A coal-burning power plant in New York's Finger Lakes region sparked protests in Albany this week when opponents gathered in hopes of derailing a plan that would enable the plant to burn natural gas as well.
The Cayuga Power Plant in Tompkins County has, since 2013, been seeking state approval to convert from coal to a cheaper alternative: natural gas, at a cost estimated to be in the millions, which would be subsidized over a 10-year period by utility customers.
Former New York State deputy comptroller Tom Sanzillo co-authored an Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report that finds the coal-to-gas conversion "economically unviable" and warns it would create a long-term drain on ratepayers, while creating a "fiscal challenge" for the Lansing school district, the Town of Lansing, Tompkins County and two service districts, which would amount to an annual loss of $1.8 million. "It's often we think that the best fix to energy solutions are always new power plants and new uses. We're actually looking at a transmission fix which would allow alternative existing power plants to supply the energy."
Sanzillo says the report found subsidizing the plant would do little to ensure the reliability of electric supplies in the Ithaca area. An Earthjustice attorney suggested "New York cannot credibly claim to be a leader in renewable energy while propping up fossil fuel plants."
Albany Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, a Democrat, joined rallygoers outside the capitol Tuesday. She says subsidizing Cayuga would stymie efforts to promote renewable energy. "I think that these funds that would end up being used as a subsidy, could be used to transition to renewable energies, especially the wind and solar, and I'm not insensitive to the need for the jobs and for the retraining of those workers. We absolutely need to do that, and I think putting those subsidies into some long term retraining of workers as well in these fields, which by the way are also good jobs, in wind and solar, would be a better investment in long term. I do urge that the state not continue the subsidy and maintain our momentum as being a leader in clean energy."
David Alicea is an organizing representative with the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign, which champions clean-energy transitions. "This will be the second plant that they bail out if approved, and we think it’s really important that as New York ramps up on renewable energy and as the governor makes these big commitments to tackle climate change that he gets serious about coal and retiring these plants in a responsible way."
The Dunkirk Coal plant in western New York was the first. WGRZ-TV in Buffalo reported Tuesday that NRG Energy has filed an application to close its Huntley coal facility in Tonawanda by March and is leaning toward placing the Dunkirk conversion on hold due to a pending lawsuit filed by Entergy Corporation opposing the switch to gas. NRG expects the suit will go to trial and litigation could take years to resolve. The jobs of 145 workers at the two plants hang in the balance.
Meantime, plans submitted to the Public Service Commission call for the 60-year old Cayuga facility to begin the new plan in 2017. The agency has received more than 12,000 comments to date. A PSC spokesman tells the Times Union a date for a decision hasn't been set, and until it is, comments will continue to be accepted.