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THE HALL CHRONICLES

July 20, 2008 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Having lived in Jamestown when the power plant burned coal and cinders were spread on city streets I always supposed city residents had cheap electricity because we generated what is now becoming an increasingly precious commodity. That was an incorrectly held assumption.

If there is anything proponents and opponents of the new power plant can agree upon is the reason we have cheaper electricity. We purchase slightly more than 80% of what we consume from the Niagara Power Authority. Generating electricity by any means except hydropower is more expensive whether it is the city owned Jamestown plant or the publicly traded National Grid plant in Dunkirk.

I do not understand much about electricity. I do not understand how it is made and only know as a consumer how much it has changed my life. I grew up without the conveniences of electricity and remain certain I’d rather have it than not regardless of how it is made. Subsequently, my primary contributions to the City’s new power plant discussion are questions.

The city started with a simple premise: The BPU needed to replace one of three boilers used to generate steam. That boiler they said was nearly 60 years old. Being of the same vintage that need was easy for me to understand. Next, the City hired a company to study the problem and to make recommendations for replacing that aging boiler. The City rejected the first six recommendations from that study. The first and most economical choice was to stop generating electricity and purchase all of our electricity on the open market. We can buy it cheaper than we can make it.

City officials rejected that idea. Although I do not fully comprehend the marketplace economics of that decision, I intuitively feel it is to our advantage to have the capacity to generate electricity. I do not trust being left to the mercy of the market. But, despite a blizzard of printed materials, scoping sessions, high priced lobbyists and consultants I still do not understand how City officials skipped the next five recommendations to select the least recommended and most expensive option of all: A “fluidized coal” fired plant that could burn coal cleaner, old tires and something city officials called “biomass” at a start up cost of $140,000,000.

Now the City is advancing another idea, a power plant like no other. The new plant would capture carbon dioxide, CO2, before it is admitted to the atmosphere and store it in geological formations. A company, Praix Air, claims to have technology that will work for the demonstration project. City Officials claim that such a project would put Jamestown on the map for leading edge, 21st Century technology.

That might be good for “bragging rights”, but what real economic impact will it have on Jamestown. Unless Praix Air builds a plant here and hires 100 or more people we are left with “bragging rights.” Bragging rights might make us feel good, but will do little for the overall economy.

The Governor came to town and put so many conditions on state assistance that it remains doubtful that the city will get the $6,000,000 he talked about. A fully operational, regulated demonstration electric plant capable of capturing and storing CO2 could cost ratepayers upwards of $500,000,000 for a 43 Mega Watt plant that may not work. Even if it works splendidly, its finished product locally generated electricity, may have a price tag so expensive that no one can buy it.

What if the plant does not work? That is a question that nags at me and must gnaw at City Officials and BPU Board members who have expressed real concerns about that very subject in closed door, secret meeting otherwise known as Executive Sessions. The Chronicles has learned that has been a worrisome topic on more than one occasion during secret sessions, but in public statements City officials claim everything is “hunkey dorey”.

What about the original idea of replacing that old boiler? Could City Officials figure out a way to buy power on the open market and generate just enough electricity using the gas turbine to heat enough water to keep our District Heating customers in business until the new boiler is in place? I may not be able to figure out how to do that, but I bet some workers at the BPU could. Ultimately, we would still be using coal but with a 200-year supply of coal it remains unlikely that the so-called “free marketplace” will abandon using coal in some form.

 
 

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