Guest Commentary: Proposed energy plan a step backward – Oneonta Daily Star

During the current coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to focus on anything but getting to the end of the crisis. But in many ways, the pandemic foreshadows a worse fate for the planet: what will happen if we fail to turn the page on climate change. Scientists say rising seas, heatwaves, floods, crop losses and displaced populations will all jeopardize our economy, and perhaps society itself. An overheated planet may even give rise to new diseases. So, as we look to near-term economic recovery, it is critical not to rely on the calculus of last century — the short-term, selfish thinking that got us where we are today.

Southern Tier 8 is an eight-county development agency that has hired LaBella Engineering to study energy needs in our region. On March 31, during a poorly advertised public webinar, planners for ST8 and LaBella unveiled their draft report and recommendations. For Otsego County, it included combined-heat-and-power, or CHP, “microgrids” powered by diesel fuel at both the Oneonta Railyard and Pony Farm Business Park.

Unless ST8 and LaBella have no understanding of energy, they must realize that using diesel fuel to create electricity and heat large buildings makes no economic sense. In fact, during their webinar, when asked to identify a similar facility as an example of what they envisioned, Labella’s engineers could not think of a single one. Nobody is buying into diesel for new development — and certainly not for electricity generation. So, we should understand this proposal for what it is: an effort to pressure people into supporting more fracked gas to fuel power plants in the city and town. With Jody Zakrevsky on ST8’s board, this ploy ought to come as no surprise. It’s common knowledge that his group, Otsego Now, has been pushing gas for years — with the Constitution Pipeline, with a bigger DeRuyter pipeline and, most recently, with compressed gas “bomb” trucks.

In reality, Oneonta doesn’t need microgrids powered by either oil or gas. What it needs is a modern electricity infrastructure; something NYSEG has so far failed to provide. By upgrading electric service to both sites, the Railyard and Business Park could receive ample electricity to operate equipment. Furthermore, with commercial geothermal systems, buildings could be efficiently heated and cooled without burning fossil fuels. CHP may have been an improvement decades ago when electricity was generated by coal oil, or simple-cycle gas turbines. We understand now that creating heat year-round — whether it’s needed or not — is a waste of money and fuel.

Although meeting only a fraction of the electricity needs at both sites, photovoltaic solar panels are also included in ST8’s recommendations. Solar is a wise investment for businesses and residents. The ST8 plan is for a microgrid that receives electricity from PV when the sun is shining but relies on fossil fuels burned onsite every minute of every day. It makes more sense to reject the gas power plant, and instead to connect those solar panels to a robust macro-grid to supplement local demand with carbon-free electricity generated elsewhere. Even the proposed microgrid would likely require line upgrades for interconnection, so generating electricity with fossil fuels burned onsite is unnecessary.

ST8’s recommendations undermine Otsego County’s Energy Task Force. They also violate state law that the task force is obliged to respect. The recently enacted Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act mandates that 70% of our electricity come from renewables in less than 10 years and that it be carbon-free within 20. Fossil-fuel power plants last 40 years: building new ones flies in the face of state and local climate objectives.

Finally, we should realize that burning fossil fuel not only puts our planet’s future in peril; it threatens human life today. Like other respiratory diseases, the coronavirus poses the greatest danger to people whose health is already compromised by other factors, including air pollution. ST8’s insensitive proposal to dirty the air in Oneonta where residents are trying to fend off disease could not come at a worse time.

As we tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow — public health, economic prosperity, climate change — one thing is certain: We won’t succeed if we chain ourselves to the near-sighted solutions of last century. Isn’t it time we turned the page?

 Dennis Higgins is a resident of Otego.

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