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Coal on its last legs in New York after state proposes tough emissions rule

Proposed rule would effectively phase out coal plants in the state by 2020.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York state officials issued a proposed rule Wednesday that is expected to help the state meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) goal of cutting carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030.

The plan, proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), would place stringent emissions standards on existing power plants that would effectively phase out coal plants in the state by 2020. Supporters of the plan believe it could create a model for other states to move away from coal to cleaner energy. Cuomo first promised to shut down all of the state’s plants in 2016.

In the proposed rule, the DEC says it “will serve to prevent the operation of high-carbon sources of energy, such as coal-fired major electric generating facilities that do not utilize carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or some other advanced CO2 emission reduction technology.”

Electricity generation is responsible for approximately 17 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted in New York State. At 34 percent, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state is the transportation sector.

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Since 2000, companies have retired nearly 3,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation in New York. Coal currently represents only 2 percent of the state’s overall generating capacity of 39,064 megawatts, according to data from the state’s power grid operator.

“Limiting the most polluting power plants is key to making sure New York meets its goal of reducing climate pollution 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050,” Lisa Dix, New York senior representative for the Sierra Club, said Wednesday in a statement.

The Sierra Club said it hopes to work with the Cuomo administration “to ensure the plan is finalized by year end and coupled with a statewide framework that provides a glidepath for communities and workers impacted by this transition.”

Irene Weiser, coordinator of Fossil Free Tompkins, said the proposed rule will ensure the transition away from fossil fuels actually happens in New York. “As we’ve seen here in Tompkins County, big polluters will do all they can to keep outdated and inefficient plants open with no regard to our climate, water, and public health,” she said in a statement.

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The DEC’s action “is an important step towards our goal of keeping all fossil fuels in the ground,” Weiser said. Fossil Free Tompkins, an environmental group based in Tompkins County, New York, is focused on fighting fossil fuel infrastructure and moving the state toward sustainable energy alternatives.

Some officials in counties and towns with coal plants have expressed concern about the impact of a plant closures on their local economies. In western New York, local officials fought to keep the Dunkirk coal-fired power plant open. When it was running, the plant, owned by NRG Energy, contributed 23.6 percent of the operating revenue to the town of Dunkirk, New York.

“If that were to go away, I mean, a quarter of your operating budget is such a significant amount to try and make up through other avenues in my budget. So, NRG has always been a great community partner to the city of Dunkirk,” Dunkirk Mayor Anthony Dolce said in 2013.

Because the Dunkirk generating facility wasn’t making enough money for the company, NRG Energy mothballed the plant. But in 2014, the New York Public Service Commission approved a proposal by NRG Energy and the electricity utility National Grid to convert the Dunkirk plant to run on natural gas. The company is converting three of the four coal units to run on natural gas as the primary fuel source. The other unit will be permanently deactivated.

Local officials expressed satisfaction with the decision to switch the plant to run on natural gas. In the meantime, as the power plant sits idle as it awaits its conversion to natural gas, Dunkirk is receiving aid from New York as part of a state budget enacted in 2017 that helps communities that suffer property tax losses due to the closure or conversion of a power plant to natural gas.

Along with the expected closure of its coal plants, New York also will be losing power produced from two reactors at Entergy Corp’s 2,069-megawatt Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County. They will close in 2020 and 2021 under a deal between the company and the state. But the New York ISO, the state’s grid operator, said the closures “will not create a system reliability need” as new sources of mostly natural gas-fired generation enter service.

Most of the power produced in New York comes from plants capable of burning both oil and gas, at 48 percent; nuclear, at 14 percent; hydroelectric, at 11 percent; and natural gas only, at 10 percent. Only a small percentage of electricity is produced from wind and solar sources in New York.

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Cuomo, who is seeking a third term as governor this year, is facing a challenge for the Democratic nomination from actress Cynthia Nixon who has made fighting climate change one of her top campaign issues. The Democratic primary is scheduled for September.

Nixon has published an “Agenda for a Clean Energy Economy and Climate Justice” that lays out a plan to shift the state to 100 percent renewable energy by no later than 2050. Cuomo has committed to move the state to 50 percent renewables by 2030.

For its proposed rule, the DEC plans to hold three public meetings across the state in July.