The 650-foot smokestack at the Somerset coal-fired power plant in Niagara County billows plumes of smoke carrying greenhouse gases that can be seen on a clear day all the way across Lake Ontario in Toronto.
The amount — 3.8 million tons in 2011 — makes the coal plant the top greenhouse gas polluter in New York State. That’s equivalent to the emissions from 712,893 cars annually.
Western New York has two other facilities that rank in the state’s top 10 of greenhouse gas polluters: coal-fired power plants CR Huntley in the Town of Tonawanda and NRG Dunkirk in the City of Dunkirk.
It’s no surprise that all 10 of the top greenhouse gas producers in New York are power plants, but the only coal-fired plants on the list are from this region. The other plants use oil and natural gas.
These coal plants are struggling to stay in business because high coal prices and low wholesale prices for electricity from the glut of natural gas has made it less economical to burn coal.
As a result, greenhouse gas emissions are falling and all three plants in WNY operated at well below their rated capacity last year. Their future is complicated further by environmentalists pushing for their closure.
“Western New York bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to pollution and this is no exception,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
Somerset, Dunkirk and Huntley released 7.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The emissions are about one-third less than what the plants reported seven years ago, following a nationwide trend.
“Coal is not the clear bet that it once was,” said Matthew Cordaro, an advisory board member for the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance and former energy industry CEO.
While the plants in Somerset, Dunkirk and Tonawanda are big emitters within New York, they pale in comparison with the worst plants nationwide. The largest greenhouse gas polluter in the U.S. is Scherer in Juliette, Ga. with 24.32 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Nonetheless, greenhouse gas emissions from the three plants are contributing to an “impending disaster,” said Alan H. Lockwood, emeritus professor of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine at University at Buffalo and author of the book “The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health.”
The first decade of this century was the world’s warmest since global weather records were first collected in the 19th Century, which intensified drought conditions. The nation also experienced 11 weather-related disasters last year that cost more than $1 billion in losses. Last year was the country’s warmest on record. Buffalo shattered its own temperature record by 1.2 degrees to 52.1 degrees.
“It is going to take a concerted effort all around, including here in Western New York to limit our carbon dioxide emissions if we are going to have any success controlling runaway climate change,” Lockwood said.
Regulating greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases act like a blanket in the atmosphere by helping it retain heat. The result is heat waves, super storms, rising sea levels and droughts that create problems for farmers.
One-third of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, with coal plants the most significant contributor.
This is a reason why President Obama is targeting existing power plants in his climate change plan announced last month. He directed the EPA to craft regulations within two years to curtail the emissions of the most abundant greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide.
The biggest challenge coal plants face in reducing their carbon footprints is the absence of affordable technology that can capture and store carbon dioxide, Lockwood said.
“Theoretically, it is possible to do this but the estimates of the cost of doing so is going to be very high,” he said.
The Institute for Energy Research predicted 10 percent of the U.S. coal-fired generating capacity — roughly 235 units across the country — would close because of regulations the EPA has already approved to control mercury, soot and other air toxins. The three local plants are in compliance with these standards after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on pollution control technology.
Jack White, the Somerset plant manager, declined to comment for this story.
Carson Leikman, manager for both the Dunkirk and Huntley plants, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
None of the plants have plans to use renewable resources to generate electricity.
Somerset sticking with coal
Opened in 1984, Somerset is the largest and second-newest of 10 plants in New York that use coal as the primary energy source.
The plant operated at one-third of capacity last year, largely because it shut down for six months as the former owner, AES Corp., was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A group of AES bondholders, Upstate New York Power Producers, took over the plant last year.
In August 2012, the bondholders announced a plan to retain the 100 employees and invest $70 million to cover operating losses for up to three years to see if burning coal becomes more profitable again.
Natural gas prices are volatile and are starting to rise. If the price of natural gas continues this rise and the economy improves then coal could be more competitive and Somerset could become more viable again, experts said.
