Fluctuating Grid A Power Struggle
New York’s ambitious plans to be fully reliant on renewable energy by 2040 have impacted this region tremendously. Less than 10 years ago, three coal-fired stations were in operation that powered this area and beyond our state borders.
Once those monstrous plants went offline in Somerset, Tonawanda and right here in Chautauqua County in Dunkirk, more power had to be imported from elsewhere to keep the lights on. During most days, the stress on the grid is minimal. But on a day where temperatures reach into the 90s — such as last week — there is a tremendous toll on the system to deliver power.
That is why National Grid’s $46.5 million investment to its Dunkirk station located in the shadows of the mothballed NRG Energy Inc. power plant is a significant step. Most of the project moves the company’s assets, once housed in the steam station, to a 3,500 square-foot facility located inside those grounds.
Residents here have every right to scoff at the efforts, due to what has been a painful past. NRG, before the facility closed in 2016, was a tremendous community partner and employer for the nearly 20 years it did business in the north county. Its closing did not go over well with many here who relied on not only the economic benefit of the site, but the large chunk of revenue that came from a payment in lieu of taxes agreement that often totaled $4 million each for the city and its school district with another $2 million going to the county.
Last week, elected leaders as well as some major industrial users were able to tour the National Grid site off Point Drive North that delivers electricity to 500,000 customers across the southwestern portion of the state with transmission lines that extend into Pennsylvania. Nestle Purina, Cummins in Jamestown and Wells Enterprises in Dunkirk are some of the region’s largest industrial customers who benefit from major upgrades at the site, which began in September 2020.
If all goes according to plan, work at the location should be completed by November. “It’s a huge improvement and National Grid feels so much more comfortable now with what we have,” said Jim Wiley, construction supervisor for the extensive project in the city.
Major questions, however, are on the horizon regarding how the state will meet such an aggressive agenda to become less reliant on fossil fuels while counting on wind and solar. On Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., prices for power in Western New York were in line with what the rest of the state was paying, according to the New York Independent System Operator that operates the state’s bulk electricity grid. Fossil fuels and natural gas made up 62% of the state’s electricity with nuclear at 16%, Hydropower was 20% of the mix followed by less than 2% being wind and solar.
Those figures do not bode well for the future if the state is to meet its goal of even 70% of renewable energy by 2030 in the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act. A recipe for this, according to the NYISO, is 9,000 MW of offshore wind by 2035, 6,000 MW of solar energy by 2025 and energy storage of 3,000 MW by 2030.
None of this is controlled by National Grid, which serves as a power provider. It takes the electricity being generated — whether it be from hydropower in Canada, windmills from Central New York or even a coal-fired plant in Homer City, Pa. — to its customers.
“The system is in constant flux all the time,” said Charles Audette, manager of substation construction at National Grid, “whether it’s windy, sunny. … The system was designed to have large generators feed transmission lines that went out to the substation and then out to the houses.”
Earlier this summer, the Empire Center for Public Policy reported that if temperatures soar to 98 degrees in the state during a major heat wave, the grid would be close to its limits. Starting next year that kind of weather would surpass the grid’s capabilities to meet demand, because fewer peaker plants will be available. Even 95-degree heat would test the system’s capacities as early as next year.
In that case utilities will have to conduct rolling blackouts to keep the entire system from crashing.
As solar and wind farms continue to proliferate in the region, the model has drastically changed. With power coming in — and not being generated in this region on a large scale as it was in the past — the cost to deliver to consumers becomes an issue.
Toward the end of last week’s gathering, that point was addressed. Paul Kazmierczak, a manager at National Grid, praised Todd Tranum, Manufacturers Association of the Southern Tier president, for his advocacy in the rate-making process.
During an April Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act hearing in Buffalo, Tranum noted the importance of affordability and reliability moving ahead with its plans for renewables. “We ask that New York state consider the timeline,” he said in the spring. “It is not realistic. The unintended consequence of the plan as proposed is businesses will forgo pending investments in their companies and employees will move out of state.”
Upstate’s economy, though improving remains fragile as inflation grips the nation. Keeping energy costs low in the future so that businesses and manufacturing can fluorish needs to be on Albany’s radar.
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.