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NRG plants to move from coal to gas

ALBANY – The owner of two major coal-burning power plants in Western New York that have been the targets of environmentalists for years because of the pollutants they emit are proposing a $715 million project that will allow the plants to run on natural gas.

The plan calls for the Huntley Station in the Town of Tonawanda to have the ability to run on either coal or natural gas, while the Dunkirk plant would be an all-natural-gas facility in several years. The proposals need state approval.

The plans put forth by NRG Energy were among more than 130 proposals submitted to state regulators last month and made public Friday afternoon.

The Huntley plant, located along the Niagara River, could be upgraded as soon as next summer with a $15 million natural gas retrofit.

NRG officials say they can tap into existing natural gas lines within two miles of the facility to add a new fuel to turn its generators. Company officials say the plan will keep existing jobs in place while a "significant" reduction of pollutants will be released into the region's air from the 120-acre site.

The Dunkirk plant, located along Lake Erie 55 miles south of Buffalo, envisions a far more ambitious reconstruction effort costing up to $700 million, permitting the plant to run on natural gas and steam with new technology that officials say also would encourage further wind development in the region. An estimated 500 jobs would be created during the several years it would take to upgrade the plant.

Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner to burn at the plants than coal.

In addition to reducing sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, upgrading the two plants would effectively end concerns about mothballing the facilities. Localities have feared that closing them would cost jobs and property tax revenues and endanger energy reliability in the region.

NRG officials say their proposal is not contingent upon whether the state permits the hydraulic fracturing upstate as a way to extract natural gas from shale.

The NRG plan responds to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's call for companies to propose ways to improve the state's aging power-generation and transmission systems, which have been criticized for reliability and cost. Needed infrastructure upgrades can no longer be ignored, officials say, particularly if upstate communities are to attract companies to locate in a state with high power costs.

NRG, a New Jersey-based company, is revealing its plans for the Dunkirk and Huntley plants in a time of high coal prices and rock-bottom natural gas prices.

Officials warned that if the plants did close – there is already a plan in the works to mothball Dunkirk – the region could be faced with electrical reliability issues.

Environmentalists over the years have accused the Dunkirk and Huntley plants of having some of the dirtiest operations. NRG, though, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to improve emissions at the facilities.

The Dunkirk plant, which the company has been looking to mothball, would be saved and be run on natural gas by 2017, said John Baylor, NRG's director of development for its Northeast region.

The newly redesigned plant would feature a far more efficient system that also captures heat produced by natural gas burning to turn its turbines and then turns that into steam as a further source of energy. The plant's new turbines also would be able to more quickly stop and start than a coal-fired facility – an attraction for future wind development that relies upon a more variable source of power.

"This would actually be a plan where you would actually replace the Dunkirk unit and modernize that particular station and make it a project that operates for the next 20 to 30 years," Baylor said.

He added that the NRG plan seeks to capture the desires of the Cuomo administration to develop a more reliable and cheaper power system with more use of renewable energy forms.

"The projects solve a lot of the problems that we see in Western New York. We think it's a real opportunity for the state to bring forward a project for Western New York," he said.

Among the other ideas unveiled Friday is a plan, previously reported by The Buffalo News, by the state's major utility companies to improve transmission lines that now bottleneck electricity going from upstate producers to power-hungry downstate.

The $2.9 billion project by Transco, the consortium of utilities, would include 18 major transmission projects, mostly along existing rights of way where aging power lines, some still using wooden poles, are located. The plan also envisions the new lines being able to get wind power produced upstate to downstate markets.

Wind power proposals include Iberdrola Renewables, the nation's second-largest wind power company, which submitted a package that calls for up to 130 megawatts being produced in the towns of Randolph and South Valley in Cattaraugus County. The Bond Wind project, as the company calls it, is expected to be completed in 2016; it is now in the initial permitting and land acquisition or leasing phases.

Other submissions included new power plants downstate, a state-of-the-art energy storage facility in Brooklyn developed by City University of New York professors, and a controversial transmission line to get hydropower from Quebec to New York City via a single cable buried under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

Taken as a whole, there would be enough power either generated or with new transmission outlets to make up for the power now produced by Indian Point – a nuclear power plant on the banks of the Hudson River in Westchester County that Cuomo has said he wants closed for safety reasons.

The governor's energy advisers will evaluate the plans in the coming months. Precisely what action the administration will then take are uncertain, though it is likely to embrace some of the proposals as part of what Cuomo envisions as a new "energy highway" for New York.

The proposals came from a range of groups including utility companies, green organizations and financiers.

"The overwhelming response shows there is a strong interest in the energy industry to make sizable and needed investment into our energy infrastructure," Cuomo said in a written statement Friday about the plans that, combined, would result in more than 25,000 megawatts of new power capacity in the state. The state notes one megawatt is enough to power up to 1,000 homes.

"We're pleased that they're looking to invest long-term in the community," Phil Wilcox, business representative of Local 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said of the NRG plan for the Dunkirk and Huntley plants.

Wilcox said that while natural gas plants are not as labor-intensive as coal or nuclear facilities, the NRG proposal "is the best alternative versus a complete retirement" of the facilities.