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The massive coal-fired power plant that towers over Dunkirk harbor looks every bit like the giant industrial dinosaur that it is.

And if environmentalists get their way, it soon will be extinct.

They’ve joined in a strange-bedfellows alliance with the Business Council of New York State to resist a $506 million plan by the plant’s owner, NRG Energy Inc., to convert the electricity-generating facility to natural gas.

The company says the move to gas is necessary for the plant to survive – and that it would cut the facility’s carbon emissions, and thus its contribution to global warming, in half.

You might think environmentalists would like a plan that would end the plant’s reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all, but you would be wrong.

And it’s all because natural gas is so intimately tied to the environmentalists’ version of the F-word: “fracking,” the controversial gas extraction technique that’s spurred an energy boom as nearby as Pennsylvania but that remains off-limits while New York continues studying its safety.

“If we continue to replace all the dinosaur plants with new and improved fossil fuel plants – natural gas – we are opening up New York State to fracking,” said Lisa Dix, senior New York representative for the Sierra Club. “It’s replacing one dirty fuel with another.”

On the other side of the argument, though, you’ll find both NRG and much of the Chautauqua County political community.

They note that NRG has said that if the Dunkirk plant is shuttered, power will have to be wired in from Pennsylvania or Ohio. And the power plants in Pennsylvania rely nearly five times as much as New York does on coal-fired power plants that are even dirtier than the one in Dunkirk.

“The power is going to come from somewhere,” said Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who’s a strong proponent of retooling the Dunkirk plant to use natural gas. “And when you rely on those coal-fired plants, obviously they’re going to have to burn more coal that is going to produce more emissions that are going to impact our environment.”

Both sides will make their case – and the public will have a chance to weigh in on the issue – at a public hearing at 6 p.m. tonight at the Williams Center, 280 Central Ave., on the SUNY Fredonia State College campus.

The state Public Service Commission, which will decide the proposal’s fate, will conduct the hearing.

For many Chautauqua County residents, the issue at the hearing won’t be so much about energy and the environment, but about economics.

Jobs, taxes and energy

That’s because the Dunkirk NRG plant employs about 70 people with the prospect of creating more jobs, and is the largest taxpayer in Chautauqua County, the city of Dunkirk and the Dunkirk School District.

“This is a project that’s critical to our future,” Assemblyman Andrew Goodell said during a Friday news conference on the issue at Dunkirk Harbor. “This is an issue that can affect everyone across Chautauqua County. The deepest effect, of course, is right here in the city of Dunkirk where the impact and loss of tax base is roughly the loss of $1,000 for the average homeowner a year, forever.”

NRG proposes keeping that resource going by tapping into a trend that’s sweeping across the nation: converting dirty coal-fired power plants into cleaner natural gas facilities.

It’s a move that has the strong support of President Obama, who views natural gas as a “transition fuel” that will allow the nation to cut back on the carbon emissions that cause global warming while eventually moving to green energy sources.

“Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions,” Obama said in his speech on climate change last month.

Obama’s climate-change plan includes a crackdown on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

And while the Dunkirk plan underwent a retrofitting several years ago that made it much cleaner than its counterparts in other states, supporters of NRG’s plan say there’s no economically viable way to continue operating the plant with coal – meaning the transition to gas is a matter of survival for the plant.

NRG says there is more at stake, too.

“We think it provides a lot of environmental benefits ... economic stimulus benefits and tax benefits,” said David Gaier, an NRG spokesman.

Power from Pennsylvania

For one thing, NRG says the conversion to natural gas would cut the Dunkirk plant’s carbon emissions in half.

Environmentalists counter by noting that closing the plant would eliminate all of its carbon emissions.

But that argument doesn’t factor in NRG’s alternative for replacing the power produced by the Dunkirk facility.

A document the company filed with the PSC shows the replacement power coming from two transmission lines from the electricity grid in Pennsylvania. That state, though, gets 48 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

New York gets only 10 percent from the coal-powered plants.

That being the case, Reed said environmentalists should be supporting the Dunkirk plant’s move to natural gas.

“When you have a clean source like natural gas that’s available to us – and it’s much cleaner to burn than coal – I don’t know why we don’t come together, the environmentalists and us, and say this is good,” Reed said.

