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Stony Brook, a clean-energy leader, tied to fossil-fuel plant for power

Stony Brook has a long-term contract with the

Stony Brook has a long-term contract with the plant owner that restricts it from adding other power sources, including green energy such as solar panels. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

As Stony Brook University doubles down on measures to cut its energy use with a $79 million investment, the school has been working behind the scenes to renegotiate a power contract that ties it to a fossil-fuel plant for nearly all its energy needs.

Stony Brook, an acclaimed global leader in clean-energy research and one of the state’s most energy-efficient campuses, has a long-term contract with the plant owner that restricts it from adding other power sources, including green energy such as solar panels, which are nowhere to be seen on the main campus. The contract expires in 2023, and officials say they are working now to find a path to green power, even before that date.

The 45-megawatt plant that powers the main campus is owned by Calpine Corp., a Houston-based energy development company that also owns and operates three plants contracted to the Long Island Power Authority in Bethpage, and others across the country. Calpine operates the campus’ microgrid, which functions independently of the LIPA grid, though the two are connected. Calpine can sell excess power from the plant to the state grid.

The so-called cogeneration plant at Stony Brook, which is chiefly fired by natural gas but can also operate on fuel oil, provides substantially all the main campus’ energy needs, with the exception of peak summer days or maintenance shutdowns when it can connect to the LIPA grid, an official said. Heat from the plant, which has been in service since 1995, is also used on campus.

In response to Newsday questions Monday, the university said it is working to renegotiate the 20-year contract with Calpine, before the 2023 expiration.

Renegotiating the contract is a “major priority this year,” said Kathleen M. Byington, Stony Brook’s senior vice president of finance and administration, adding that it’s been high on her to-do list since taking the job last year.

“In the renegotiation of the contract, we definitely would be looking for access to renewable energy sources,” Byington said. “The university understands — particularly with our research interests here on campus — that renewable energy has to be part of our solutions effort.”

Calpine, in a statement, confirmed it was “in the process of evaluating alternatives, including renewables and storage, and look[s] forward to advancing those discussions to meet SUNY’s needs.”

Meanwhile, Byington said, Calpine is working on a plan to incorporate a large energy-storage battery onto the campus grid, even before the contract expires.

The campus power plant wasn’t mentioned when Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul visited Monday to tout $79 million in additional energy-efficiency upgrades for the university, while highlighting Stony Brook’s leadership in cutting its carbon footprint in the face of climate change. The New York Power Authority and PSEG Long Island have already helped institute some $51 million in efficiency upgrades, including changing out all the school’s lighting systems to efficient LEDs. The school reimburses the state for the NYPA-funded upgrades, which will lead to $6 million in savings a year, officials said.

“Stony Brook is a leading example [of] reducing its carbon footprint and helping in our efforts to combat climate change with energy-saving investments and projects across the state,” Hochul said. Asked later about the power plant and its limitations, Hochul said, “I’ve not heard of that challenge,” but said the school, “naturally,” should have green power on campus. “I have to find out what the barrier is,” she said.

Stony Brook, which last year won a federal award to be the country’s center for offshore wind research and development, is one of the largest local public institutions that haven’t incorporated renewable energy. Brookhaven National Lab has a 32-megawatt solar farm on its Upton campus, and Farmingdale State College has a 94-kilowatt solar car port, 20 electric car charging stations, a solar water heating system and three wind turbines producing 7.8 kilowatts.

Stony Brook’s separate research campus, which gets its power from the LIPA grid rather than the university’s Calpine microgrid, is home to world-class battery storage research at the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center.

While Stony Brook may not be on the cutting edge in getting its power, the university isn’t a completely dissatisfied Calpine customer. The power is cheaper than the LIPA grid, Byington said, and there have been critical times when the campus grid was more reliable, most notably during superstorm Sandy, when power was out for less than 30 minutes.

The plant is “both economical and provides us with far greater reliability than we can get from the [LIPA] grid,” she said. In Sandy’s aftermath, “We were a haven for the rest of the community [because] we had full power access on this campus. People were here charging their phones. We could continue to serve our students and the community around us.”

Byington said that as negotiations move forward toward altering the contract, the plan will be to involve campus energy experts, facilities planners and students to participate in the evolution to green energy.

“Our students, faculty and staff will all be part of the discussions,” she said.

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