Long Island may be getting a new power plant. The big question is whether or not Caithness II is sound planning or the next Shoreham.

The approvals are rolling in – recently Brookhaven’s town board voted 5-2 to approve a special permit to build the 752-megawatt plant next to the existing 350-megawatt Caithness I. Before that, the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency voted unanimously for a $62-million tax-break package for the plan. The Suffolk County Planning Commission gave their blessing as well, noting that the proposal is “in close proximity to supporting infrastructure such as major transportation corridors.”

Caithness II was the product of an August 2010 Request for Proposals for “new electric generating capacity on Long Island.” The second plant is slated to be built next to the first Caithness, which itself was approved and constructed a few years ago. Critics, including members of the New York State delegation and Suffolk County Legislature, have directed their barbs at the proposed facility’s chosen power generation method – a mixture of gas and steam turbines. Legis. Tom Barraga even went as far asking, “Are we building something that’s the Edsel for 2014?” while Assemblyman Steve Englebright  stated, “The proposal before you, if approved, would advance the construction of what appears likely to be the last large fossil-fuel dinosaur built in New York State.”

Residents of the Village of Port Jefferson are wary of Caithness II as well – what will the project mean for their power plant, which helps keep their costs down?

On the other side, proponents of the project are saying the plant is sorely needed to fill a 1,200-megawatt hole that is expected to develop by 2023, and argue for the plant’s ability to modernize the grid. According to Caithness II’s website the project’s specs are impressive:

  • Save an estimated $80 million in fuel when compared to energy produced by Long Island’s older steam plants (based on historical 2009-2011 cost of natural gas of $5.12/million BTU).
  • Reduce overall air-pollution emissions by 95 percent compared to emissions from older baseload units, which translates to a 98-percent reduction of nitrous oxide, a 90-percent reduction of carbon monoxide and the reduction of 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide being released into Long Island’s air shed every year.
  • Help stabilize local property taxes, stimulate job growth and boost economic development.

What does it all mean?

From a planning perspective, we need more data to make a truly informed decision. The Town of Brookhaven seems hungry for the economic development that Caithness II will bring to Yaphank, with the approvals from the municipality being granted with relatively little resistance. As reported by Newsday “ Caithness II, meanwhile, would begin paying millions of dollars into town, county, village and school district coffers through so-called payments in lieu of taxes beginning in the 2016-17 tax year, according to documents filed with the IDA.” The town states that there will be no community benefit package with the proposal, and the only true payment to Brookhaven would be PILOT.

Unfortunately, the usually detailed analysis from the SCPC approval recommendation cited above does not adequately justify the need for a new power plant, or look to quantify Long Island’s future regional energy needs. Why construct a new power plant if we don’t even need the expense and effort in the first place? Further, is the older method of electrical generation the best option in 2014? Will it be cost effective in 2044?

These are all important questions that must be answered by all involved in this process. Long Islanders have a rocky relationship with utilities, and the last thing the already over-taxed public needs is an expensive dinosaur that was unneeded in the first place.

To be completely candid – in researching this piece, I found few arguments in favor of construction of Caithness II, besides those offered by Caithness Energy LLC. I was surprised by the lack of sound, data-backed arguments and metrics that usually accompany such large projects with even larger price tags.

Is it too much to ask to reasonably quantify the region’s energy demands for the next 30 years before making a multimillion (if not billion) dollar investment?