Seeking green energy

But to hear environmentalists tell it, now is the time for a move toward renewable sources and away from all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

They decry the proposed transition of Dunkirk from coal to natural gas as the fossil fuel industry’s play to keep a foothold in the state, which would only delay the move toward green infrastructure and renewable energy.

“It’s shackling ourselves to fossil fuel addiction for generations to come,” said Brian P. Smith of the Buffalo-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Smith said allowing Dunkirk to switch to a natural gas operation sets up an infrastructure that will be forced to chase a supply of natural gas for up to six decades into the future – only further inviting the spectre of hydraulic fracturing into New York State.

“What they are not telling us is this is 60 years of natural gas with volatile prices, with climate impacts and with sources issues including increased dependence on pipelines and fracked gas,” said Dix, contending that fracked gas is rife with its own set of environmental problems, such as contaminated land and water.

“Are we going to keep a few jobs and continue to pollute our air and drinking water with dangerous fossil fuels?”

An alliance

Smith and Dix, along with other environmental groups, said decommissioning the Dunkirk coal plant – and the coal-fired Cayuga Plant near Ithaca – provides an opportunity for the state to take a lead in green and renewable energy technology.

“This is a critical juncture and a crossroads for energy decision makers in New York State,” Dix said. “We really see Dunkirk and Cayuga as the first tests.”

And that is how environmental groups are finding themselves in a rare position: allied with business.

The Business Council of New York State, citing the massive costs of reconfiguring Dunkirk into a natural gas operation, favors a plan National Grid outlined to improve the lines of transmitting electricity to enhance efficiency rather than updating the power plants to natural gas.

The council, whose hard initial stand irked leaders in Chautauqua County, has appeared to ease up on its position in recent days.

“We don’t oppose NRG repowering Dunkirk, but we don’t believe the PSC should mandate that the ratepayers become part of the financing,” Gary Hughes, the Albany-based council’s vice president of communications, said Friday. “We believe one of the drags on the upsate economy is the cost of power.”

Todd Tranum, president and CEO of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s council misstepped by failing to understand that repowering is the private investment of “a half-billion dollars” that will create jobs and bolster the economy of the state’s westernmost county.

“I don’t think they thoroughly did the research they needed to do, or thoroughly vetted the issue with the community,” Tranum said.

And it’s no surprise National Grid, which transports the electricity rather than generating it, isn’t bullish on revamping the plant in Chautauqua County, according to those in favor of repowering Dunkirk.

“They make more money shipping expensive power a longer distance,” Assemblyman Goodell said. “This is like asking your trucking company what TV you should buy: the one across the road or the one across the country.”

Costly green energy

As for the green energy like solar, wind and small hydro generators, the environmentalists contend these producers have made hefty strides in recent years. Renewable energy technologies are no longer “futuristic” models, they say.

It’s why environmental activists like Smith, Dix and local Sierra Club chairwoman Lynda Schneekloth say this is no time to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to the traditional modes of power generation using fossil fuel when resources could be channeled into continued development of green infrastructure.

“They’re using a long-term solution, for a short-term fix,” Schneekloth said.

Then again, advocates of the natural gas conversion in Dunkirk note that the energy produced by the retooled plant would be far cheaper than that produced by green technology.

And the U.S. Energy Information Administration agrees.

Its latest energy outlook shows that wind power will be at least 29 percent more expensive than electricity produced by the natural gas technology proposed for Dunkirk – and solar power will be more than twice as expensive.

Gas conversion reliability

Gaier, of NRG, said opponents of the natural gas conversion are missing some other important points as well.

Not only is the Dunkirk plant important for “system reliability” of the electrical grid as well as the Chautauqua County economy, but in addition, the new, repowered gas-fired plant as proposed would employ “combined cycle” technology, eliminating waste, Gaier said.

That technology, which is already widely used in industry, works like this: Natural gas is used as fuel in an engine, which spins a generator, creating electricity. Heat also generated in that process – which in older systems was wasted – is then channeled and used to create steam in another turbine, creating electricity there too.

“A combined cycle plant is very good for integrating renewable resources like solar and wind,” said Gaier, explaining that when the wind stops or the sun goes down, this type of power plant can quickly ramp up to meet the demand on the grid lost by those renewables.

Add it all up, and Dunkirk’s move to natural gas sounds like something environmentalists ought to support, backers of the plan said.

“This will be the cleanest, most efficient power plant in the state of New York,” said Gaier.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com