Energy wishes stress state’s power system

Publisher's Notebook

OBSERVER Photo Power costs when demand is heavy are one sign the state’s power system is facing challenges.

New York state is trying to have it both ways. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership, the administration is attempting — very hurriedly — to move away from fossil fuels when it comes to powering our state. In the process, as we have witnessed during recent heat waves, New York is relying too heavily on others who are delivering electricity to our region from one of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania.

It did not have to be this way.

As the governor continued his radical shift away from the conservative policies he upheld his first term in office, Cuomo in January called for 100% emissions-free electricity by 2040.

With Democrats holding the all the cards in the state Assembly and Senate, it was an easy sell.

For now, however, it is far from reality.

On Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock, fossil fuels remain the leading generator of energy in the state at 39%. Natural gas makes up 22% of the electricity with nuclear making up another 21%.

Hydropower comes in fourth at 15% with wind being 1.3% and other renewables, including solar making up the other 1%.

We obviously have to do better under the goals set by this state — and we have two decades to get it done. But if we improve our green-energy ways, the big question is will the producers come from within New York?

Currently, a great deal of power is coming from outside our borders. It is why electricity prices spike in Western New York during heavy power demands, especially in high heat and humidity.

This newspaper is the only media outlet shining light on that expensive cost of importing power to this region. At 2:30 p.m. July 18 — with a temperature of nearly 90 degrees — the Locational Based Marginal Pricing, which is the cost to provide the next MegaWatt of load to a specific location in the grid, was $596.99 for the region.

Those costs were never that high when the NRG Energy Inc. plant in Dunkirk or the Huntley plant in Tonawanda were operating earlier this decade. These major suppliers were transporting power throughout the region and elsewhere through outdated transmission lines.

That all stopped in 2016, but the future of these former gigantic generators remains uncertain. Tonawanda remains in a battle with NRG to take over the Huntley site, while Dunkirk and Chautauqua County have just begun to look at options.

Those story lines could take years to play out. There’s no urgency from Albany to do anything with the sites if they are not running, even if they are major eyesores on Lake Erie.

But here’s where those two retired plants still matter. What happens if there is another major power outage like there was on Aug. 14, 2003? That was when all of the Northeast went dark.

Our state has become a great importer of electric. If a massive blackout occurs, states in the power-generation business will worry about their residents first, not those on the outskirts in a dire time of need.

Even bigger questions loom in the coming months. Two more coal-fired power plants in upstate are will be closing — one in Niagara County and the other in Central New York.

“Closing the Somerset and Cayuga Power plants and repurposing those sites as data centers powered by renewable energy would constitute an almost 10-to-1 replacement ratio of fossil fuel to clean energy (996 MWs coal to 125 MWs renewable energy) and would fulfill governor’s pledge to shut down coal in New York ahead of his December 2020 timeline,” reads a memo from Jerry Goodenough, vice president of development for Cayuga Operating Co. in the Ithaca Voice in May. Cayuga Operating Co currently oversees both plants.

That is a lot less power being generated within our region and state.

Two other items worth noting concerning electricity. On Wednesday, Cuomo announced a 15-year, $1.1 billion investment in the Niagara Power Project. The second most productive hydroelectric plant in the nation needs major equipment upgrades to continue delivering power to New York and seven other states.

Some of the power generated in this region is likely destined to go downstate. There, the Indian Power nuclear plant in Westchester County will be closing in 2020-21. That plant probably played a role in powering a metropolitan area of 9 million people.

New York is not in crisis mode yet when it comes to electric. But there’s already major bottlenecks during heavy-usage times. Even worse, a severe outage such as 2003, could impact millions in this state.

Wind and sun alone will not save us then.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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