On Aug. 28, NRG Energy announced its intention to retire the Huntley Station power plant in upstate New York. Huntley currently pays a total of $6 million in revenue to our local municipalities and employs 75 workers.
The facility is closing for the simple reason that it can’t make a profit by burning coal. Low natural gas prices have made it nearly impossible for coal-fired electricity generation to compete. As NRG itself stated in its letter to the Public Service Commission, “Because the facility is not currently economic and is not expected to be economic, NRG intends to retire the units.”
The Huntley news is part of a familiar story for us in Western New York. For the past 40 years our region has experienced plant closures of various kinds. Jobs have been lost, young people have left for work elsewhere and our tax base has shrunk. Anyone familiar with this story knows how Huntley’s story could end—with more loss and an abandoned plant sitting on one-third of Tonawanda’s waterfront.
We could wait and watch that story play out, or we can work for something different. For over 18 months now, our coalition has worked to prepare for the Huntley announcement. Our efforts go back to January 2014, when we commissioned an IEEFA report on the plant’s finances that found the facility was losing money. We shared the report with stakeholder, followed up with community assemblies, and generated ideas on how to take care of people in case of Huntley’s retirement.
In June 2014 we held a Just Transition Conference, where experts shared ideas on how other communities have dealt with similar challenges. The upshot: a stakeholder group has worked for over a year to create a proactive Just Transition plan that includes resources for revenue and resources for workers, and begins the process for future economic development.
OUR WORK HAS BEGUN TO PAY OFF. In June of this year, $19 million in state money was allocated for municipalities facing coal plant closures. This is just the beginning, because workers and residents of Tonawanda know they should not be made to pay for Huntley’s retirement.
Temporary funding needs to be provided to the community so that vital services aren’t cut. We need to honor the commitment that energy sector workers have made to this region. Resources should be provided to Huntley workers in order to make successful transitions to other employment.
We ask that NRG communicate its intentions for the site, so that appropriate planning can take place to remediate and attract other business. We have a choice as a community: We can sit back as these jobs and this economic presence disappears or—together—we can actively work for something better.
[Editor’s note: This column is condensed from the original, which appeared on Sunday in the Buffalo News.]
Rebecca Newberry is executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. Richard Lipsitz is president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. Peter Stuhlmiller is president of the Kenmore Teachers Association in Tonawanda, N.Y.