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In April, atmospheric carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, reached its highest level in at least 3 million years. This level – 400 parts per million – is far above what many climate scientists regard as safe. Clearly, we need much more aggressive action on behalf of clean energy to dramatically reduce our near-total reliance on fossil fuels. Otherwise, we will see a much hotter future replete with severe heat waves, droughts, flooding, sea-level rise and hurricanes like Superstorm Sandy.

Fortunately, there have been many victories against the single-largest source of carbon dioxide pollution – coal-fired power plants. Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program claims successful campaigns against nearly 150 U.S. coal plants, targeting hundreds more.

While power plant jobs and taxes to local communities are a concern, it’s good environmental news that coal plants in Dunkirk, Tonawanda and Somerset are closing because they are no longer economically competitive. Less publicized is the successful eight-year campaign to prevent city officials in Jamestown from building a new coal plant.

A long history of burning coal

In 1891, Jamestown’s first coal-burning power plant opened, powering street lights. Coal-generated electricity continued when the Samuel Carlson coal plant, a fixture in downtown Jamestown today, opened in 1951. Ten years ago, the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities (JBPU), part of city government, announced plans to replace Carlson with another coal plant.

Almost immediately, there was local opposition to this plan for a $145 million, 43-megawatt coal plant. Former Jamestown Mayor Don Alstrom and others organized the Concerned Citizens of the Jamestown Area, opposing the plant because they believed it was unnecessary and too expensive for a public utility with only 20,000 customers. They gathered 1,400 signatures on a petition.

Many in Jamestown believe that coal-burning is essential to meeting local electric needs. But for years the Carlson plant’s coal boilers have only occasionally operated, and the electricity they produced was mostly sold to customers outside of Jamestown. In reality, the city’s electric needs are primarily met by low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority.

“Why build a new coal plant when the existing plant provides almost no power to ratepayers?” asked Ron Melquist, a retired JBPU employee who played a key role opposing the new plant.

“When the BPU proposed building another coal plant, Carlson provided less than 20 percent of Jamestown’s electricity, a figure which has shrunk to near zero since then. Yet they wanted to keep burning coal and generating their own power. It made no sense. It was an insult to ratepayers,” Melquist said.

Opposition increased in 2005, as knowledge of the proposed plant spread. Buffalo-area environmentalists were shocked to learn that in this age of climate change, Jamestown was planning to build a new power plant that would burn coal for the next 50 or 60 years.

Environmentalists argued that if Jamestown was really concerned about an “energy supply gap” caused by the Carlson plant’s retirement, it should implement a far less expensive, more environmentally friendly Plan B – significant energy conservation plus locally installed renewable energy.

New plan to capture, store carbon emerges

Burned by environmental criticism of its first proposal, in 2007 the JBPU and its newly formed OxyCoal Alliance announced revised plans to build a coal plant that would also be a carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration project. The project, if it worked, would burn coal in pure oxygen and then capture and bury a portion of its carbon dioxide emissions underground. It would cost $500 million ($25,000 per ratepayer) and be eligible for matching federal funds. OxyCoal Alliance members included Praxair Corp., Ecology & Environment and the University at Buffalo.

On June 10, 2008, New York Gov. David A. Paterson announced his support for this redefined project. To Paterson’s credit, he requested that the JBPU explore ways to hold ratepayers harmless of the project’s burgeoning costs, implement an effective energy-efficiency program and promise that climate-altering emissions from the new plant wouldn’t be greater than those of a natural gas-fired power plant. But none of these conditions was binding or enforceable. And opposition to the coal project increased.

Jamestown activists welcomed support from environmentalists from Buffalo and beyond. This support took shape in the Clean Energy for Jamestown coalition, eventually consisting of 20 local, regional, statewide and national organizations.

These organizations were skeptical of “clean coal” – with most rejecting it entirely as a flimsy excuse to keep building dirty coal plants. Few believed that CCS would work as promised or have competitive economics. And all agreed that Jamestown was not a suitable host for a test project. The groups were particularly disappointed in the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for its supportive role funding and supervising secret test well drilling in the Jamestown area to identify geological formations suitable for burying carbon dioxide.

While the proposed Jamestown coal plant was relatively small, environmental groups readily opposed the project because none wanted to see another coal plant built in New York. Jamestown city leaders may have been dumbfounded by the outside scrutiny, but it was inevitable given the regional and global impacts of burning coal as well as mining it.

Jamestown Mayor Sam Teresi and JBPU General Manager Dave Leathers did not respond to requests to comment.

Economic concerns take center stage

By combing through JBPU public reports, activists and coalition members documented that the utility was spending more than a third of its electric division budget on its Carlson plant, even though low-cost NYPA hydropower supplied almost all of its ratepayers’ electricity. We also showed that JBPU self-generated power cost 13 cents per kilowatt hour to produce in 2010, compared to 2 cents for NYPA power.

