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Debate over coal plant shows challenges of energy transition


Once every week, a freight train loaded with coal makes its way through Ithaca to the coal-fired power plant north of town in Lansing, on the shore of Cayuga Lake. Those shipments may stop soon.

The state’s Public Service Commission is considering the future of the Lansing plant. The pending decision has sparked a local debate that says a lot about the challenges New York will face if it’s serious about switching to new sources of power.

During a tour in March, Cayuga power plant’s operations manager, John Cooper described the path each load of coal takes from the train that bring it in through to the two turbines that produce the electricity.

Only one of the turbines was running on this early spring afternoon.

“It’s a day-to-day decision. If the economics were there, we would run it,” said Cooper.

Cooper is referring to the price of coal compared to the price of natural gas. Coal plants just can’t competewith natural gas ones because of the boom in natural gas production in the United States.

In 2012, the plant’s owners, Upstate New York Power Producers, filed a request with the state to close the plant down. The state determined that there is a need for the up to 300 megawatts of power produced there, so it added a surcharge to local bills to keep it open. The owners then had to submit a plan to transition off of coal.

The plan they submitted included four options for switching to natural gas, ranging in price from $60 to $370 million. The plant’s Chief Operating Officer, Jerry Goodenough, says the alternative - closing the plant - would mean power has to be imported into the area.

“That energy is going to get produced someplace. And there’s a cost to that and we think we can do it very inexpensively,” says Goodenough.

But not everyone believes that the state even needs all 300 megawatts. The state Business Council and seven environmental groups co-signed a letter to the Public Service Commission (PSC) calling for the closure of the plant.

“Are we just going to remain stuck in a dirty energy past and continue to build out a dirty energy future that is going to last generations when really we have to make the hard decisions now to move to a renewable energy future?” says Lisa Dix, from one of the co-signers of the letter, the Sierra Club.

Dix says the power produced in Lansing could be replaced with renewable sources, increased transmission and a focus on energy efficiency.

But closing the plant would be a hard decision, especially for the town of Lansing. Lansing’s supervisor, Kathy Miller, has submitted comments to the PSC calling for a switch to natural gas. She says that renewable sources of energy just aren’t available yet to replace the plant.

“Hopefully, we would as a county and as a state be working towards sustainability so I look at this as an interim. And obviously it affects our tax base,” says Miller.

In 2012, the plant paid $1.7 million to the town’s schools, about 10 percent of the district’s revenues. The school district’s business administrator, Mary June King, says losing that contribution would make the loss of programming much more likely.

“Do we cut kindergarten? Everybody knows it’s the best thing for kids but when we make those choices, it’s got to be paid for,” says King.

And like many of the towns in Tompkins County, the town of Lansing hasa moratorium on hydrofracking. Supervisor Miller acknowledges the contradiction in opposing natural gas exploration in the town while supporting its use at the power plant. But she points to the ban on drilling in the New York City watershed as a reason to ban it around the Finger Lakes.

“I just feel there should almost be this zone around the lakes where, no matter what, drilling isn’t allowed,” says Miller.

The state is expected to make its decision by the end of the year. County Legislator Carol Chock wants the PSC to expand the options.

“My problem is that the way this issue is being framed is pitting town against town, is pitting the need to continue our tax base against those to create renewable energy sources for the future and I don’t think that’s necessary, many people in New York state don’t think that’s necessary,” says Chock.

Chock says the state should reduce the amount of power needed from the Cayuga Plant and let them come up with a plan to produce some from solar and hydropower, and some from other locations in the county.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.