Ulster power plant opponents gather for barbecue

Lawn signs stand at the ready. (Photos by Phyllis McCabe)

Opponents of a proposed power plant in the Town of Ulster aren’t waiting around for the results of the developer’s environmental review. Billed as a community forum and barbecue, “Living in the ‘G’ Zone’” was held on Friday, August 10 at the pavilion in Robert Post Park.

Presented by local advocacy groups KingstonCitizens.org and TownOfUlsterCitizens.org, the forum included opening remarks from Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, and presentations by energy analyst and economist Evelyn Wright of Citizens for Local Power, and Hayley Carlock, Scenic Hudson’s environmental advocacy director.

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“This is what a community is all about, coming together, learning collectively, and having your voices be heard,” said Hein, who has openly opposed the Lincoln Park Grid Support Center for months.

The GlidePath-run power plant, which would run on natural gas and feed power into a 20-megawatt lithium ion battery array, would operate on a small parcel of a 121-acre site off Frank Sottile Boulevard. It’s intended to be a “peaker” plant, which would fire up at times of peak electricity use to feed electricity into the greater grid.

The Town of Ulster is serving as lead agency on the project, with developers currently preparing a draft environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to respond to question by municipal leaders and members of the public. That document is expected to be completed by the end of the year, but opponents have already made their minds up about the project and are hoping to convince town officials it’s not a good fit for the community.

In a letter dated Aug. 13 sent to Town Supervisor James Quigley III, a coalition of advocacy groups asked that officials address questions about the clarity of town zoning code as it relates to regulation of gas-fired power plants. The proposed plant would be built in the Town’s Office and Manufacturing (OM) District, which developers read as allowing for “utility company structures” like the Lincoln Park Grid Support Center.

“Our interpretation of the Town’s Zoning Code differs, and we do not read the Code

to permit gas-fired power plants as-of-right within any zone in the Town,” reads the letter. “We ask the Town Board and Building Department to clarify whether the Code regulates gas-fired power plants such as the Lincoln Park Grid Support Center, and if so, whether such power plants are permitted as-of-right in the OM District.”

Carlock said the Town’s Zoning Code is too vague.

“What is a utility company structure? There is no definition in the zoning code, unfortunately,” she said, adding that GlidePath is unlike “service retail companies” like Central Hudson, Verizon or AT&T in that they don’t provide a direct service to the community. “[GlidePath is] a company that is simply selling wholesale power onto the grid.”

Carlock also said the town’s zoning code is vague as it relates to what is permissible in most other zones within Ulster.

“Within the Town of Ulster zoning code, these utility company structures are permitted in every single zone within the town with the sole exception of the traditional neighborhood design overlay district,” Carlock said. “In the most restrictive residential zone within the town, you could build one of these power plants if they were considered to be utility company structures. And we think that’s absurd. That couldn’t possibly have been what the town meant when they said ‘utility company structures.’ They couldn’t possibly have thought that power plants would be appropriate for even the most restrictive residential zones in the town.”

Contacted this week, Supervisor Quigley declined to comment on Friday’s event, and noted the topic is not currently on the agenda for the next town board meeting.

Opponents of the proposed plant are hoping the town will adopt a similarly thoughtful approach to questions about plants like they did last year when they considered how best to regulate ground-mounted solar energy facilities.

“Solar facilities are not currently regulated by the town’s zoning code,” Carlock said. “Therefore, the town does not consider commercial solar facilities to be utility company structures, and it should interpret fossil-fuel power plants the same way.”

Carlock added that although a comprehensive plan prepared by the town in 2007 was never adopted, existing zoning should be interpreted consistently within that plan. As such, the recommendation of the adoption of a Ridge Protection Overlay District that encompasses the proposed Lincoln Park site to preserve natural resources and scenic vistas should be respected.

Wright said the GlidePath project might face less opposition if they’d consider amending their plans to include fossil fuels. “We don’t have a problem with the battery part,” Wright said. “That makes a lot of sense to me. We have a problem with the gas plant part of it. So one of the questions is how fast are things changing in the battery landscape to get them to do a battery-only project?”

According to GlidePath, those changes aren’t happening quickly enough. But Wright said the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the sole operator of the state’s power grid, will have new federal battery regulations in place by late 2019 or early 2020. She added that the developer’s haste in getting ahead of the new regulations may be due to a variety of factors, including the relatively inexpensive land when compared to property further downstate. It also helps, she said, that the air in the Hudson Valley is cleaner than it is closer to New York City.

“It’s easier to get an air permit up here where our air is cleaner,” Wright said. “When you go to apply for a state [Department of Environmental Conservation] air permit, which you have to do anytime you’re going to create a new combustion source, you get classified as either minor or major. Major sources have more complex permitting requirements and ongoing reporting requirements, and are federally enforceable. The thresholds for being classified as minor or major are different if you’re in an area that’s got clean air.”

The Hudson Valley is marked by NYISO as the G-Zone, one of the closest zones to New York City.

“To refer to it as the G-Zone probably isn’t correct,” Hein said. “We should refer to it as the bulls-eye. Because that’s what it is. It was created with an idea that we didn’t matter. It’s just those people in upstate New York. They don’t count. It is unbelievably disrespectful.”

County Executive Mike Hein speaks at the August 10 event.

Hein said the county’s continued push to become more environmentally responsible is in jeopardy with projects like the Lincoln Park Grid Support Center.

“When I hear about things like the GlidePath project, I get extraordinarily frustrated,” he said. “It’s more than just the fact that it’s environmentally wrong. And it is. It’s that it is perpetuating a fossil-fuel economy that is unsustainable. It doesn’t work. Worse yet, it pays an enormous amount of disrespect to the people who live nearby. If you live in this neighborhood you’re saying to yourself, ‘How can this be?’ Is any of this energy going to help you? No. Are your bills going to go down as a direct result? No.”

Hein added that while he opposes the GlidePath project, he isn’t against growth in either the town or county of Ulster. 

“I am not opposed to development,” Hein said. “Smart, thoughtful development in the community is critical for its growth. Key word: Sustainable. Key word: Thoughtful. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Blocking this is not just blocking a single project that might not be good for our community. Pushing back here is about understanding that it might not be the only one.”

After the developer submits its DEIS, the town has to approve it as complete and ready for public review. It will then undergo a minimum of 30 days of public comment. Opponents of the Lincoln Park Grid Support Center in its current incarnation are hoping the developer will change course by then.

“I’d like to think that there’s a chance that they’re going to look at this and say, ‘This is not working, let’s come up with something that will,’” said Wright. “I hope that if we keep putting the pressure on they’ll get to that point.”

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