Saturday, March 21, 2020

NY Last Coal-Fired Power Plant is Closing

Sometime this month, the 44 remaining Workers at the Last Coal-Fired Power Plant at the Somerset Operating Company, will Power it Down for the Last Time. They have long planned to gather Ceremonially in a Cavernous Hall, beside the Plant’s roaring Turbine, as it goes quiet, but now Coronavirus Restrictions may deny them that Moment of Closure.

The Coal Plant looms Large in Barker, New York, near Lake Ontario, with Industrial Smokestacks that stand near Red Barns and Lakeside Gazebos.

Across the Country, Coal Plants are going Offline, Priced Out by Natural Gas and Squeezed by Regulations and Incentives aimed at Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and moving to Clean, Renewable Energy Sources. The Closures bring Common Challenges: Lost Tax Revenues and Jobs, efforts to Retrain Workers, and the Clean-Up of Sites. And this one, of course, comes as the State Battles the Economic Headwinds of the Nation’s Largest Coronavirus Outbreak.

In this Northwest Corner of New York, about an hour’s Drive from Buffalo, the Story is of the Plant’s unusually Close-Knit Workplace gradually Dissolving over the past Decade: of a School District banking for Survival on the Plant Owner’s Experimental New Business Model; and of nearby Residents Debating whether Solar-Panel Farms and Wind Turbines should be the Landmarks of the Future.

The Plant’s Closure is also an Early Test of the State’s New Climate Law, one of the Most Ambitious in the Nation, and whether it can get Buy-In from some of the Most affected New Yorkers.

The Law, passed last year, is supposed to Transform the State’s Energy Grid to Carbon-Free by 2040, something Officials say Cannot be Done without Eliminating Coal Power. The state has separately Committed to Eliminating it in 2020.

“As the federal government continues to support the dying fossil fuel industry, deny climate change and roll back environmental protections,” said Basil Seggos, the Commissioner of State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, “the closure of New York’s last coal plant makes good on our commitment.”

The Climate Law is also supposed to Create Thousands of new Jobs, including high-Paying Union Jobs like the Ones the Somerset Plant Employees are Losing.

That means Prospects are Slim for the People who will lose or have already Lost Jobs at the Somerset Plant, which at its Peak Two Decades ago employed Several Hundred People. “It speaks to that feeling of upstate and rural communities, that somehow we matter a little less,” said Robert G. Ortt (R-62nd District), the State Senator who Represents the Area.

The Tensions around the Closure reflect the Differences in the State, which Sprawls from New York City and its Suburbs to Rural Areas like Somerset, which are more Conservative and more Republican. The Political Balance tipped last year when Democrats Won Control of the State Senate, which gave them both Legislative Houses and allowed for the Passage of the Climate Act.

To help Implement its Ambitious Goals, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) recently issued Rules that would make it Easier to get Permission to build Renewable Energy Sites, including Wind Turbines and Solar Panels, allowing Applicants to Bypass Zoning Rules and other Local Regulations.

But that, too, Rankles in Barker and Neighboring Towns, where a Local Group called Save Ontario Shores used Environmental and Aesthetic Arguments to Head-Off a proposed Wind Turbine Project. Sign saying “No to industrial solar” Signal Suspicion of Proposals to Build Large Installations of Solar Panels on Farm Fields. “It’s like saying, we’re closing this large employer in your community and putting something that you may not want in its place,” Mr. Ortt said. He called on the Governor to use his Leverage to find Union Jobs for at least some of the 20-odd Plant Workers who are Not yet of Retirement Age.

The State Department of Labor said it had Provided Job Fairs and Placement Services, which will now go Online because of the Coronavirus Outbreak, that have already helped find New Jobs for 10 Former Employees of another recently Shuttered Upstate Coal Plant, in Cayuga.

The Department of Labor sent over Trainers to Teach Workers how to Write their Résumés, but Brian Gregson, the Plant Manager, said Résumés were Beside the Point for Workers whose Value is Measured Not in Titles, but in Craft and Work Ethic. His Workers needed more Active Job Placement and Training for New Types of Work. “These are salt of the earth guys,” he said.

The Plant’s Owner, Beowulf Energy LLC, is seeking State Approvals to Open a Data Hub, a Facility that Rents Servers to Companies that Store Vast Amounts of Data, on the Site. It Expects 30 to 40 Jobs On-Site, but Nonunion and Primarily for Data Technicians.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker

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