Last month I stumbled upon references to a decompressor station in Oneonta, New York. Firstly, I had no clue what a decompressor station and secondly I was born and raised in Oneonta, New York so I followed up on the story. It is a perfect example of New York State’s emotional rather than rational energy policy.
I was astonished to learn that there is a natural gas load pocket in Oneonta. This small city is located in the western Catskills in Otsego County SW of Albany New York. The natural gas pipeline installed when I was living there in the 1950’s is no longer adequate for all users on the coldest days of the year. As a result the local utility has to curtail natural gas to larger users so that the residential users have adequate supplies to heat their homes. The solution is to compress natural gas elsewhere, truck it to the curtailed facilities, and then decompress it for use.
Mr. Zakrevsky described the decompressor station proposal at the Oneonta Town Board meeting on August 8. He explained that there isn’t enough natural gas for heating on the 30-odd coldest days of the year from the existing pipeline to Otsego County so bigger users have to curtail their use so that homeowners do not have to maintain a backup heating system. Two hospitals, several manufacturers, and a college in Oneonta need energy-dense, constantly available fuel to supplement their natural gas use when that fuel is curtailed. They have considered setting up their own decompressors to replace higher-polluting, less-efficient fuel oil so the Otsego Development Authority submitted a proposal for a grant to explore the possibility of a single centralized decompressor station to provide the necessary natural gas.
The link listed above documents a hearing at the Oneonta Town Board meeting including comments from a crowd of folks who do not want new fossil fuel infrastructure. I did not listen to all the speakers who attended the Town Board meeting to protest the decompressor station because the arguments I did hear all seemed confined to emotional pleas for “cleaner, greener” alternatives. My problem is that I do not believe numbers or history support such alternatives. There were opponents to this project that proudly claimed victory for the permit denial of the Constitution natural gas transmission project nearby that would have provided all the natural gas necessary for everyone in Oneonta. Apparently that natural gas was from Pennsylvania and is fracked so it is evil and must be stopped. I think that all those who opposed the decompressor proposal and opposed the Constitution pipeline should explain how they propose to solve the specific problem of heating the city’s hospital on the coldest days of the year.
I do not think that the decompressor station and compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks is a particularly “good” solution. From a pollution standpoint using natural gas is better than fuel oil so I agree that using natural gas is preferable and my experience with fuel switching is that process also has implementation risks which could cause heating problems so sticking with natural gas rather than switching to fuel oil is better. Clearly moving CNG by truck during the winter is risky and I understand why speakers at the meeting described them as “bomb trucks”. However, the safer solution is to have enough natural gas pipeline infrastructure in place to prevent curtailments. Because that is not available, the proposal to have a central station just off the interstate rather than decompressor stations at each location that faces curtailment requirements reduces transport risk and makes sense. I must point out that the Constitution pipeline would have solved this problem so the folks that claim that preventing that as a “victory” have to accept culpability for what I believe is a worse alternative.
I expect that the opponents will claim renewables can provide the answer to providing heat for the hospital. I would love to see quantitative support for a solution to the need for constant, dense energy for heating the hospital on the days when not having heat would surely exacerbate illness and maybe even cause deaths. Renewables are intermittent and diffuse. What kind of storage solution do they propose for this winter problem when the available solar energy is low and, on the really cold days, when winds are light? Heating the hospital without the need for outside electricity is necessary in case of a power outage – think ice storm. The hospital uses a heating plant with a boiler that provides hot water for heating and hospital use. The problem with renewable electrical energy is that there is no way to provide in-kind replacement for the boiler fuel. In order to provide heat with renewables the whole heating system would have to be replaced, probably with heat pumps. Those systems have their own problems on these cold days. Proponents of renewable energy have to provide a solution and costs to make their case that there is a viable and affordable alternative to the proposal.
When I was growing up in Oneonta during the 1950’s I missed the Delaware & Hudson Railroad steam engine era when there were over a hundred coal-fired locomotives operating out of the city. However, I do remember the excitement when natural gas came to town so that my family no longer had to deal with maintaining our coal-fired furnace fire, dealing with the ashes and having a coal bin in the basement. I am not aware of any records of the air quality in Oneonta when coal was the preferred heating source and the roundhouse had coal-burning locomotives but I am sure that it was poor. Since 1980 statewide average SO2 levels have decreased by 95%. When homes and the railroad were burning coal in the “City of the Hills” the SO2 concentrations must have been a couple of orders of magnitude greater than today’s levels. That improvement was thanks to oil and natural gas replacement of coal.
I think this is a good example of New York’s dysfunctional energy policy. Ultimately the opponents of the decompressor station must rely on emotional arguments because a rational analysis supports the proposal as a reasonable, albeit not “good”, solution to a problem caused by the lack of sufficient pipeline infrastructure. The better solution would be new pipelines to provide the necessary natural gas. The irrational fear of fossil fuel infrastructure in New York is causing poor decisions.