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Despite delays, plant still tries to catch the wind Q&A: Kevin R. Pierce

The air is electric in the board room of the AES Somerset power plant in northeastern Niagara County.

Plant manager Kevin R. Pierce and Jon J. Reimann, the environmental engineer, are power brokers as they talk about harnessing the wind as an extra source of energy to meet the state's growing demand for electricity. AES Corp. is a leading player in using wind as a renewable resource.

But the Town of Somerset continues to impose a moratorium on construction of the 260-foot towers needed for the project. The proposed third extension of the moratorium slapped on the AES Niagara Wing Energy Project in less than two years will be the subject of a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 in Town Hall, 8700 Haight Road.

Reimann said the Town Board looks to extend the moratorium another eight months, well into August.

"It was a total surprise to us," he said. "We reached out to the Town Board in an effort to work together, only to read about the extension in the . . . paper."

AES Somerset is one of the largest coal-fired plants in New York State, providing electricity to 675,000 homes in Western New York. Previously owned by New York State Electric & Gas Corp., the 21-year-old plant was purchased by AES in 1999.

The company immediately invested $40 million in pollution control and has reduced emissions by 70 percent, Reimann said. These figures were backed up by New York's Independent System Operator, a nonprofit outgrowth of the New York Power Pool, which rates the plant as one of the cleanest and most efficient in the nation.

Pierce answered questions last week for The Buffalo News.

As president of AES Somerset, how important is the wind power project?

It's very important as part of the mix. Fuel diversity is a top AES priority, whether it be hydro, coal, oil, nuclear or wind. And it seems like the wind is always blowing up here. At this stage, wind energy is an experiment. On the one hand, you have a cheap source of power, and on the other, you're at the mercy of Mother Nature.

What happens if the Town of Somerset refuses to let you build the wind towers?

If we can't build them here, we'll build them somewhere else. We're already looking at several sites in other parts of the state, where the communities have zoning laws in place to accommodate wind energy conversion.

What happens if you don't build them at all?

That's not an option. First, the Somerset plant is operating at full capacity, and secondly, the State of New York has legislated that by 2013, 24 percent of the electricity produced must come from renewable resources, like wind, water and solar power. There's only one Niagara Falls in the area, but we have an endless supply of wind, especially off Lake Ontario.

How much would the wind energy project boost production at the plant?

Our goal is to produce 25 to 50 megawatts with 15 to 30 wind turbines, a megawatt being the amount of electricity to power about 1,000 homes over a year. So the potential is there to provide electricity to an additional 50,000 homes annually.

How serious is the potential power supply shortage in New York?

We have a rapidly increasing demand, with plants operating at full capacity. If we don't begin harnessing renewable resources, the situation will become critical. What's happening in Ontario is a lesson for us. Ontario's energy usage peaked during a particularly hot summer, and they were operating at full capacity with no backup position. They had the pedal to the metal. We don't want to be in that situation.

The Ontario government plans to phase out all its coal-burning plants and go nuclear. What do you think of that?

There will be a resurgence of nuclear power, especially with increasing tension in oil-producing states in the Middle East. But nuclear plants will only be part of the mix. Diversity is the key. Naturally we like coal. More than 50 percent of U.S. energy comes from coal. We're one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the country, but we're very interested in the development of clean coal technology. Meanwhile, and additionally, we're looking at the wind. It's as clean as you can get.

Why do you think the Town Board is taking its stand?

It's strange, because the town's moratorium seems to contradict the consensus at a recent public meeting, where almost all of the residents were in favor of wind power. Area farmers actually want the right to erect windmills for their own use. One town resident said he has operated a windmill on his farm for 10 years under a special permit and that he hasn't paid for electricity in all that time.

What is the purpose of the two towers you've already erected on plant property?

The first tower was installed in 2001 to evaluate meteorological data, such as wind direction, velocity and a whole sweep of weather data. It's about 190 feet tall. Based on encouraging data, a second tower, about 260 feet tall, was erected in 2003.

And what have you learned so far?

We're in a position to proceed. Wind turbine energy has come a long way, but it's still experimental. This would be a $60 million investment over 20 years. It's not the cheapest way to produce electricity, but the state is offering tax credits that in the long run would reduce the cost of production. There is a tremendous amount of interest in the state among developers and investment banks.

With all that support, how frustrating is it to be stymied by the Town Board?

We understand there are concerns about towers along the shoreline, and this is such a new technology the town doesn't have any existing laws on the books. But we will continue to reach out to the Town Board and stay optimistic. The moratorium is disappointing because another year is lost.

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