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Somerset power plant workers could still lose jobs if data center is built

It may not be possible for Beowulf Energy to retain all of the employees at its Somerset power plant if the company succeeds in converting it into a data center, a company executive said Friday.

Some of the power plant's electrical jobs don't have counterparts at a data center, said Michael Enright, the managing director of Beowulf.

About 60 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are employed at the largely dormant coal-burning plant. Beowulf is trying to win state incentives to construct a large data center on the property on the shore of Lake Ontario.

"There will be a need for some of the IBEW workers to continue with environmental deactivation issues that would be around the plant," Enright said. "We don't know exactly what that number is, but it won't be the entire roster of our IBEW employees. "We are going to work very hard to try to find new employment for any employee that wants to stay with the new business."

The $550 million conversion project won't happen without state aid, he said. The company wants 125 megawatts of hydropower from the Niagara Power Project to operate the facility and $65 million in cash from Empire State Development and other state agencies.

"I think one of the reasons some of the (clients) we're talking to are attracted to this site is that they know that there are qualified employees locally, and I think they think of the IBEW members as potential skilled workers they could train and have part of this as well," Enright said.

Beowulf, a New York City company, hopes to carry out a similar conversion at its coal-burning power plant in Tompkins County.

Enright said the data center would be built on what is now unused land at the 1,800-acre Somerset site rather than converting the current buildings to that use. A Beowulf affiliate is about to open a data center on a power plant site in Montana, he said.

At a news conference Friday, local politicians and union leaders urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to support it. They blamed state anti-coal regulations for practically forcing the plant out of business.

"We fought a very valiant and honorable fight against the anti-coal movement. We've lost," said John Syracuse, the Niagara County legislator representing Somerset. "But we're here pleading with the governor: Select this site. Select this project."

Pamela Atwater, the president of Save Ontario Shores, the citizen group that has been fighting Apex Clean Energy's Lighthouse Wind project for four years, was at the news conference with about 25 supporters.

She said the data center project is far preferable, not least because it would create an estimated 160 full-time jobs, but also for environmental reasons.

"We're talking one location, one-story buildings, versus 12 to 14 miles of 600- to 700-foot-tall industrial wind turbines that would have more of an impact visually," Atwater said.

"In our view this represents the appropriate economic development project," Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said.

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