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The Somerset Operating Co. in Niagara County is where Zimmerman has worked for more than 30 years. It is the last operating coal-fired power plant in New York, and it’s permanently shuttering later this year.

It’s nothing new — he’s known for months now that this was coming. But each day, it gets a little bit harder and a little bit more real.

“You find yourself crying on the way here and the way home,” Zimmerman said. “It’s like going to hospice and watching your ma die.”

A variety of factors prompted the end of the coal era in New York — the regional availability of natural gas, the subsidization of renewable energy, a legislative pivot toward reducing greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.

The workers at the last coal plant understand the circumstances, and they’ve done their best to prepare themselves for a bitter end of a lucrative era.

They’re meeting with financial advisers, calculating how long a 401(k) and a severance package will carry them. The plant manager is finding himself in a spot where he needs people to stay to run the plant, but at the same time gently nudging employees to accept good offers elsewhere.

The employees at this plant — they totaled 52 in mid-January — recognize the changes in the energy industry. But there’s something special about that sprawling, 1,800-acre plant and the people who work in it, they said.

They are sorry to see it go.

“You spend more time with these folks than you do your own family,” said Chris Fox, a senior control room operator and executive board chairman of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 10, the union that represents about 44 of the plant’s employees.

“When I got a job here, I thought I was set until the day I retired,” Fox said. “There’s a great unknown out there.”

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Real-life cost of going coal-free in New York

Mark Zimmerman, a manager and longtime employee of the Somerset Operating Company, stands beside the plant’s pumping station, where water is brought in from Lake Ontario. After more than 30 years of working at the plant, Zimmerman said he plans to stay as long as he can before it permanently closes later this year.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

In 1987, Mark Zimmerman started working at the Somerset plant as a temp — his day-to-day schedule varied, and he did odd jobs as a laborer and as a janitor before becoming a mechanic a couple of years later.

Now, 33 years later, Zimmerman is one of eight managers. Sitting at a table with his hands wrapped around a Styrofoam cup of coffee one Thursday morning in January, his eyes welled up as he tried to verbalize how that climb up the ladder shaped his identity.

“I’m struggling right now, mentally,” he said. “This is half of me. Emotionally, it’s brutal.”

He’s painfully modest when he describes his background, quietly disclosing his perception that the other managers are smarter than him because of four-year degrees and higher IQs and better reading levels.

For his whole life, he said, it had been a pipe dream to reach the top. Working at the Somerset plant, and spending decades proving he had potential to lead, afforded him the opportunity to change his legacy.

“It was a dream I wanted,” Zimmerman said. “I come from a family of second men — men who were always the sergeant, not the captain; the assistant foreman, not the foreman. I said, ‘I want to be the foreman.'”

Brian Gregson, the plant manager, also rose up through the ranks and worked his way to a management-level position. Knowing people like Zimmerman are so deeply affected by the closure is difficult, he said.

“That, to me, is the thing that makes me lose sleep at night,” Gregson said. “That is what I struggle with — the fact there’s people that are being impacted by this.”

The Somerset Operating Company’s generation station in Niagara County is New York state’s last operating coal-fired power plant. As of mid-Janurary, 52 people worked at the plant. It will close permanently later this year.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

In staff meetings, Gregson said he’s always tried to be honest.

He’s firm and direct with employees, and he doesn’t shy away from being painfully truthful about the plant closing.

While the company is still waiting on approval from various state agencies, the closing is expected to be official in March.

But he doesn’t have all the answers, and he tells people that. Trying to pinpoint a particular culprit is impossible, he said.

“The playing field isn’t always level. There’s a number of different reasons that this plant is actually going to close,” he said.

“It’s not just because the governor decided to institute policy. It’s not just because of the market. It’s a combination of things.”

The decommissioning of Somerset is part of a national trend. Between 2010 and early 2019, power companies announced plans to retire about 550 coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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Cuomo’s push to kill coal in New York, and the renewable future

Since taking over the governor’s office in 2011, Andrew Cuomo has been busy redrawing New York’s energy landscape.

And with each new draft, coal fades deeper into the backdrop.

In 2000, coal generated 11% of the state’s energy needs, according to the New York Independent System Operator, hich oversees the energy grid. Last year, it was barely 2%, all of that coming from the upstate region.

Over the past 20 years, some 3,000 megawatts of coal-generated power — enough to power 3 million homes —  has been shut down, the NYISO says.

Between 2007 and 2018, about 55,000 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity has been retired across the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In its place, renewables such as wind and solar are starting to pick up the slack, although not nearly as swiftly as environmentalists had hoped. In New York, natural gas, followed by nuclear and hydroelectric power, generate nearly 90% of the state’s energy needs.

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There are signs that renewables are making inroads.

Last year, wind-generated power, barely a blip on the state’s energy radar in 2000, surpassed coal, generating 4.5% of the state’s energy. Giant wind turbines taller than the Washington Monument are planned for the waters off the coast of Montauk.

And wind farms are sprouting up across upstate New York.

And the state is investing billions of dollars in wind and solar projects as well as large scale energy storage systems for days when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. It’s part of an all-out effort to bring cleaner sources of energy into the mix.

By 2030, Cuomo wants 70% of the state’s electricity needs to be met by renewable sources of power. By 2040, he wants a shift to 100% clean electricity.

Last May, when Cuomo announced regulations that would serve as the death knell for coal-fired plants such as Somerset, he took a not-so-veiled swipe at the Trump administration’s seeming fondness for coal and efforts to revive the industry.

“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,” Cuomo said.

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But the effort has brought its share of pain for local towns who once depended on coal plants for the tax revenue they generated.