Equally embarrassing, our analysis of JBPU documents revealed that the utility had spent or authorized (and was in the process of spending) $10 million to promote its new coal plant. We asked: Why would Jamestown’s utility spend an incredible $500 per ratepayer promoting an impossibly expensive new power plant that was unnecessary for meeting its ratepayers’ electric needs?

An obvious reason was the short-term “public works” or “corporate welfare” benefit of having hundreds of millions of federal and state tax dollars spent in Jamestown.

Process of elimination was used to identify other reasons Jamestown leaders pursued a new $500 million power plant even after the prospects for outside funding dimmed. While denied by power plant proponents, we concluded that the JBPU’s dogged pursuit of a new power plant was also based on protecting 30 power plant jobs and increasing JBPU tax payments to the city and its public schools.

The JBPU currently gives city government and schools more than $3 million a year in taxes. Unfortunately, the formula used to calculate these taxes is based on the dollar value of JBPU property and electric sales. As such, the formula provides a perverse incentive for the city to encourage the JBPU to increase its property value by, for example, building an expensive power plant. The formula also encourages higher levels of electricity sales, thereby discouraging conservation.

Our economic analysis steadily chipped away at the credibility of the project, leading a frustrated Paterson administration official to remark in the September 27, 2009, Jamestown Post Journal that it was just “mind-blowing” that environmentalists were criticizing the project on economic grounds.

Coalition creates effective strategy

As with many social movements, only a small number of people worked on the campaign on a daily or weekly basis. I was pleased to work closely with environmental lawyers Alice Kryzan and her husband, Bob Berger, here in Amherst. With lively debate, we forged a close friendship researching and co-authoring numerous footnote-laden reports and strategizing next steps.

We activated Clean Energy for Jamestown coalition members when help was needed, focusing on organizational specialties. For example, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Sierra Club and others provided special assistance on state legislation. PACE provided guidance when we approached the New York State Public Service Commission. The Natural Resources Defense Council helped us contact key decision-makers.

Our “Cost of Power” report, written with the assistance of Buffalo energy consultant Dave Bradley, compared the “per kilowatt hour” costs of different Jamestown power supply options. These ranged from the already mentioned low of 2 cents for NYPA power to between 22 and 27 cents for electricity from the JBPU’s proposed OxyCoal plant. The report caused quite a stir. It was labeled “baseless” by the JBPU, which continued its remarkable policy of not releasing its own cost of power estimates for the new plant.

We knew the JBPU needed enabling state legislation to proceed, and our coalition defeated that legislation three times. We also knew the JBPU needed $250 million in federal funding. While we were worried when on July 23, 2010, Sen. Charles E. Schumer visited Jamestown to promise “relentless support” for the coal plant, federal funding was denied three times after we supplied information to the Department of Energy about deep flaws in the proposal.

In 2010, we used a JBPU mini-rate case before the PSC as an opportunity to explain the potential devastating ratepayer impacts of the proposed coal plant. We also shared a NYPA-funded study, which concluded that the JBPU could cost-effectively reduce its ratepayer electric demand by 17 percent within five years – more than enough to eliminate any conceivable need for costly self-generation.

While the JBPU won a modest rate increase, our efforts demonstrated the difficulty it would have securing PSC approval for a new coal plant.

Defeat was victory for citizen action

In 2012, the utility released a new future plan that did not call for a new coal plant. In fact, it barely acknowledged the 10 years and $10 million spent pursuing such a plant.

Ironically, the JBPU’s new plan calls for increasing natural gas-fired generation, which is also unnecessary and more expensive than our Plan B of ramping up energy conservation to reduce Jamestown’s electric load so it can be met more or less entirely with the city’s NYPA power allotment. We offered to work with Jamestown to implement our zero-emissions, ratepayer-friendly plan, but our offer was rejected.

Alstrom’s reaction to our victory against the coal plant was “absolute joy and a great feeling of accomplishment. We may have prevented the city from going bankrupt.”

Berger added, “Climate change is too serious a threat to ever be ignored. Our success shows that activists concerned about our climate can make a difference.”

“This incredible victory demonstrates the power of community members to shape big decisions that affect our health, economy and environment,” said Jennifer Tuttle of Sierra Club’s New York Beyond Coal Campaign. “The Jamestown victory is proof-positive that everyday voices are incredibly powerful.”

Walter Simpson is a local environmental activist and an educator who organized the Clean Energy for Jamestown coalition. He was energy officer at the University at Buffalo from 1982 to 2008, developing a nationally recognized energy conservation program credited with $100 million in savings. His website is www.energyreallymatters.com.