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Dunkirk power plant to switch to natural gas

Kate O'Connell
Innovation Trail
File photo

Many of New York’s power stations are reaching the end of their operating lives, with coal-fired plants becoming less viable from both a business and environmental standpoint.

This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $150 million deal that will see the coal-fired power plant in Dunkirk converted to burn natural gas.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has been assessing solutions for the future of the station on Lake Erie for months. However, the deal announced by Cuomo wasn’t actually one of them.

The new agreement is still contingent upon PSC approval, according to the governor. But Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of the Environmental Advocates of New York, says the governor’s public support for the plan puts the efficacy of the PSC process in doubt.

“One does have to question how independent the decision making will be when an announcement like this appears, on the face, to be a fate complete. We hope that’s not the case, but it’s hard for me to sit here today and determine that an alternative result would come from a body that is appointed by the governor,” Iwanowicz said.

“We’re concerned that a process that was moving forward was, or appears to have been, short-circuited by this announcement.”

In a written response to questions about Cuomo’s impact on the PSC process, officials at the agency said they will make their decision based on information in the case, including public comments.

The parties have yet to present the final details of their proposal. The proposal will be subject to public comment once it is filed with the PSC. The Commission will then make its decision based on the information in the case.

NRG and National Grid compromise

The deal came out of talks, encouraged by the PSC, between the owner of the plant, NRG energy, and upstate transmission operator National Grid.                                                                                                   

Both parties say it’s a compromise between their original and opposing solutions for the plant.

“In the end it’s not what NRG had originally proposed and it’s not what we originally proposed. But we think in the end it’s a pretty fair balance of all of the interests and concerns frankly, including the Dunkirk community’s concerns,” said National Grid spokesman Steve Brady.

“We’re very pleased at the agreement. You know, we’re very proud of our Dunkirk employees and we’re very pleased that with this agreement we’ll continue to be part of the community for many years to come,” said NRG spokesman David Gaier.

NRG is the largest taxpayer in Chautauqua County and the company’s original proposal to repower the station with a combined cycle natural gas system was strongly supported by the city of Dunkirk. Residents have applauded the announcement of the new deal which would prevent a substantial portion of their tax base from disappearing.

In a statement, Dunkirk Mayor AJ Dolce said:

Governor Cuomo has rescued Dunkirk from the brink financial disaster with the announcement that the NRG plant will be allowed to make its multi-million dollar conversion to natural gas. I am tremendously excited that 40 percent of Dunkirk’s budget has been saved, thanks to the concerted effort of the community and the leadership of Governor Cuomo. Our residents, schools, businesses and our local workforce will all benefit from this decision.

Gaier says the project will stabilize the local tax base, create jobs, reduce costs for consumers, and benefit the environment. He says it will also address reliability and congestion issues within the power grid.

“Obviously this is a cleaner fossil fuel, natural gas is much cleaner than coal, so there’s an environmental benefit right off the bat,” he said.

Environmental concerns

But, Tony Ingraffea, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, says only some of that is true.

“It certainly will create some jobs in the short term and it certainly will stabilize the local property tax base, and that’s good for the people of Dunkirk," he said, "but it certainly is not going to produce a cleaner power plant when viewed from the point of view of all greenhouse gases.”

“There’s the mistake being made here that since natural gas is cleaner than coal from a carbon dioxide point of view it’s cleaner. No, it’s just cleaner from a carbon dioxide point of view.”

Throughout the PSC process, environmental advocates have supported National Grid’s original proposal to upgrade transmission lines and mothball the Dunkirk power station.

It’s a cheaper and more environmentally responsible plan, Ingraffea says. And, he says, transmission upgrades seem to be more in line with the Cuomo administration’s energy policies.

“There’s an inconsistency," Ingraffea said. "Clearly the governor has been very outspoken and a leader on greening New York state, moving New York state more rapidly than most other states towards a green, renewable energy future. So I’m somewhat surprised by how this particular decision with respect to Dunkirk was announced.”

He adds: “Nobody pays for the sun, nobody pays for water, nobody pays for wind, those prices are zero. So, if we were to have improved the transmission grid capability to accommodate more renewable energy, as the governor wants, then we could forecast continuing reduced energy costs for all consumers, not just those in western New York.”

Cost and other details still unclear

Many details of the plan have yet to be finalized. National Grid spokesman Steve Brady says when all the numbers are in he expects the new plan will be more expensive than the transmission upgrade option, but not dramatically so.

“Some of the details and numbers are still being worked out but it’s not orders of magnitude more expensive the way the original proposals were," he said. "If you looked at it as a scale, it was our original transmission proposal at one end, and NRG’s original combined cycle project at the other. The needle landed far closer to our original proposal, or will land far closer to our original proposal, than anything else.”

A timeline for a public comment period and the PSC decision has not yet been announced.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail