(Photo credit: Philip N. Cohen)

Lansing, N.Y. — The power plant on the east shore of Cayuga Lake is Tompkins County’s biggest taxpayer and a provider of about 70 full-time jobs.

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It will face closure if its upcoming bid for conversion from coal to natural gas is not approved by the state, according to Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler.

The state’s decision will have major implications for the future of the region’s energy policy, the local economy’s future, and the livelihoods of dozens of families that rely on the plant for income.

“This is the number one issue I’m dealing with,” says Sigler, who represents Lansing.

We’ve broken out the complicated and divisive issue of the Cayuga power plant’s potential closure into a Q&A.

If we missed your question, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com, and we’ll update this page.

1 — Why does the plant face closure now?
2 — Why do some people oppose the conversion to natural gas?
3 — Could the area’s energy needs be met without the plant?
4 — What would the impact be on the community if it closes?
5 — Who makes the final decision?
6 — If the conversion is denied, when will the plant close?

1 — Why could the plant face closure?

The power plant is only one of a few left in the state that relies on coal. Coal use in New York State fell by nearly 60 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

If the state doesn’t approve the retrofitting to natural gas, the plant is expected to face economic challenges it can’t overcome, according to Sigler.

“Coal-fired power plants are under distress,” Sigler said.

The plant has been in a kind of limbo since 2012 when it announced it would no longer be able to operate. In 2012, the plant declared bankruptcy and emerged from bankruptcy in 2013.

Since then, the plant has been able to continue operating on a temporary surcharge for all NYSEG customers. But that arrangement can’t go on forever, and the state ordered NYSEG and the power plant to come to an agreement for the plant’s future, according to lawmakers.

They’ve been unable to do so, for reasons that are explained at greater length below, and are now submitting separate proposals to the state. The deadline for those proposals is Friday.

“It doesn’t look like coal is going to survive in this country,” Sigler says, “and, frankly, natural gas is the bridge.”

The plant has said that it will not seek a deadline extension. “It’s necessary because the area needs power,” says Jerry Goodenough, the plant’s chief operating officer.

2 — Why do some people oppose the retrofitting?

Irene Weiser, a council member for the town of Caroline, has spent years studying and thinking about the future of the plant.

Her reasons for opposing the conversion to natural gas are numerous, but primarily fall on economic and environmental rationale.

Here are her principal arguments against the conversion:

A) Cheaper alternative to fix transmission lines

NYSEG has developed a cheaper, more forward-thinking proposal that meets the area’s energy needs without dramatically expanding its reliance on fossil fuels, according to Weiser.

What is that proposal? Fixing the transmission lines near Auburn, according to Weiser.

If those transmission lines were fixed, Weiser says, “the large power producers” near Lake Ontario could supply the region’s energy needs.

This idea — to fix the transmission lines near Auburn instead of reinvigorating the Lansing plant — is crucial to understanding the opposition to the conversion. That fix, Weiser says, would allow peak demand to be met in the Auburn area.

Weiser says that the proposal to fix the transmission lines will only cost NYSEG customers $25 million instead of the far more expensive power plant conversion.

“It’s not just the environmentalist in me talking; it’s the economics of it,” she said.

B) Conversion has hidden costs for local businesses, residents

The power plant’s conversion to natural gas is expected to cost $100 million, according to Weiser. (The Ithaca Journal, citing the plant’s figures, put the figure between “$60 million and $370 million.”)

That money, Weiser says, will come from NYSEG customers — businesses and homes. That’s on top of the millions of dollars local taxpayers have already spent on temporarily maintaining the plant with surcharge fees since 2012, she said.

“Large business are paying thousands upon thousands of dollars a month … to keep the plant operating,” Weiser says.

C) Weiser: Let’s pursue alternative, renewable energy sources

Alternative, renewable energy sources are the future and can meet the area’s energy needs, Weiser says.

Weiser says, there are “incredibly exciting” leaps forward in terms of alternative energy from Cornell’s new solar farms to Solar Tompkins to Black Oak Wind Farm.

“It would be antithetical to the direction the state is now moving to sink $100 million into a power plant” that runs on natural gas, Weiser says.

3 — Could the area’s energy needs be met without the conversion?

That depends on who you believe.

Here’s Sigler: “There’s not renewables to replace (the plant.)”

“I’m not saying the world shouldn’t go solar, but it’s going to take some time and we’re not talking 5 years — we’re talking about a while,” Sigler said.

Sigler says that a much-trumpeted solar array near the airport only supplies 2 megawatts. The power plant, by contrast, supplies 300 megawatts.

With alternative resources not nearly ready to meet the region’s energy needs, according to Sigler, the area would have to resort to importing natural gas from Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

“Do you really want to just outsource all our energy creation?” Sigler said.

Citing NYSEG, however, Weiser said there is no energy risk for Tompkins County because of upgrades completed in 2010 to the Ithaca area’s transmission lines.

Weiser said that the Auburn area would have energy shortages during peak hours if neither the plant nor the transmission upgrades are completed, but that NYSEG has said the Tompkins County area is not at risk of energy shortages if the plant closes.

“The Ithaca transmission upgrades were sufficient to bring enough power into Tompkins County, even in times of peak demand,” Weiser said.

4 — What would the impact be on the community if it closes?

Sigler detailed devastating impacts for Lansing and the county if the plant closes:

— The county loses its largest private taxpayer.

— Taxes in the local school district would “jump hundreds of dollars per year for the average home,” Sigler said.

— There’s no clear alternative for what the plant would become.

“If you’ve ever seen a power plant close, you know it just sits there,” Sigler says. “A big husk.”

— Surveys show that people in town “overwhelmingly” support the plant, Sigler said.

— The region can’t sustain another loss to manufacturing.

“How much more industry can you lose in upstate New York?,” he said.

Opponents of the conversion to natural gas do not dismiss these worries as frivolous.

“There are concerns, legitimate concerns, about the financial impact of the plant collapsing – particularly to the schools,” Weiser says. “It’s a substantial impact to the Lansing schools to lose the revenue.”

Still, Weiser said her other concerns, and the importance of finding alternative energy sources, outweighed these fears.

She said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “energy highway blueprint” says that the state should look to provide support to regions hard hit by the transition energy economy.

Weiser called on Cuomo to provide some sort of funding or an investment — possibly in solar farms — to help the Lansing area if it is affected by the plant’s possible closure.

5 — Who makes the final decision?

The decision will ultimately be made from New York’s “Public Service Commission.”

What is the PSC? It’s a 5-member commission, picked by the governor and approved by the NY State Senate, that “has a broad mandate to ensure access to safe, reliable utility service at just and reasonable rates,” according to the PSC’s website.

“The primary mission of the New York State Department of Public Service is to ensure affordable, safe, secure, and reliable access to electric, gas, steam, telecommunications, and water services for New York State’s residential and business consumers, while protecting the natural environment,” the PSC’s mission statement says.

6 — If the conversion is denied, when will the plant close?

Goodenough said he couldn’t answer that question.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

Weiser said that if the conversion is denied, the plant will be required to stay open until the transmission upgrades are completed.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.