N.Y. set to close last coal plant

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 6, 2020

New York’s last coal-fired power plant could shutter as early as March, another potential casualty for the shrinking U.S. fleet of coal-fired plants.

The facility’s owner, Somerset Operating Co. LLC, cited “uneconomic conditions and regulatory uncertainty” as factors contributing to retirement in a November filing with the New York State Public Service Commission. Somerset, a subsidiary of Riesling Power LLC, said in a press release at the time that stricter air emission regulations — designed to “eliminate coal in New York” — also played a role in the decision to close the 675-megawatt Niagara County generator.

Somerset said March 12 is “the earliest possible retirement date” in a recent notice to New York’s grid overseer, the New York Independent System Operator (ISO). Somerset had previously said the plant could close as soon as Feb. 15.

New York ISO still needs to complete a study to determine whether the Somerset plant is needed for reliability. A spokesman for the grid operator confirmed receipt of Somerset’s deactivation notice and said the organization has until March 11 to complete the “Generator Deactivation Assessment.” The completed assessment will then be posted on its website, he said.

Elizabeth Moran, environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the New York grid has the capability to function without the Somerset plant, and the trend of states transitioning off coal is long overdue.

“New York state has a tremendous opportunity at this point in time to start phasing out these fossil fuel plants — coal plants in particular — and moving on to renewable sources of energy,” Moran said, pointing to reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that cite the need to shift away from fossil fuels to keep global warming in check.

Moran also referenced the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which New York lawmakers adopted in 2019 and pledges to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. She said if the Empire State is going to meet these goals, action during the next decade will be especially critical.

Lisa Dix, senior New York campaigns manager for the Sierra Club, said what’s interesting about the New York example is how Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) sought to regulate coal through a regulatory process that puts limits on carbon emissions. Cuomo saw how phasing out coal was an important first step on the path to a 100% carbon-free grid, Dix said.

“It’s a great example of how governors can use their administrative authority to be able to regulate carbon,” Dix said, also pointing out Cuomo’s efforts to set up a fossil fuel mitigation fund in New York to ease the burden of coal plant retirements on local tax bases and set up different worker retraining programs.

New York ISO’s grid reliability study was officially triggered by the receipt of Somerset’s deactivation notice in December. In its winter forecast released in November, ISO said that “New York’s electric system has enough capacity to meet forecasted demand for electricity and maintain necessary operating reserves during cold weather conditions through the 2019-20 winter season.”

That winter capability assessment said New York ISO anticipates a peak demand of 24,123 megawatts for the winter season and puts expected resource capacity at 43,346 MW.

Natural gas makes up roughly 39% of electricity generation in New York, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which showed that hydroelectric and nuclear sources make up approximately 34.5% and 21.5% of the state mix, respectively.

Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the organization — rebranded as America’s Power — is concerned about the retirement of coal-fired generation in a state that is “highly dependent” on natural gas. She urged New York ISO to “carefully consider” the advantages of the Somerset plant.

“One advantage of coal-fired generation is that it can be called on when other fuels are not available or when the price of other fuels is too high,” Bloodworth said. “It is important to point out that New York has faced serious challenges in building much-needed natural gas infrastructure.”

Riesling Power, Somerset’s owner, has proposed building a data center on the site of the coal plant, according to company press releases.