Growing up near Lake Ontario in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the C-130s flying overhead regularly. They disappeared over the horizon near where the Somerset power station’s concrete stack first rose above the landscape. Its exhaust plume became a fixture to our regional environment once it generated its first megawatts of electricity.
As a student in Barker, NY, I benefited from the Somerset plant’s tax base; students were spared no academic or extracurricular expense. After 20 years working globally in the energy industry, I returned to the area recently to assist my parents, learning both of the Somerset plant’s decline as well as a new and much needed economic opportunity presented by the Lighthouse Wind project.
So it came as a surprise when I read US Representative Chris Collins’s claims that proposed wind turbines in Somerset and Yates “present an operational threat” to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station (NFARS).
In fact, thousands of wind turbines already exist, not only within Collins’ arbitrarily-arrived-at 40-mile exclusion zone, but also within the smaller 25-mile zone rejected earlier this year. I was recently working a project in Texas where the state’s grid operator reports regularly of new wind farm production records – now fast approaching that of New York’s total electric system needs. As I left Abilene, a B1-B Bomber lifted off from Dyess Air Force Base. Within a short drive, wind turbines all around were pumping low carbon electricity into the grid, transported to Texas homes and industries hundreds of miles away.
Some opponents to Lighthouse Wind claim, “We have a perfectly good coal power plant already; there is no need for turbines.” However, experts in the energy industry acknowledge the biggest threats to coal are the economics of global energy markets and cheap natural gas in the U.S. At least 5 coal companies declared bankruptcy in 2015/6 and utilities across the country have accelerated their coal station retirements for lower cost and more responsive alternatives. In fact, our northern neighbor, Ontario shuttered its last coal station in 2014, meeting its energy needs with lower carbon nuclear, hydro, wind and natural gas.
As technology advances and new generation capacities increasingly fulfill our energy needs, diversification of our energy generation, such as with wind turbines, natural gas plants or solar energy only increases our homeland security by decreasing needs for energy imports. Rhetoric during the recent Presidential election claimed the coal industry was under threat from renewables and the EPA, and then candidate Donald Trump promised to “make coal great again.” However, not only coal, but also nuclear power’s economic viability is threatened by legacy costs to operate the plants and the lower costs of cheap natural gas. This is a readily acknowledged energy industry fact. One doesn’t need to be skeptical or believe in climate change to see the industry as a whole moving away from coal due to economics alone.
But whether one chooses to deny the credibility of scientific fact, something US Rep. Collins’ statements allude to, there is no question when it comes to our military strategic readiness. The U.S. military has invested billions of taxpayer dollars in contingency planning, speaking in terms of “threat multiplier” and “accelerant of instability”. According to the American Security Project, “Climate change is a national security threat that America’s military [is] taking seriously. The science around climate security is definitive enough for action: the military knows that you cannot have 100% certainty before acting.”
Representative Collins may claim his efforts are to strengthen US homeland security and NFARS. However, his proposal increases uncertainty in the DOD’s global contingency planning efforts while forcing our domestic energy systems to be less resilient. Even promises to “bring back coal” may ring hollow as electric utilities across the U.S. close coal plants, based primarily on economics and evolving needs.
Somerset power plant will close. Its economic stimulus to the region, having largely evaporated already, will disappear altogether. The Towns of Somerset and Yates have the opportunity to bolster much needed economic development with Lighthouse Wind.
Originally published on LinkedIn on December 29, 2016.