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How a Post-Coal Transition Model in Upstate New York Might Work in Montana

November 18, 2016

Ed Kemmick for KTVQ Billings:

Compared with the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, the Huntley Generating Station in Tonawanda, N.Y., was not all that large.

At its height, when all six units of the Huntley plant were operating, the power station could generate up to 598 megawatts of electricity – compared to a capacity of 2,094 megawatts at Colstrip’s four units.

But the plant meant a lot to the town of Tonawanda, to the local school district and to Erie County. Even after the aging plant – the oldest units went online in 1942 – dwindled to just two units, it still provided almost 80 jobs and generated more than $6 million in local taxes.

Three years ago, it seemed obvious that those last two units would also soon be closed. Early in 2014, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published a study estimating that Huntley’s pre-tax earnings had dropped $113 million between 2008 and 2012.

The owner of the plant, NRG Energy, did not disclose details about the economics of the plant, but Peter DeJesus, field coordinator for the Western New York Area Labor Federation, said that the report meant “the writing was on the wall.”

“When we saw what they saw,” he said, referring to the authors of the study, “it was quite obvious we had to be pro-active.”

The labor federation joined with the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, representatives of the local municipality, teachers organizations, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and other affected parties to plan for a future without the Huntley plant.

They looked at taking care of workers who might lose their jobs, taxing entities that might lose revenues streams and at what might one day take up the Huntley plant’s sprawling presence on the Niagara River.

They had made considerable progress when, in September 2015, NRG Energy announced that the last two units at the Huntley plant – which burned coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming – would be shuttered on March 1, 2016, confirming much of what had been concluded in the 2014 report.

This weekend, during the 45th annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council in Billings, DeJesus will talk about those planning efforts and their relevance to places like Colstrip that are looking at the possibility of future coal-plant shutdowns.

There are multiple owners of the Colstrip plant, but Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy, which own the two oldest units, have said they intend to shut them down no later than 2022.

DeJesus will be on a panel with Dan Cohn, a regional organizer with the Western Organization of Resource Councils, in a discussion titled “Coal in a Post-Bankruptcy World: What Now?” That discussion will start Saturday morning at 9 at the Northern Hotel. More details on the annual meeting are below, and a full schedule is available on the NPRC website.

Cohn will provide a short presentation on changes in coal markets, and what they mean in terms of where coal is coming from—and moving to—in this region as companies are emerging from bankruptcy.

As for the Huntley station in New York, DeJesus said in a telephone interview, “We never called for the closure of the plant, but we took pro-active steps to protect not only the community but the workers who were working in this plant.”

He said the coalition’s efforts included obtaining federal funds for retraining power-plant employees and persuading the state Legislature to allocate $50 million over five years to help Tonawanda and other coal-dependent towns deal with the impacts of shutdowns.

Also on the coalition’s agenda has been what to do with the site if and when the power plant is demolished. At public meetings held over the past two years, the coalition listened to residents’ hopes and visions for the site.

Overwhelmingly, what the coalition heard, DeJesus said, was that “they wanted some kind of access to their waterfront again. This plant takes up 75 percent of the town’s waterfront.”

The coalition solicited the involvement of the University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture to help plan for the eventual transition and imagine what might be done with the site, while researchers from the university helped everyone understand what it would take to reclaim the site.

Nothing concrete has been decided, DeJesus said, but the two main goals of redevelopment will include some public access and some use of the site that will add significantly to the local tax base.

The coalition also wants to keep the pressure on NRG not to simply walk away from the plant. DeJesus said Bethlehem Steel closed a massive steel plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 1982 and the abandoned works are still standing, though a wind farm was built on what used to be the steel plant’s slag heap.

The broad-based coalition has worked closely with area legislators and the governor’s office, giving it some clout in dealing with NRG.

“It’s a powerful force to be reckoned with,” DeJesus said.

A New York coal plant’s lessons for Colstrip

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