(Photo credit: Philip N. Cohen)

Correction: Due to an error made by county officials, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the impact of the plant’s closure on county taxpayers.

Taxes for county taxpayers would go up by a little more than one percent, not 7 percent.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories that will scrutinize the dueling proposals over the future of the Cayuga power plant.

Today’s piece looks at why the power plant thinks it should be able to convert its operations to natural gas. A story tomorrow will look at why NYSEG opposes that proposal.

For our overview on the topic, see here: “A beginner’s guide to the crucial fight over the Cayuga power plant.”

Weigh in with your thoughts on our Facebook page or email a guest column to jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — There’s a good deal of technical language in the Cayuga power plant’s proposal to get state authorization to convert to natural gas.

There’s the talk of voltage conversion tables, of the “rotating mass of turbines,” and of something called the “dual-fuel flexibility for alternative fuels.”

In general, however, the 50 page document is a brisk and straightforward read — intelligible to any citizen or reporter who wishes to parse through it.

I sat down today to get a better sense of why each side believes it is in the right on this divisive but critically important issue.

Here are my five key takeaways from the power plant’s proposal:

1 — Lansing schools, taxpayers face huge challenges if the plant closes

We’ve touched on this point before, but it’s not until you actually read the power plant’s proposal that the extent of the damage Lansing taxpayers face becomes clear should the plant shutter.

Here’s how taxpayers would be affected by the loss of the county’s biggest taxpayer, which provides about 70 full-time jobs, according to the power plant:

— Lansing property taxes would jump by 12 percent annually.

— The average homeowner’s bill would increase by over $600 a year.

— County taxes would increase by about 1 percent.

— The school district would lose about $1.25 million in annual revenue instantly.

— 15 teachers’ positions would have to be cut by the local school district.

The proposal includes two powerful quotes from different members of the school district to drive this point home.

Says Chris Pettograsso, Superintendent of the Lansing School District:

“The reduction of a one point two five minimum million dollar . . . loss [to the School District] due to the [Cayuga] plant going away will be too much to bear. We will need to make significant reductions . . . that would greatly diminish the value of what it means to be educated at Lansing.”

And from Glenn Swanson, Board of Education President of the Lansing School District:

“The [Cayuga] plant is very important to the economy of the Lansing community, as well as Tompkins County. . . . The tax revenue helps sustain our schools and other important services and its reliable power supports our businesses. The Lansing School District, which our community has nurtured for many years, would be hurt dramatically.”

2 — Construction jobs galore

Another detail that struck us: The power plant estimates that retrofitting would bring 400 temporary construction jobs to the area.

These will be union jobs, according to the power plant. They’ll be paid both to construct a new gas pipeline and fix the power plant “to allow it to operate on natural gas,” the proposal states.

What could be the multiplier effect of this labor? That’s not estimated, but basic Keynesian economics suggest that the ripple from this injection of spending and purchasing power could spread economic benefits beyond Tompkins County.

Then there’s not only temporary construction work, but the longer-term benefits, according to the power plant.

“The indirect economic impact realized in the region and the State is an additional 60 jobs and $48 million over this 10-year period,” the proposal states.

Overall, the power plant adds $4 million to the local economy, the report states.

3 — The power plant appears to believe the state is already on its side

At the end of the day, for all the op-eds and local lawmakers and environmentalists who are weighing in, only one group’s views on the power plant will really matter.

That group is New York state’s Public Service Commission, which is appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The 5-member PSC will have final say on if the power plant’s conversion is approved.

The power plant gives several reasons that it believes the state has already suggested its support for repowering the plant with natural gas. The plant thus says approval of its proposal is the natural extension of the state’s existing positions on the future of energy use in the state.

Here are some of the factors cited by the plant in support of that argumetn:

— On Sept. 19, 2013, according to the plant, NY’s Department of Public Service “indicated that a revised repowering solution could be consistent with the best interests of the public and ratepayers.” (Italics are theirs.)

— The plant devotes a whole section to the Dunkirk facility in Western New York as an example of the state’s preference for its plans.

It quotes the governor as saying the following about that plant’s conversion to natural gas in December 2013:

“The Governor referred to the announcement as ‘another example of government working for the people’ and lauded the agreement for ‘result[ing] in a larger, cleaner power plant at Dunkirk that will meet reliability needs, reduce costs for consumers, create jobs and stabilize the local property tax base.’”

— Previously, opponents of the conversion told The Voice that the governor’s New York Energy Highway Blueprint amounted to an argument against the plant and in favor of a stronger push toward renewable resources.

The plant reads the blueprint differently. It says that the blueprint supports reinvigoration of old power plants and says its efforts will in fact lower carbon emissions.

The plant says:

“Among its conclusions, the Blueprint recommends that ‘priority be given to projects that would benefit the environment, such as . . . cost effective repowering of inefficient power plants.’ The Blueprint states that ‘[r]epowering power plants can improve system reliability by replacing aging equipment.

Repowering also provides environmental benefits to New York State through reduced emissions and the use of previously developed land with transmission infrastructure already in place.’”

4 — Strong language against NYSEG

Developers in the Ithaca area often face opposition from local environmentalists. On a number of occasions over the last year, various builders have portrayed this opposition to their projects as left-wing and marginal.

That’s a lot tougher to do when up against the New York State Electric and Gas Company.

In this case,  the power plant uses a lot of strong language to dispute NYSEG’s analysis of the plant’s impacts.

A sampling:

— “Cayuga’s comments identified significant deficiencies, misstatements, and non-conformities in NYSEG’s report compared to what the Commission required in its Repowering Order.”

“NYSEG’s report focuses solely on ratepayer costs and utterly ignores the other required criteria such as economic development and environmental benefits.”

“Even with this incomplete singular focus, NYSEG’s report presents a view … that is not factually supported.”

There are many more examples. Of course, the fact that NYSEG and the plant weren’t able to come up with an agreement — as requested by the state — shows just how far the two sides have drifted apart.

The language in both proposals provides greater evidence that both NYSEG and the power plant are deeply frustrated with the other.

5 — What does the polar vortex have to do with the power plant’s future?

Perhaps the most inexplicable discrepancy between the NYSEG side and the power plant is their differing assessments of the region’s energy needs.

As noted by Irene Weiser, Caroline council person, NYSEG says that cheaper upgrades to transmission lines near Auburn will be enough to power the area — even during an upsurge in requests.

The power plant regards that idea with apparent contempt.

The plant notes that over the last three years, NYSEG “has required a Cayuga unit to run over 2,900 hours per year (4,656 in 2014 alone). This necessarily implies that there are other significant reliability needs in the region.”

“Notably, Cayuga has, 100% of the time, consistently performed when it has been called upon by NYSEG to run for reliability purposes,” the proposal states.

The plant cites the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s Polar Vortex Review Report, which was issued in September 2014 to examine the role of natural gas during the frigid arctic blast.

“The significant and prolonged periods of cold weather experienced last winter, commonly referred to as the Polar Vortex, revealed the major challenges associated with increased reliance on natural gas generation,” the power plant report says.

With natural gas, the power plant “will continue to meet reliability needs and provide power quality,” the proposal says. “Transmission upgrades cannot provide the same support.”


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Jeff Stein

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