Group wants data center for Somerset coal plant site

File photoA group of elected officials, union and business leaders are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support a plan to convert the Somerset Operating Co. power plant into a large-scale data hub.  

A group of elected officials, union leaders business advocates from Niagara County are encouraging the state to support the conversion of the Somerset coal plant into what they are describing as a "large-scale data center." 

In announcement issued Wednesday, a group that included state Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North-Tonawanda, state Assemblyman Mike Norris, R-Lockport, as well as representatives from the Niagara County Legislature, the New York Building Trades Union and the Niagara USA Chamber said they will hold a press conference on Friday to discuss in greater detail the plant repurposing effort, which they said could be powered by low-cost power from Niagara Falls. 

Coalition members are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration to support the effort to make the transition a reality in Niagara County.

“As the governor rapidly pushes power plants like Somerset offline – exporting energy and jobs – I believe we should be making every effort to convert preexisting fossil fuel plants into renewable energy facilities," Ortt said. "Not only will this do away with wasteful and redundant spending on the construction of new facilities, but it will also help retain the existing jobs and infrastructure in these communities. We must take care of the workforce that currently exists in these areas, and avoid gutting communities like Somerset simply to achieve headline-grabbing political goals.”

Advocates for the project say a re-purposed Somerset plant would be the major component of the Empire State Data Hub development project, a $650 million private capital investment plan which seeks to close the last two operating coal plants in New York state (the other being the 309 megawatt Cayuga coal plant in Tompkins County) by taking advantage of local site characteristics valued in the data center industry, including a skilled work force, existing electric infrastructure, expansive land and a moderate climate.

Advocates say the overall project would represent a significant economic boon for the upstate-area economy, creating 600 union construction jobs and 200 full-time jobs in aggregate, with average salaries in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, while also creating a stable, increasing revenue model for local governments. For the Buffalo area, advocates say the project at Somerset would constitute a $550 million investment, and create 500 union construction jobs and 160 full-time positions.

“The power plant has been an integral part of Somerset for more than thirty years, generating reliable power, providing good paying jobs and substantial tax revenues to support essential services in our community," said Somerset Supervisor Dan Engert. "The governor shut down this plant but Empire State Data Hub provides a great opportunity to be part of the next chapter for the employees and our community. ESDH provides a transition plan for the property, local investment in New York State, job creation and stabilizes future revenues for the community. It’s the perfect economic development project that Somerset envisioned in our comprehensive plan and LWRP.”

The Empire State Data Hub seeks to retire the last two remaining coal plants in New York ahead of Cuomo’s “no coal” deadline of 2020 while also addressing the governor’s call for a an energy transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy.

Advocates say the plan hinges on transition assistance from two state agencies, The New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the Empire State Development Corp. The plant’s ownership seeks a 125-megawatt allocation of renewable energy from the power authority, the majority of which would come from a program designed to assist businesses, like the 1800-acre Somerset plant, within a 30-mile range of Niagara Falls. The owners are also seeking $65 Million in economic assistance from various state economic assistance programs.

“The time has come to reinvent a major economic staple of Niagara County and bring new 21st century jobs to our community," Norris said. "A data center conversion will offer good paying, sustainable career opportunities for our young people and help curb the exodus of friends and family seeking employment in other states. It will also provide a stable tax base for Somerset and Niagara County and kick start new development and growth for our region.”

Jim Cahill, president of New York Building Trades Union, said union members are prepared to work with the environmental community again to assist in efforts to phase out coal by 2020. He said the union agrees with Cuomo who has said that New York is poised to take advantage of a new Green economy. 

"This project is a great response to his rallying call," Cahill said. 

The proposal has the backing of the Niagara USA Chamber, according to Executive Director Kory Schuler. 

“This project defines smart reuse of an existing structure that also meets the standard of the community's master plan," he said. "It will bolster tax base as well as create hundreds of good paying jobs, all things the State should be behind.”

The Town of Somerset and the Niagara County Legislature plan to consider voting on resolutions that would urge Cuomo and the various state agencies to support the Data Hub at their next meetings, June 12 and 18, respectively.