BARKER — It’s taken 20 years, but the day of reckoning is at hand. The last and largest coal-fired electric power plant in New York was shut down forever on March 31st never again to produce the energy that benefitted Niagara County and Empire State businesses, manufacturing and homes. The death of King Coal will likely find politicians and their "green" allies fist bumping, shouting and high-fiving.
Thirty years ago, when carbon dioxide, a metabolic gas exhaled by every living thing, was declared a harmful greenhouse gas by hot-air politicians, the handwriting appeared on the wall.
Sadly, the alternatives to coal are not as “green” as they are purported to be because they cannot produce energy as efficiently as a coal-fired power plant. Renewable energy is not a free lunch, either. Wind and solar have baleful impacts on the land. Lithium and other rare earth minerals in solar storage batteries must be extracted from the earth which, in countries with lax environmental regulations like China, results in severe air and water pollution.
According to New York Independent System Operator, in 2000, coal generated 11% of New York’s energy needs, but by 2019 it was barely 2% — all of it coming from upstate. Over the past 20 years, plants producing 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3 million homes, have been shut down.
All the while from 2005 through 2016, China added 619 gigawatts of new coal power capacity or “one coal plant a week” according to industry source Coal Swarm.
In better times, Somerset Generation Stations’s 675 MW high tech boiler consumed nearly 2 million tons of thermal coal annually and generated a whopping 5.2 million MW, enough energy to power 675,000 homes a year.
Thank liberal Governor Andy Cuomo, Albany politicians and their Big Apple pals like the Sierra Club and wind investors for yanking the plug on this exceptional plant and the concentrated hydrocarbons it once burned.
Coal is a prehistoric gift leftover from the Carboniferous period 359-299 million years ago where the decaying remains of giant ferns, club mosses and reeds once grew. Later, in the Mesozoic era 252-66 (mya) the dinosaurs roamed and still more fern-like plants blanketed the known continents. Extinctions coupled with heat and pressure produced chemical and physical changes in the decaying plant and animal layers, driving out oxygen and forming a carbon-dense concentrated energy.
Abundant coal literally ignited the Industrial Revolution, and later on a high-sulfur grade of bituminous coal fired Somerset’s boiler for four decades.
Early days and better times
In the 1970s New York State Electric and Gas Corp. designed a nuclear power plant for the site where the Somerset plant sits. However, due to the Clarendon-Linden fault line that runs south for 40 miles to Attica, the nuclear plant was scuttled. A virtually bullet-proof coal plant was engineered instead. Construction for Somerset broke ground in 1981.
Built by NYSEG for $950 million in less than three years, and $70 million under budget, including the $60 million, 15-mile rail spur from Lockport to the plant, the massive coal-fired unit began operating in August 1984.
The gargantuan 17-story Babcock & Wilcox reheat boiler contains a five-story interior fireball that operators manage by tweaking coal mill configurations and modifying air flow. The molten fireball is formed by coal pulverized to talcum powder texture and pre-heated before being blown into the “mother of all boilers” as described by veteran Control Room Operator Steve Wojtan.
Originally named Kintigh Station after Al Kintigh, a lead NYSEG engineer, Somerset station was the first plant in New York to be fitted with two massive pollution control devices.
A gigantic electrostatic precipitator removed 99.9% of combustion particles from the gas path, and a flue gas desulfurization (FGD) system or “wet scrubber” removed sulfur. A slurry of pulverized limestone and water is rained onto the flue gas where 90 to 95% sulfur dioxide removal occurs then exits the stack. On cold days, the miles-long, snow-white plume could be seen from counties away.
One of the country’s cleanest plants
Immediately Kintigh/Somerset Station became a regular award-winning state-of-the-art “clean coal” mega-power producer and a special point of pride held by its owners, investors, managers and work force for decades.
Located in the stack outlet, a Continuous Emissions Stack Monitor measured emissions opacity. In the event the monitor failed, two or three plant people were certified annually to be able to visually “read” the stack’s plume to ensure constant compliance with Federal Reference 9 air pollution discharge rules.
Somerset’s chimney is erroneously called a “smoke stack’” by onlookers, a term that harkens back to olden days when combustion byproducts like soot and ash rendered a plume gray or black. On a clear day the 625-foot concrete stack can be seen from Buffalo, 50 miles to the southeast.
In 1999, Arlington-based AES Corp. purchased NYSEG’s coal fleet including the flagship Somerset unit. AES immediately set out to voluntarily add a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) Unit to remove nitrous oxides by 90%. Somerset was the first plant in New York to be retrofitted with an SCR. The $30 million project was the largest and quickest SCR retrofit in the U.S. It was completed 10 months after award of the contract, even before AES took ownership of Somerset on May 14, 1999.
As part of its “good neighbor” policy — recall NYSEG’s catchy 1980s slogan “Good People Good Service” — Somerset Generation Station’s adjacent property inholdings climbed over the years to 1,800 acres of mature woodlot, hedgerows, orchards, farmland and Lake Ontario shoreline that surrounded the plant. These purchases through the years shielded the plant from developmental encroachment and other potential issues from industrial noise and disruptive activity.
As land acquisitions grew, the rural character of the Town of Somerset was subsequently preserved. Good soil, plenty of moisture and a stable climate are valuable assets for the town’s farmers, neighbors and wildlife alike. Local farmers continue to lease some of the acreage for growing market crops such as hay, wheat, corn, cabbage and soybeans. It’s especially healthy for wildlife, birds and raptors, too.
NEXT TIME: The losses from Somerset station's shuttering are inestimable.
Paul Schnell worked in the material handling department at Somerset Generation Station from 1985 until 2015. He is an experienced raptor bander, master falconer and wildlife photographer, writer and educator who traveled throughout New York and neighboring states with Liberty, a female bald eagle, for 26 years to promote conservation and ecological principles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.