In the lower Hudson Valley, the Lovett coal plant in Stony Point shut down in 2008 — a deal brokered by Cuomo when he was attorney general.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day has tried to enlist support for a new use for the plant site, arguing that because the land is zoned for industrial use, it’s already cleared a significant hurdle.

So far, the idea hasn’t attracted any takers.

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Making the decision to close

The Cayuga power plant in Lansing, shown in August 2014. The state Public Service Commission rejected a proposal that would have New York State Electric & Gas Corp. customers pay to refuel the coal-fired facility with natural gas, while also approving the construction of an electric transmission line, and authorizing the sale of the Cayuga and Somerset coal plants to a new owner.
File Photo

What the future will hold for the Somerset plant and its sister coal plant in Lansing, Tompkins County, is uncertain. The Lansing plant paid nearly $1.4 million in taxes a decade ago.

The Lansing plant along Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes closed last year and has been proposed as a potential data center, which could also be the plan for Somerset.

In 2016, New York’s Public Service Commission denied a request to convert the Lansing plant to run on natural gas, which would have been funded by a surcharge on New York State Electric and Gas Corp. ratepayers.

The Somerset plant opened in the early 1980s as a public utility, owned and operated by NYSEG. In 1999, the facility switched hands and became a private entity.

A decade later, in 2011, the plant filed for bankruptcy. And in 2016, Heorot Power under the company Riesling Power LLC purchased the Somerset and Lansing plants.

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At the time, Heorot knew New York was already positioning itself to be a leader in the shift toward renewable energy, said Michael Enright, the company’s managing director.

“It always had been our thesis to work with the state,” Enright said. “From the very beginning, we indicated to the (Cuomo) administration that we wanted to work together on the future of these sites. They had a lot of attributes that we thought were going to be conducive to this energy transition.”

The Somerset Operating Company’s generation station in Niagara County is the last operating coal-fired power plant in New York state. On Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, an illustration of the power plant’s structure hangs on the wall inside of an elevator.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

But Cuomo’s goals to make New York coal-free by 2020 started to take form, and that energy transition has finally arrived.

On Nov. 15, Somerset filed a deactivation notice with the Public Service Commission, formally signaling its intent to cease operations by May 2020.

Though the path toward closing has been clear for Heorot and Somerset’s employees, the push to kill coal in New York is one that Dan Engert, a consultant and former Somerset town supervisor, blames on state policy.

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The Cuomo administration’s efforts to support renewable energy, and in turn snuff out coal, did not take into account the effect on the people working in those plants, Engert said.

“I’m not going to be delicate about it,” Engert said. “I just find that not to be compatible with what the role of government should be — picking winners and losers like that.”

Cuomo has been steadfast in addressing climate change, and he has been lauded by environmental groups.

In his budget address last week, the Democratic governor proposed a $33 billion clean-energy initiative over five years that includes a $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act for voters to decide in November.

“This climate change is no longer a political football — well, I’m a Democrat, well, I’m a Republican — they are facts and they are inarguable facts,” he said.

“You look at the temperature rising; it is frightening. New York has to be the state that stands up and says once and for all, ‘We have to do more and we have to do it faster.'”

The Somerset plant ran at 6% capacity for a total of 44 days in 2019. Despite limited run days, the plant is open all year and keeps people in Somerset and the surrounding areas employed year round.

“The impact in terms of climate change is not even measurable,” Engert said. “But the impact it had on our two communities? He doesn’t talk about the two communities.”

To replace the Somerset plant’s 685-megawatt generation capacity, the fields of solar arrays or wind turbines would likely exceed the plant’s current footprint, he said.

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What’s next for Somerset?

Brett Winners, a control room operator at the Somerset Generation Station, speaks on the phone on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. The Somerset Operating Company’s coal-fired power plant is the last one remaining in New York state, and will close permanently later this year.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

From the time Heorot purchased the Somerset and Cayuga plants, there has always been a plan in place to utilize the space even after the decommissioning process, Enright said.

While the details are still in flux, Enright said the current hope is to also convert the Somerset plant into a data center. Data processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence — they require massive amounts of energy and massive amounts of space, both of which Somerset has, he said.

Aside from the data center, Heorot is also looking at the possibility of transitioning Somerset’s acreage toward renewable energy.

“There’s the very aggressive goals for renewable energy in New York,” Enright said. “Places like Somerset are very conducive to renewable — it is an easier place to permit and develop a renewable site.”

DENIED: Cayuga power plant retrofit

For the plant’s current employees, there’s no confirmation yet that they’ll be able to take on jobs at whatever the plant reincarnates as. Depending on that outcome, both Enright and Gregson, the plant manager, said they’d be happy to help facilitate that transition.

On Jan. 16, managers confirmed they’d need to get the plant up and going again for a limited run in the coming weeks to help with peak energy usage during this winter.

It is possibly, and likely, the last time.

The excitement over firing up the plant again was palpable

Despite having so few employees, everyone seemed to know exactly what they needed to do.

Standing in the bright blue control room, Chris Fox watched as Brett Winners, another control room operator, paced around the room.

Winners looked at different screens, instantly deciphering information from images and numbers that’d be impossible for almost anyone else to understand.

He paced around the room, picking up the phone every few minutes to bark a command or to answer a question someone else, somewhere else in the massive plant had asked.

Every few minutes he’d stop, standing with his feet spread wide and arms crossed over his chest as he scanned the array in front of him. Lights blinked on and off. A red, digital clock ticked. Then the moment would pass, and he was on the move again.

Standing off to the side, leaning against a countertop on one end of the room, Fox let a soft smile spread across his face.

“This plant will amaze you,” Fox said, tipping his chin toward the array of monitors.

“This plant was built to run, and that’s what’s so sad about this closing. She wants to run.”