Our area’s double jeopardy

Imported power arrives at this substation near Olean and then is distributed to users in Western New York.

Since retiring from the Dunkirk Steam Station and working with local leaders to secure a contract with New York state to repower with natural gas, several details raise important questions about how energy policy decisions are made.

The Dunkirk power plant began struggling prior to 2012 due to the low price of natural gas. The “mothballing” notice given by owner NRG in 2012 was accompanied by a mandatory study on if the plant was needed to keep the lights on – which it was, and it went on a “reliability” agreement to stay running while alternatives were evaluated.

The New York Independent System Operator is obligated to seek alternatives, but only has statutory authority to provide tariff support for transmission alternatives – not power generation.

The governor granted a deeply appreciated contract to repower the Dunkirk plant with natural gas – preserving tax revenues and at least some jobs, while at the same time, the state Public Service Commission approved the construction of a massive substation near Olean. This multi-million dollar substation was completed New Year’s Eve, 2015, and the reliability agreement that had kept Dunkirk operating was torn up the day the substation went live. The substation has a “high side” voltage of 345,000 volts and transformers that put power into the system previously fed by the Dunkirk power plant at 115,000 volts.

I have been watching the NYISO site for months, and it is clear that a significant majority of the time power that replaces Dunkirk comes from Pennsylvania – a non-Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative state that has more than double and triple the amount of carbon, nitrogen-oxide and sulfur emissions as New York. The price of power in Western New York “Zone A” has also been much higher, especially in recent hot weather.

It is assumed that approving and building the substation was the cheaper option from Public Service Commission to protect ratepayers. Of concern is the major focus the PSC and our state also has on climate change, reduced carbon emissions and high-priced incentives for clean energy.

Under the state Public Service Commission’s “Clean Energy Initiative” is a link to the PSC “Reforming the Energy Vision.” Included in the objectives is “Reforming the Energy Vision will build an integrated energy network able to harness the combined benefits of the central grid with clean, locally generated power,” and “40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, at the end of 2016, emissions from power generation in Pennsylvania had over 85,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions compared to 31,000 in New York. Pennsylvania also emitted 100,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide and 87,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, compared to 18,000 and 32,000 tons respectively in New York. In theory, power could be flowing from New York into Pennsylvania and vice versa – logic would have that when two major power plants stop generating power – Huntley and Dunkirk – that region would not have surplus power to export. Regular visits to the NYISO site confirms almost in every case that hundreds of MW of power is imported into New York from Pennsylvania. We exported jobs and tax revenues while importing much dirtier power.

So then did the PSC do the right thing for customers – if building the substation was cheaper than the reliability agreement with NRG in Dunkirk? Or did they contradict their mission for “cleaner, locally generated power” when they approved it – accommodating major imports from a state with double and triple the amount of harmful emissions?

The governor declared a few years back that he would be ensuring the closure of all New York coal plants by 2020, along with providing a “transition plan” for communities. While the temporary tax relief is most appreciated, how about repurposing these sites with cleaner energy in the name of made in New York energy independence, jobs, tax revenues and cleaner air. If NRG is not interested, state agencies should help this community get them out of the way.

Gus Potkovick is a retired International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a resident of Fredonia.