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Local environmentalists look for clarity in details of upcoming Albany microgrid project

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Local environmentalists look for clarity in details of upcoming Albany microgrid project

In the months before design and construction takes place for the new 16MW microgrid–a locally sourced power grid consisting of two gas turbine generators–to be located in the downtown neighborhood of Sheridan Hollow, community groups are reaching out in search of concrete answers from project planners. Nearby residents are concerned with the state’s investment in fossil fuels and the plant’s potential effect on public health and safety.

Governor Andrew Cuomo officially announced plans to build the facility–estimated to power 90 percent of the 98-acre Empire State Plaza–this past May. Designed and constructed by the New York State Power Authority (NYPA) and Office of General Services (OGS), the power grid would run independently–able to provide power in a city-wide blackout while alleviating dependence on the national grid–and will be part of the governor’s statewide initiative in Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). The initiative serves to provide new energy systems that are more affordable, resilient and environmentally friendly.

The project is expected to be more energy efficient through cogeneration, or combined heat and power production, that will be fueled by natural gas. But it has community members pushing back.

“The era of fossil fuels is over with,” said Mark Dunlea of New York Renews.

Local groups such as People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE) and Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE) have spoken out against the project–which planners have estimated to have at least a 30-year lifespan. Members believe the Cuomo administration is taking a step back by pursuing a project powered by fossil fuels like natural gas, particularly when Cuomo has outlawed fracking within the state.

Additionally, the diesel generators that are currently in use to power the Plaza, will not be done away with.

“It’s not that we’re completely removing the diesel generators it’s that we’re completely replacing and downsizing them,” NYPA spokesman Paul DeMichele told The Alt. The larger 70s-era generators will be removed and replaced with smaller, modern generators, but the same general amount of diesel power will still be in play.

“They want them there just as an ultimate level of security, but they’ll be roughly 90 percent less polluting than the existing ones…With just the diesel generators you can only power a couple of lights and maybe one elevator but if you actually wanted to use this as a shelter for an extended period of time you would need the cogeneration plant,” he said.

The heavy traffic of diesel trailer trucks, which has been an ongoing issue in the South End, was originally addressed in the microgrid project literature as a reduction: “Noise associated with the obsolete emergency diesel generators will no longer exist and tractor-trailer trucks delivering fuel will be reduced,” the project’s FAQ site reads.

However, the microgrid project lead Randy Solomon of NYPA says this is not necessarily the case.

“We can make it smaller,” he said of the number of trucks traveling through the city. “But we’re still in discussion as to how much. Maybe 10 to 20 percent.”

“The diesel would still be needed there as an ultimate precautionary,” DeMichele said.

Community members are also pushing back against the site choice for the incoming microgrid, in the Sheridan Hollow ANSWERS plant (Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System) that was shut down in 1994. The trash-burning incinerator plant was notorious for blackening the snow of lawns with falling ash.

SHARE co-chair and Albany County Legislator Mert Simpson has called the project a “continuation of environmental racism,” in Albany. “We have reason to believe [my family members] have suffered from cancer and other life threatening illnesses as a result of their exposure,” he said, citing the “bomb” train and diesel truck traffic in the South End as an ongoing example in which communities feel overlooked for an economic benefit.

“We are in an era of diminishing resources. We could be well past the tipping point of climate change,” he said. “We don’t need to be deploying resources [and finances] towards fossil fuels.”

“Specifically in Sheridan Hollow, if there is a way that we could have a microgrid that can take away the emissions from the ANSWERS plant, we should work towards that,” Bill Reinhardt said.

The Albany County legislator is also director of Solarize Albany and previously worked in energy efficiency for NYSERDA under then-president and CEO Paul Tonko. It was there that he first heard of the idea of a microgrid.

“I’m not discounting the views of environmental advocates but I like the idea of a microgrid. It allows facilities that can [provide] health and safety benefits to operate when the power grid is down,” Reinhard said. The legislator explained that in a major power outage these benefits can include the refrigeration of medications and food, electricity for those on life support as well as heat and shelter for those in need.

“There is a conflicting public policy in terms of cogeneration. From an energy efficiency standpoint it is a positive step–it’s increasing efficiency and lowering cost. The downside is the use of natural gas, which people–particularly environmental advocates–are trying to reduce.”

Despite his support of the project model, Reinhardt says he would prefer to see renewable energy sources put to use. Solomon told The Alt that in their preliminary study, a staffed panel of environmental experts concluded the use of renewables would be impossible in Albany due to the wattage of power needed to run the plaza.

“Solar would take a considerable amount of land, we estimated 1,000 acres. Geothermal wouldn’t produce the amount of heating we need, we would have to drill hundreds of wells within the city and that’s just not feasible. With wind, there are certain, specific areas where it works. In a city, there are certain safety measures–particularly in winter with ice falling [from turbines,]” he said.

Renewables would serve a different need,” DeMichele said. “If there’s an outage, it won’t replace what’s there. Renewables are used as a supplement.”

Community activists have expressed their frustrations to The Alt about the lack of data provided by the microgrid project management. Dunlea says they are looking for emissions calculations and additional proof that a thorough examination of renewable energy alternatives was carried out.

SHARE recently filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to obtain some background information about the project–such as the Request for Proposal (RFP) report. Simpson says they were denied for “proprietary reasons” and have not yet appealed the request. Supporting literature for the project states that the RFP is still in a temporary “Restricted Period” phase.

This information, along with final calculations on the projected emission level and the DEC’s State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR), says Solomon, will not be available until a winning contracting bidder is awarded in early 2018. The SEQR review will not take place until the spring of 2018.

“The contractor will have to define their equipment [that they will use] and we’ll redo the calculations from there,” Solomon said. That data will then be available to the public.

The community group has also met with NYPA representatives and what Simpson believes to be an accompanying 8-person PR team during two public meetings on Sept. 29 and Oct. 9, as a result of a letter sent by SHARE (and signed by over 100 local organizations and representatives) to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking to discontinue the project.

Reinhardt, as well as community groups and residents, would like to see renewable sources in the project development, however the NYPA has confirmed with The Alt that this will not be taking place.

The power authority is in the middle of a number of renewable energy projects across the state,” DeMichele said, citing the 200 RFP proposals the organization has received since June. “but not every project is applicable. In this project, there are not any renewables involved.”

At the very least, Reinhardt hopes the planners will consider biogas, fuel material from food waste and wastewater treatment plants, for combustion instead of the natural gas. He has also proposed a compensatory effort targeting Sheridan Hollow to make an investment in the community through education initiatives, pollution studies and continued efforts to offset other emission sources in the community–like heavy traffic and heating in commercial and residential buildings. “Can they build a community model of efficiency in Sheridan Hollow?” he asks. “Some strategy to not just say, ‘Sorry guys, the environmental justice issue just doesn’t stack up to the economic, social benefit.”

The community looks forward to more public meetings where they can propose new ideas to the project organizers, who say they are willing to be as transparent as possible as the project moves forward.

“We understand that people are concerned about the trash-burning plant that was in Albany years before and we want to be able to educate the public as much as possible,” DeMichele said.

“They seem to be insisting on what we believe is a falsehood, that we would have to rely on these fossil fuels and that renewables are not a viable solution. We reject both of those propositions,” Simpson said.

Aerial view of microgrid plan courtesy of the NYPA FAQ packet.

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