January, the power plant began a cycle of major overhauls, beginning with its Unit 3. 

This year’s overhaul will cost $47 million, last more than eight weeks, and bring home hundreds of skilled Navajos to do the work. 

Lonnie Begay of Coalmine Mesa said his job as a millwright foreman takes him all over. He has worked 13 consecutive Navajo Generating Station overhauls. He said returning each year feels as much like a homecoming as a job.

“When you come here it’s almost like a reunion. You know a lot of people that work here almost like family. You get to spend some time close to home, and the pay is pretty decent,” Begay said.

One NGS turbine and generator makes enough electricity for one million people every day. In a major overhaul, these are completely disassembled, inspected, repaired where needed and reassembled to specification. 

The boiler, boiler feed pumps, auxiliary turbines, and hundreds of other pieces of equipment are torn down to their essential components and rebuilt like new again.  

“This is what sets the stage for the next three years," said Shayne Jones, NGS maintenance manger. "It’s huge. An overhaul is an opportunity to get in there, inspect things and fix the items that need to be fixed, so the work that we do we have to make sure is quality work and it’s the right work for the next three years.”

This year, NGS brought in 1,200 craftsmen and professionals, from welders to engineers, to perform nearly 12,000 individual jobs.

Among these workers are hundreds of highly skilled Navajo craftsmen and women who travel the country from power plant to power plant doing this kind of work.

Millwright Ernest Littlefoot is from Kaibeto on the Navajo Nation. He said he’s worked the overhauls for 14 years. After this job is done, he’ll travel to the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns to begin an overhaul there. 

“NGS been always closer to home where once a year we come out here to make a little bit of pocket change, and we go from there,"Littlefoot said. "We do a thorough inspection through the fans and if it needs replacement, we get with our liaison and then we go from there. When we’re done here at NGS, we’re scheduled to go out to CGS.”    

NGS is a big power plant, the largest coal-fired plant in the West. At full load, it produces 2,250 megawatts of electricity 24 hours a day – enough for 3 million people. For more than 40 years, all of its equipment and parts have been inspected and repaired through these annual scheduled outages.

And through the years it’s paid off. Last December, Power Engineering magazine ranked NGS sixth in the nation for total power production among more than 600 coal power plants in the country. 

Besides putting money into workers’ pockets, each year’s overhaul produces a big economic boost throughout the western portion of Navajo Nation, northern Arizona cities like Flagstaff, and the little town of Page, Arizona, home of the Glen Canyon Dam. 

Hundreds of visiting workers stay in Page’s local motels, gas up at its convenience stores, spend in its businesses and eat in its restaurants at a time of year when fewer tourists are visiting Lake Powell. Bill Zeglin is the owner of the popular Dam Bar & Grill in Page.

“Absolutely. Just more people coming in the door, more dollars coming in," Zeglin said. "Our numbers are up from last year, our overall revenues. Especially when they’re major overhauls. When we hear that there’s any overhaul, we’re happy about it because we know they do bring the out of town people who have to eat out.”

Walmart is one of Page’s largest retailers. It’s felt a steady bump in business during this year’s overhaul, says store manager Craig Milam.

“Definitely, the overhaul is something that impacts our business," Milam said. "Last year and this year both we kind of planned it as we would any other season like Easter, Valentine’s and whatever we go through.”

In early March, Milam said, sales were up 15 percent. But Walmart is not only benefitting from the overhaul, it’s contributing to it. Because the work presents such a good opportunity for some of his employees, he allows them to take a leave of absence to work the overhaul and return when the job is done.

“And if it doesn’t turn into a permanent job there at the plant for them, then they come back to me," Milam said. "If it does then they tell me, hey, look, I’ve got a plant job now and they go that direction. So, trying to work with the community that way.”

Just about the time this overhaul is completed tourists will begin to return, filling local motels and restaurants. But the cycle will repeat in 2016 and 17 when nearly $100 million is spent on two more overhauls to maintain the Navajo Generating Station.