By Ted Skerpon
In the fall of 2011, the Utility Labor Council of the state International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers initiated a call to action regarding the need to invest in the state’s transmission system, as numerous reports and studies detailed both safety and reliability threats for customers suffering from billions of dollars in “congestion fees.”
The urgency was realized by the IBEW as awareness set in that the state was looking to support a 1,000-megawatt extension cord from Quebec to New York City to accommodate an ever-growing power demand, while upstate power generators were feeling the pinch from low natural gas prices and “transmission congestion” bottlenecks. AES, owners of two upstate power plants, went bankrupt, and special labor contracts were reached in efforts to make the NRG Huntley and Dunkirk power plants more competitive.
Leadership emerged out of Albany as Gov. Andrew Cuomo created an Energy Highway Task Force. An Energy Highway Blueprint was rolled out in 2012, including support for renewable energy, dedicated investment into the aforementioned electric transmission system and other critical energy items.
The transmission investment has faced one delay after another. The initial delay was to accommodate a small but vocal group within the Hudson Valley that wanted neither traditional generation nor transmission investment – even if it remained within existing transmission rights of way. The groups there wanted local wind and solar and nothing else.
The delay resulted in a new “capacity zone” rate increase, affirming that something had to give in a region that had faced blackout scenarios repeatedly; if transmission projects were not moving, then the capacity zone rate increase would stimulate local power generation. The generation that emerged to satisfy critical load demand was resurrecting a scrapped coal plant to operate on natural gas, rather than wind or solar. The opponents of transmission investment achieved a rate increase for their region.
The delays and continued financial challenges for upstate power generators finally raised the white flag from NRG, as the recent announcement of plans to shutter both the Huntley and Dunkirk power plants.
Without transmission investment, it is impossible for the state to reach energy objectives and ambitious new emission reduction targets. Further, retired power generators will very likely be replaced by power imports from places like Pennsylvania and a grid with a high density of coal burners. And a dangerous over-reliance on natural gas for both heating and electric generation will prove unwise.
We call again on state leaders to end delays on transmission and advance sound energy policies.
Ted Skerpon is president and business manager for IBEW Local 97.