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PSC should approve the conversion of Dunkirk power plant to natural gas

This shouldn’t that a difficult a question. There is an opportunity in Dunkirk to reduce pollution, increase efficiency and lower costs by converting NRG Energy’s power plant to natural gas from coal. It’s a win all the way around, and deserves broad public support.

Judging from Monday night’s public hearing on the plan, that support is both deep and wide within Chautauqua County. But there are critics.

Environmentalists don’t like the idea, fearing it will lead New York State down the road to hydrofracking, the process by which water and chemicals are pumped at high pressure through rock to release natural gas. They fear pollution of aquifers and from unsafe disposal of the fluids used to release the gas.

On the other side, politically speaking, the Business Council of New York State opposes the plan based on the $506 million cost and the already high price of electricity in New York State. Noting the strong regional support for the project, the Business Council seems recently to have softened its position, but says the Public Service Commission, which will decide the project, shouldn’t require ratepayers to be part of the financing mechanism.

Hydrofracking opponents, who can be single-minded, want to use the opportunity and money to push for developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. They say those technologies have improved in recent years, making it unwise to spend so much money to generate power using fossil fuels instead promoting green energy.

Yet, that’s not the proposal at hand, and it’s hard to escape the notion that this has more to do with blocking hydrofracking that it does with promoting wind and solar energy. It would be startling, indeed, if this project opened the door to fracking in New York State, which is still studying that drilling technique.

But it’s important to take a step back. The Dunkirk plant is a polluting nightmare. Coal produces sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. Sulphur dioxide is a toxic, corrosive gas associated with environmental threats including acid rain, a severe problem in parts of New York.

While natural gas, like coal, is also a fossil fuel, it is a much cleaner-burning fuel. It also allows for less costly production of electricity.

Many of the speakers at Monday’s public hearing were worried about another kind of economics: that of their community. The Dunkirk plant employs about 70 people and repowering it may create more jobs. It is also the largest taxpayer in Chautauqua County, the City of Dunkirk and the Dunkirk School District.

That influence may not be the best reason to maintain the plant, but it’s not something to discount, either, especially when maintaining it as NRG proposes will dramatically improve its impact on the environment. Loss of the plant would cost the average Dunkirk homeowner $1,000 per year, according to an estimate from Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown. That’s a massive and unaffordable tax increase.

The country does need to move toward cleaner forms of energy as it can, and perhaps the day will come when solar or wind or some other form of energy can economically replace existing plants.

But for today, this project does move toward cleaner – and cheaper – energy. That’s worth pursuing.