“With that it opens up the door for even coal-fired generation because of the extent of the demand,” Cordaro said. “Right now the demand has been muted by the economy.”
Plant owners are also hoping on a short-term solution: New York State Power Authority agreeing to buy power from Somerset for three years.
The future may be less about coal, but still fossil-fuel dependent, for the two NRG plants.
NRG plants eyeing natural gas
NRG’s Dunkirk Generation Station reported 2.24 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2011, ranking third in the state. The plant ran at slightly less than half its capacity that year, according to numbers reported to both the New York State Independent System Operator and U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The plant has been in operation since 1950.
NRG wants to transform the plant into a $500 million combined cycle natural gas plant and has mothballed three of its four units that burn coal. The fourth unit will continue to run until at least 2015 through an agreement with National Grid to purchase power that maintains the voltage support for the grid.
“What I’m telling you right now is the market price for power won’t even pay for the coal it takes to burn to generate that electricity,” Leikman, the plant manager for both Dunkirk and Huntley, told the Dunkirk Harbor Commission last May.
The decision of NRG Dunkirk’s plan lies with the New York Public Service Commission. National Grid prefers upgrading transmission lines and says it won’t need power from Dunkirk. These countering proposals played out at a July 15 public hearing at SUNY Fredonia.
A smattering of environmentalists argued that repowering the Dunkirk plant with natural gas could open New York leaders to finally approve hydraulic fracturing.
Meanwhile, the Dunkirk plant is barely chugging along at 14 to 17 percent capacity last year. Despite this, Leikman told the Dunkirk Harbor Commission, “we’re not going to close it.”
Jon Baylor, NRG’s project manager for the Dunkirk repowering proposal, said approval of their plan would result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other contaminants.
However, NRG does not have any plans to use renewable energy resources locally to generate electricity.
“Natural gas compliments renewables very nicely because you can turn it on and turn it off fairly quickly,” he said. “We’re always looking at where we can deploy renewables. You can’t deploy renewables at the Dunkirk site in the scale that you need to provide the reliability needs for the system.”
NRG’s Huntley Generating Station reported the emission of 1.65 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2011, ranking ninth in the state. The plant ran at about a quarter of its capacity that year and dropped to a fifth of its capacity in 2012.
The plant opened in 1942, making it one of the older coal-burning power plants in the country.
NRG has considered spending up to $15 million to retrofit the plant to burn coal and natural gas for electricity, but nothing formal has been filed with the Public Service Commission.
New York ahead of the carbon game
Coal accounted for only 3 percent of the power generated in New York last year.
Natural gas and nuclear power are the state’s dominant electricity generators. This helps explain why these three plants rank so high on the greenhouse gas emitter list because using nuclear power to generate electricity does not create greenhouse gases.
New York has the lowest CO2 emissions per capita among U.S. states: 8.8 metric tons per person, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number has dropped by one-fifth since 2000.
While New York’s carbon footprint is low in this country, global levels continue to rise. This is one reason why environmental groups support closing all three coal plants in Western New York.
“Rather than providing a lifeline to these dirty energy dinosaurs that will really shackle ourselves to fossil fuel addiction for decades to come, we need a plan now to transition to a clean energy future,” he said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report last year on power plants ripe for closure because they are outdated, inefficient and operating far below capacity. Huntley and Dunkirk are on that list of 353 generators across the country.
Natural gas may be their salvation, but NRG needs the green light from the Public Service Commission and win the fight with environmentalists who want power produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Does coal still have a future?
That’s not easy to answer, says Lincoln F. Pratson, the Semans-Brown Professor of Earth and Ocean Science at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Pratson said coal-burning power plants have been reliable, low-cost sources for electricity needed throughout the day. In addition to coal plants, this baseload power is often provided by hydropower and nuclear power plants.
“I know there are people who would love to see coal go away, but current needs for baseload power are going to keep a significant fraction of coal plants online for awhile,” he said. “They are the kind of work horses that have been used to provide the power that is needed at all times of the day.”