Those battling over the fate of Dunkirk’s NRG electric plant are locked in a bitter power struggle.
In the latest salvo this week, some Chautauqua County leaders who support repowering the Dunkirk plant have accused National Grid of misrepresenting its position by not disclosing that the utility would require more power – and get it from a Homer City, Pa., plant that released more sulfur dioxide than any other plant in the country in 2010 – if the Dunkirk plant is shuttered.
“It seems to me they were trying to hide this,” said State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean. “All along, they haven’t been forthcoming.”
Young supports converting the Dunkirk plant to natural gas.
“With NRG operating, we aren’t going to need to get power from Pennsylvania,” she said.
Her remarks come as Friday’s deadline for public comment approaches. The state Public Service Commission will accept comments until then to gauge support for NRG’s half-billion-dollar natural gas repowering of the Dunkirk plant or National Grid’s proposal for much less-costly area transmission upgrades.
The National Grid proposal, among other upgrades, calls for enhancing its transmission system in Cattaraugus County to link a 345-volt transmission line between Stoll Road in Elma and the Homer City plant.
National Grid spokesman Steve Brady called the latest allegation “the single biggest myth being perpetuated” in the Dunkirk debate.
National Grid is “unfairly being painted as the bad guy” by the Dunkirk community and its leaders when the utility has focused only on looking out for its 1.6 million electric customers across New York State, Brady said.
National Grid has no input over where power comes from. He said these decisions are strictly governed by an independent system operator, an independent, regulated entity that coordinates transmission and electric power generators.
“The decision on what power plants sell into the New York market is not National Grid’s,” Brady said. “Our sole job is to get it there.”
Young and other Chautauqua County leaders who support repowering the Dunkirk plant contend National Grid tipped its hand in October. Utility officials presented plans to the ISO showing the utility would transport power from Pennsylvania via upgraded lines in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, which could result in the outright retiring of the Dunkirk plant.
But when outlining its transmission upgrade proposal earlier this year, the utility failed to detail its plans for connecting to Pennsylvania, Young said.
On July 30, two weeks after a public hearing at Fredonia State College attracted upward of 2,000 residents mostly supporting NRG’s plan to repower, the utility filed an amended application asking the PSC to authorize the construction and operation of a new transmission station and loops tying into Homer City, Young said.
“I think that’s how they got all the environmentalists to buy in” to its application for transmission upgrades, Young said.
Several environmental activists, including those from the Sierra Club, appeared at the July 15 meeting in Fredonia to oppose NRG’s proposed repowering.
Homer City’s coal-powered plant has come under scrutiny by regulators amid pressure to reduce its emissions following a federal lawsuit alleging the plant violated the Clean Air Act.
The Pennsylvania plant, east of Pittsburgh and a 160 miles from Dunkirk, emitted 109,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2010, according to Earthjustice, making it the largest source of the pollutant in the country. Earthjustice describes itself as a nonprofit public interest law organization that seeks to protect the environment, natural resources and wildlife.
The debate has resulted in strange bedfellows.
Not only are environmental groups seemingly rejecting a cleaner natural gas alternative, potentially over a Pennsylvania coal plant – on grounds they favor an end to all fossil fuels – but those across the political aisle champion repowering Dunkirk.
Republicans like Young, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards and local Assemblyman Andrew Goodell have called for repowering the plant on economic and environmental grounds. They received support last week from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who visited Dunkirk Harbor and called on the PSC to choose the repowering option.
Utility ratepayers would pay for the expensive switch to natural gas in Dunkirk, Brady said. NRG made its proposal to repower the plant contingent upon that. It’s a shrewd and strategic business decision on NRG’s part, Brady said.
The Homer City plant, owned by GE Energy Financial Services following a 2012 bankruptcy, is operated by NRG.
“We are in this discussion because they said their (Dunkirk) plant is uneconomical as a coal plant, and they’re going to shut it down,” Brady said.
National Grid was asked by the state to make its application after NRG filed plans to mothball Dunkirk’s plant because it couldn’t compete in the marketplace.
Brady estimated it would cost its 1.6 million customers statewide three to seven times more over the next 20 years to repower Dunkirk.
“Unfortunately, this has been turned into an ‘us versus them’ issue but that clearly isn’t the case,” Brady said. “You’ve got to go back to the origins of this. We are doing what we were asked to do by the State of New York.”
After Friday, Dunkirk’s fate will rest in the hands of the state Public Service Commission.
An exact timetable for the PSC’s decision on the competing proposals has not been disclosed.