Coal-fired Electric Power — On the Way Out in New York State

By Ellen Cardone Banks, Chapter Conservation Chair
(Originally published in the Sierra Club Niagara Group's Trailblazer newsletter)
After years of organizing and strategizing by the National Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, its New York team, local Sierra Club volunteers and coalition allies, Governor Cuomo announced on May 9, 2019 that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has adopted final regulations to require all power plants in New York to meet new emission limits for carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The regulations, a first-in-the-nation approach to regulating carbon emissions, will end the use of coal in New York State power plants by the end of 2020.

Governor Cuomo said, “As our federal government continues to support the dying fossil fuel industry, deny climate change and roll back environmental protections, New York is leading the nation with bold climate action to protect our planet and our communities. With the adoption of these final regulations, we are taking yet another step toward a cleaner, greener, long-term energy solution to safeguard the environment for generations to come.”

Instead of directly banning coal-fired power plants, the new air quality regulations would permit coal plants to operate only with a level of emission-capture technology that would be overwhelmingly expensive for plants that have recently been operating at very low capacity. These regulations could be a model for other states, such as Ohio, that still get much of their power from coal. Their emissions add to climate change, and not only harm their local areas but are carried to New York State on the wind, bearing soot, mercury and other toxins, harming our land, water and health.

Nationally, the Beyond Coal Campaign reports that 281 dirty coal plants have been retired in the USA since the campaign began, with 249 still operating. In Buffalo, our skies are cleaner and asthma rates have declined after the Huntley plant in Tonawanda closed in 2016. The Somerset plant on the Lake Ontario shore and the Cayuga coal plant in Lansing are nearly dormant, operating at about 15% capacity.

Plans were considered to re-fire both plants with fracked gas, but in May the Somerset plant owner announced that its site will be transformed into a 250-megawatt data center powered by solar energy, while the Cayuga site is expected to host a 100-megawatt solar-powered data center. Both new projects will bring jobs and tax revenue to their communities.

We are relatively fortunate in New York State that coal-fired power will end soon, and that gas hydrofracking is prohibited, but the work is far from done. Besides receiving coal emissions from the west, we still burn fracked gas from Pennsylvania, and gas companies are still trying to add new pipelines for export and build more pipelines to bring gas to rural areas that would be better served by clean, renewable, geothermal heating. Meanwhile, pipelines continue to leak and explode, and frack waste pollutes our waterways. There are no state lines in the sky and the rivers. We will not be safe from the worst effects of climate change and pollution until dirty fossil fuels are left in the ground everywhere.