Thursday, December 19, 2013

Team Cuomo Set to Decide Fate of
Cayuga Lake Coal Plant — Sunset or Switch?

Coal Pile at AES Cayuga by ddbrown4
Coal Pile at AES Cayuga, a photo by ddbrown4 on Flickr (embedded by permission).
[Revised late in the day, Dec. 19, to accommodate the latest news:  Cayuga Operating and NYSEG have asked the NYS PSC for permission to again delay the next version of their Lansing Plant re-powering analysis, this time from Dec. 23, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2014.]

This past Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo moved decisively to score some rare points with ordinary people in Western New York, taking credit for saving the coal-fired electricity plant at Dunkirk, by greasing the bureaucratic wheels to re-power it with cleaner and cheaper natural gas.

Out that way, most power consumers, skilled workers, taxpayers, and local government people really liked the plan.  Media reports indicate the governor was honored in person with cheerleaders, a band, and banners of gratitude.

New York environmentalists didn't like the plan.  In fact, this group was faced with a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime choice between doing away with the old, proven horrors of acid rain (and many other kinds of air pollution) from coal, and coming to terms instead with the new, unproven horrors of fracking from the production of natural gas.  They advocated instead for a Plan C — alternative ideas, some involving renewables, and some involving adjustments to the overhead power line grid.

But they lost.

(And they never even offered to stick around to stand tall against the people who might later be upset by bigger bills, higher taxes, more overhead power lines, more windmills, or maybe another hydropower dam or two — ahhh, the life of an activist.)

Here's my question, though:  What is Cuomo going to do about the very similar coal-burner in Lansing, NY, which has been sitting mostly idle after a bankruptcy, due to the lost economics of coal (caused, actually, by the technological advent of fracking)? 

The plant sits
just a few miles down the east shore of Cayuga Lake from Ithaca, the state's epicenter of anti-fracking activism.  In fact, the Lansing plant's been there, gobbling up miles of coal delivered by freight train, right in plain sight along the lakeshore, since the Mad Men mentality ruled during 1955, when it first came online.  Most locals still reference its original Milliken Station name.  But the plant is now suffering, and now ranks as holier-than-thou Ithaca's inconvenient, dirty little fossil fuels secret.

Kill it, or convert it, or do something completely different, it's the same question as at Dunkirk.

The main thing that's different about Lansing would seem to be the cultural setting — high above Cayuga's waters, wine tourists, Birkenstocks, Volvo's, and a resident population that's accustomed to regular bouts of protest, practically as an obsessive hobby.

So if it's good for the goose to switch Dunkirk over to natural gas, then what does the governor want to do about that gander in Lansing?  The ultimate plan for Lansing could very well be coming up very soon, and here's why:

After repeated extensions, the state Public Service Commission had given plant owner Cayuga Operating Company LLC and power transmitter New York State Electric & Gas Corporation until Dec. 23, 2013 to file their second- or third-draft re-powering proposals.  And, supposedly, the PSC could make a choice, as early as Dec. 28.

However, as noted above,
both Cayuga Operating and NYSEG on Dec. 19 asked the PSC for another filing extension, this time well past the holidays to Feb. 28, 2014.  The environmental groups have already said they're against putting things off further (say what?), but what the PSC will do, we just don't know yet.

So far, Cayuga Operating and NYSEG have actually been split on the Lansing plant's future.  The owner, of course, wants to find a way to stay in business by switching.  The power transmitter suggests instead that a permanent shutdown could be coped with, mostly by re-wiring the grid around the production void that's left behind.  It's going to cost the ratepayers more money, either way.  By sending the power companies back to take another crack at it, the PSC appears to be asking for something in the middle.

In the end, it will be up to the technical staffers and political appointees with the PSC — and up the chain of command to the political specialists with the governor's office — to make a decision.

The biggest questions for Cuomo are undoubtedly not cents per kilowatt hour, or how many towers it'll take to rig up new or improved power lines, or what happens when we get Hurricane Sandy, The Sequel.  Instead, the biggest questions for Cuomo are these:  If I actually make the trip out there, and splash out a re-powering announcement, like I did in Dunkirk…  Will there be cheerleaders?  Will there be a band?  Will far-left local Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton agree to hold up a sign that actually thanks me, for once?

Unfortunately, it doesn't look likely.  As you might imagine, the Greater Lansing community has also been split, in fact much more severely than the ordinary people out in Dunkirk. 

On the public sector economic side — people who pay taxes, or collect taxes, especially school taxes, don't even get me started on school taxes — these people have been reeling through a collective bout of sticker shock, taking notice of the forecast without the Lansing plant still alive to help carry that weight.  And, on the private sector economic side, it turns out there are actually still a few skilled people in the Ithaca area who work for a living on things other than servicing tourists, holding down a job at one of the colleges, or fighting the power from inside a not-for-profit.

But then there's also the "grassroots."

A now-curious motto on letterhead for Tompkins County's Town of Lansing.
Like its Tompkins County neighbors, Lansing is the sort of town which has already passed and then extended an activist-sponsored one-year moratorium on shale gas development, calling it "heavy industry" — while at the same time working overtime to keep open the state's biggest rock salt mine, extending right under Cayuga Lake, and while at the same time acting as well-compensated host to this mammoth coal plant, now possibly in line to start burning natural gas fracked through a process of "devastation" out of Pennsylvania.

No "heavy industry," that is, except for the real heavy industries they're already familiar with.

The re-powering choice should really be tied up in ethical knots over New York's gross hypocrisy over shale gas.  That's because, to re-power Dunkirk or Lansing with natural gas, Cuomo must call upon a North American supply, about 40 percent of which is at last count now produced using high-volume hydraulic fracturing in horizontally drilled shales.  But none of that methane has yet to come out of the ground, in that technological way, from within New York's state lines — not a single molecule.  That's because Cuomo has yet to work up the political nerve to simply declare New York as finally "Open For (That Kind Of) Business," even in a closely regulated way.

Instead, Cuomo has so far been taking the anti's NIMBY oath on natural gas — a "Yes, please" to the consumer-level benefits, but an "I'll get back to you" to coping with any of the real or perceived production impacts.

And these same activists have been pitching the mantra in Lansing that less power would be somehow more.

Will Cuomo buy into that, too?

If you've got a lot of free time, and some spare bandwidth, the PSC has a whole electronic filing cabinet about this case that's getting regularly updated online here.

Close readers will notice that the usual Ithaca-based Park Foundation grantees from New York's ongoing frack fight are also on the case, presumably spending some of their fully reported money as state-registered lobbyists:  Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Citizens Campaign, Environmental Advocates, Community Environmental Defense Council, etc.

No comments: