Elizabeth Thomas, Ulysses town supervisor, speaks against the plant's conversion to natural gas on Tuesday. (Ryan Landvater/Ithaca Voice)

Ithaca, N.Y. — There’s very little unifying the opposing sides in the fight over the Cayuga power plant on the east shore of Cayuga Lake in Lansing.

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But if there’s one thing they do agree on, it’s this: Few decisions, if any, are of more consequence for the economy, the environment and the use of energy in Tompkins County than this one.

Elizabeth Thomas, Ulysses town supervisor, speaks against the plant’s conversion to natural gas on Tuesday. (Ryan Landvater/Ithaca Voice)

That’s not really in dispute, either for those backing the plant’s attempt to convert its capacity to natural gas or those opposed to the plan.

Here’s what is:

The issue: Should the state approve the Cayuga power plant’s request to convert from a coal-fired facility to one that runs on natural gas?

Coal is on the way out. It’s clear to both sides that the plant is increasingly unable to pay for itself as that macro-economic trend accelerates. Something has to change.

The key question, then, is this: Does the future of the plant lie in natural gas? Can it not only be retrofitted to produce gas but also do so in a way that brings in enough revenue? Or should something else altogether be done to it?

And if nothing gets done, how will Lansing and the broader region power itself — both economically and in a much more literal sense?

Dozens of newspaper articles, guest spots on the radio, numerous protests and hundreds of filed documents have all gone to trying to advance competing visions for the plant’s future.

(Editor’s Note: Those opposing the conversion held a press conference today; we’ll be posting a story later today about that meeting.)

That energy has often been expended on related but ancillary fights — over the process of the state’s decision, the required extent of disclosure, the estimated cost of transmission line repairs.

Distilled to its essence, however, the debate over the Cayuga power plant might be best summed up by the following question: Is it wise to invest resources and money into using natural gas to power our region’s economy?

Who has opposed the plant’s conversion to natural gas? |

— The New York State Electric and Gas Corporation;

— Local environmentalists (Many of whom have rallied under the group, “Ratepayers and Community Investors);

— National environmental groups like the Sierra Club and EarthJustice;

— Several local officials, like town of Caroline council member Mark Witmer.

Who has supported the conversion? |

— The Cayuga power plant;

— The local colleges (the Ithaca College Office of Facilities and Cornell University’s Office of Government and Community Relations supported the conversion in 2013 memos);

— The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce supported conversion to natural gas in 2013;

— The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union;

— Several local elected officials, including Tompkins legislator Mike Sigler.

Why oppose the conversion to natural gas? |

Here are the two key arguments cited by the opposition to the plant:

1 — NYSEG’s alternative to supply power by fixing transmission lines is cheaper for taxpayers

NYSEG has developed a cheaper, more forward-thinking proposal that meets the area’s energy needs without dramatically expanding its reliance on fossil fuels, according to Irene Weiser, a Caroline council person.

What is that proposal? Fixing the transmission lines near Auburn, according to Weiser.

If those transmission lines were fixed, Weiser says, “the large power producers” near Lake Ontario could supply the region’s energy needs.

This idea — to fix the transmission lines near Auburn instead of reinvigorating the Lansing plant — is crucial to understanding the opposition to the conversion. That fix, Weiser says, would allow peak demand to be met in the Auburn area.

Weiser says that the proposal to fix the transmission lines will only cost NYSEG customers $25 million instead of the far more expensive power plant conversion.

“Each month of delay in completing transmission upgrades equates to an average of approximately $4 million in out-of-market subsidies to the Cayuga plant when capital expenditures are included,” the national group the Sierra Club said in a recent statement.

“These costs are borne entirely by ratepayers.”

(Editor’s Note: Do you have further questions about the power plant? If so, email jstein@ithacavoice.com and we’ll try to address them here)

2 — Natural gas deepens our dependence on fossil fuels, prevents shift to renewable resources

Alternative, renewable energy sources are the future and can meet the area’s energy needs, Weiser says.

“Cayuga is proposing to fuel existing coal boilers with natural gas, resulting in less efficient operation than new natural gas combined cycle combustion turbine generators,” NYSEG writes in its recently filed plan.

“As a result of this configuration, NYSEG estimates the plant will have a capacity factor of less than 50%. Even at this level, the plant would produce significantly more emissions than a new combined cycle natural gas-fired generator.”

You can read more about this in our in-depth story:Cayuga power plant, county’s biggest taxpayer, faces closure without new approval

Why support the conversion to natural gas? |

Here are three key arguments cited by the supporters of the shift:

1 — It’s actually better for the environment to switch to natural gas

Carbon emissions will actually increase, not decrease, if the switch to natural gas is not approved, the Cayuga power plant argued in its most recent filing.

“If the Cayuga Facility is not repowered, it is very likely that the generation used to replace the Cayuga Facility would come from less-efficient units, and thus higher carbon emitting units, especially during peak demand periods,” the power plant said.

The power plant adds that its biomass initiatives are only possible with the conversion to natural gas; without it, the plant will close, rendering those options impossible.

2 — We’re not ready to power the area without natural gas

Sigler, the county legislator, says that a much-trumpeted solar array near the airport only supplies 2 megawatts. The power plant, by contrast, supplies 300 megawatts.

With alternative resources not nearly ready to meet the region’s energy needs, according to Sigler, the area would have to resort to importing natural gas from Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

“Do you really want to just outsource all our energy creation?” Sigler said.

3 — Impact to local economy

Sigler detailed devastating impacts for Lansing and the county if the plant closes:

— The county loses its largest private taxpayer.

— Taxes in the local school district would “jump hundreds of dollars per year for the average home,” Sigler said.

— There’s no clear alternative for what the plant would become.

“If you’ve ever seen a power plant close, you know it just sits there,” Sigler says. “A big husk.”

Why it’s so important: Forget the concerns, cited by both sides, about CO2 emissions and natural gas.

Forget the national debates over pipelines and renewable power, over the tax money for Tompkins County, over the future of renewable resources in Upstate New York.

All those things are, quite clearly, important to everyone who lives here.

But let’s say it wasn’t. This debate would still be important to follow if only for this reason: Because 70 families in Lansing are dependent on the plant for full-time, paying jobs.

Even those who oppose the plant recognize that the state’s decision will have a major impact on dozens of families.

What’s happening now: Last week, NYSEG and the Cayuga power plant filed opposing plans for the plant’s future.

The state’s Public Service Commission will now evaluate each proposal and come down in favor of one or the other.

How long will that take? | State officials aren’t saying.

“While there is no statutory timeline for a decision, the PSC will keep the process moving forward as quickly as practicable,” James Denn of New York State said in an email to The Voice yesterday.

Can I read NYSEG’s filing? | Sure you can:

NYSEG's filing

And how about the power plant’s? | Here it is:

Power plant's filing

Check back for more about the debate over the power plant later in the day.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.