Closing of aging Huntley power plant will force a difficult, but manageable, transition - The Buffalo News

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Closing of aging Huntley power plant will force a difficult, but manageable, transition

Like a lot of changes in life, the looming demise of the Huntley Station power plant combines elements both useful and gloomy. More than that, though, the closing was, in any case, inevitable. Its demise was foretold and that, at least, has given those affected time to plan.

The downside is all about pain: loss of jobs, shrinking of the tax base, the end of a familiar era. The upside is about the potential for a better future: less pollution, better land use, the possibility of new jobs.

It doesn’t matter much if anyone believes the negatives outweigh the positives or vice versa. The overarching point is that this was going to happen at some point.

The Huntley Plant was already a dinosaur, operating at no more than 15 percent of capacity. With the collapse of natural gas prices, there was no practical way for this coal-fired relic to compete with generators burning a fuel that is both cheaper and cleaner. Nor, ultimately, is it desirable, especially at a time when science and public opinion are coalescing around the need to respond to climate change.

The end has been coming for years, but this week it was given a tentative date. NRG Energy, the plant’s owner, submitted a plan to the state Public Service Commission on Tuesday to permanently retire the plant on March 1, barely six months from now.

When it happens, 79 people will lose their jobs, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District will lose almost $3 million in tax revenue, the Town of Tonawanda will lose about $2 million and Erie County will lose around $800,000. This change comes at a heavy financial cost, one that Albany needs to help cushion.

The state cannot ultimately be responsible for permanently making up $5.8 million in tax losses, but it can ease the way, increasing aid to the school district, town and county while they adjust to a change that could otherwise overwhelm the taxpayers who remain and who are already stressed. Some version of that help is already in the works, with the State Legislature’s approval in June of a bill allocating $19 million for communities hurt by retiring coal-powered plants.

Going forward, though, the opportunities are significant. The closure will eliminate one of Erie County’s biggest polluters. For generations to come, that will pay benefits in cleaner air and water and a healthier population.

The demise of the plant will also make available a prime waterfront site for redevelopment. Situated on the Niagara River, across from the southern tip of Grand Island, the 99-year-old power plant makes about the poorest possible use of what may be Western New York’s most valuable asset. Its closure will open possibilities for new riverfront uses, including recreation, residential neighborhoods and commercial uses, assuming the land there can be cleaned to acceptable levels.

The bottom line is that, after some painful period of adjustment, the Town of Tonawanda may have the opportunity to reclaim and reuse land that could be among the region’s most valuable.

Many individuals and organizations will be interested in influencing how the land is reused, but clearly the Niagara River Greenway, formed as part of the 2007 relicensing of the Niagara Power Project, should have a prominent role in planning for use of land on its namesake waterway.

Some formalities remain. The Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s electrical grid, needs to confirm that closure of the plant will not create lapses in the region’s supply. That could take a few months.

In the meantime, a consortium of groups, including the Clean Air Coalition and the Western New York Area Labor Federation, have been diligently working to plan for the change, including how to prepare the laid-off workers for new employment.

It will still be a difficult transition, but the opportunities are significant and the area is going into this period of change with its eyes wide open. It’s about as much as you could hope for.

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