Tonawanda News

March 2, 2014

Clean Air Coalition hosts brainstorming assembly on Huntley power plant

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Dozens of locals attended a Clean Air Coalition assembly Saturday to discuss how to assist employees and local governments if the Huntley Station power plant does shutdown.

“We are hoping to open the dialogue, since Huntley may be near the end of its life,” Glenn Ratajczak, a member of the coalition, said. “We value what the community has to say, and in this case, Huntley has a big impact in the town ... we are trying to be proactive instead of reactive.”

The assembly is first of four similar meetings, and follows the release of a report last month that indicated that the River Road plant is at risk of closure due to declining revenues and a shift in the energy market.

The study was commissioned by the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and completed by an Ohio consulting firm, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Coalition Director Erin Heaney said the group’s request was in response to residents’ concerns about air quality and public health. 

“Many of you were at an event we held last year ... where more than 200 people voted on what people were concerned about. Huntley was at the top of that list,” she said Saturday at the event, held at the Boys and Girls Club of the Northtowns. “We don’t know if it’s going to retire, but they could say it is any day, and we’re just trying to prepare.”

Huntley is owned and operated by NRG Energy and is one of the few coal-burning plants left in the state. The plant has been suffering due to the rising cost of coal, low natural gas prices and a stagnant demand for electricity.

The report indicates the pretax earnings generated by the plant have dropped dramatically in recent years, from a range of $56 million to $110 million in the years 2005-08 to an average loss of $1 million for 2009-12. Pretax, the plant has operated at a loss for the last three out five years.

The plant has also only been operating at a fraction of its capacity — as low as 19 percent — while other sources of power have accounted for the demand, the authors state.

Although the Coalition has publicly argued against the practice of burning coal, Heaney said the group recognizes how the plant’s closure would affect the 70 employees, as well as the school district and town, which receive tax money from the company.

“We’re talking millions and millions of dollars,” Erie County Deputy Budget Director Tim Callan said at Saturday’s assembly. “The Ken-Ton school district will likely face the biggest challenge, especially given the fiscal situation with the decline of state aid.”

Attendees discussed a variety of solutions — from recreational ideas for the site to ways to keep the plant functioning.

New York Power Authority funds could help transition the plant into a solar, wind or natural gas facility, some suggested, which would help sustain taxes. Others said they would prefer naturalized shoreline and public access to the waterfront as part of a regional revitalization effort.

Attendees were also concerned about who would be responsible for the cleanup of the site and how much it would cost. The county and local governments have already spent millions on other brownfield sites nearby, including Spaulding Fiber in the City of Tonawanda.

The validity of the report was also questioned, and some asked if Huntley had refuted the report or had been brought into the discussion.

Last month, after the report was released, NRG Spokesman David Gaier said Huntley did not provide the IEEFA with financial information.

Although he would not comment on the report’s conclusions, Gaier agreed that coal plants are under financial pressure. But he also questioned the objectivity of the report and said NRG is working to improve Huntley’s stability.

“The IEEFA’s stated mission is to ‘reduce dependence on coal and other non-renewable energy resources’ and this report appears written to support that mission,” Gaier said in an email. “As we’ve said before, NRG continually looks to reduce costs at all its generating assets and make them as competitive as possible. That will continue.”

Three more transition assemblies are planned for:

• 6 p.m. on Monday at the Grand Island Memorial Library, 1715 Bedell Road, Grand Island

• 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Northwest Community Center, 155 Lawn Ave., Buffalo

• 6 p.m. March 13 at Tonawanda City Hall, 200 Niagara St., Tonawanda

After the assemblies are completed, the coalition will work with a group of volunteer delegates to develop the proposed ideas.

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.