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Orion repowering project delayed by economic woes

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Plans to modernize an Astoria power plant supported by environmental activists will be tabled for a year or more until the project’s financing can be secured at more favorable rates.

Orion Power last year announced its plans to replace the old boilers at its Astoria Generating Facility on the northwestern tip of the borough with new cleaner, high-efficiency, combined-cycle units — a “repowering” project that would increase electric output while decreasing emissions.

But Orion Power was purchased in February by Reliant Energy of Houston, whose executives revealed earlier this month that the Astoria project would be delayed.

“It might be as long as 18 months from now until they go out and begin the real serious capital investment,” said Liam Baker, the on-site manager for the project. “They’re not going to go out and try to borrow the money right now. They’re going to try to wait until the markets turn around and they can borrow the money they need at more favorable rates.”

Baker said the bankruptcy filing by energy giant Enron Corp. has made banks “much less eager to loan money to developers to build power plants.”

Originally expected to open by 2005, the repowered plant may not begin operating until 2007, Baker said.

“Repowering” projects replace the aging technology of existing facilities with cleaner, more efficient forms of energy production, which can boost generating capacity by up to 90 percent.

The facility, which currently has a generating capacity of 1,253 megawatts, would increase its output by to 1,840 megawatts and decrease the pollutants by as much as 75 percent.

The repowered plant would run with natural gas, which is cleaner than oil fuel, and draws in 98 percent less water from the East River, killing fewer fish in the process.

The community, which has long complained that the neighborhood is oversaturated with power plants, has given the project enormous support because it will convert an existing facility into one that is cleaner and more efficient.

Although disappointed by the delay, community activists were still enthusiastic about the benefits of the repowering once it is carried out.

“That much more time it takes to repower is that much more pollution that’s going to be around,” said Tony Gigantiello, the president of CHOKE, an environmental group based in Long Island City that lobbies in favor of repowering projects.

But he said the group will still be “pretty happy” so long as the project is ultimately carried out.

State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) shared Gigantiello’s concerns.

“The longer it is delayed, the longer it’s going to take us to shut down those dirty plants and begin the process of improving our environment locally,” Gianaris said Monday.

Gianaris, who has made the fight against power plant pollution a cornerstone of his tenure, introduced a bill last year that cuts in half the state approval time for proposals to repower old facilities rather than building anew.

Gianaris’ law is expected to speed up the approval of Orion’s application to the New York State Siting Board on Electric Generation. Submitted in December, the proposal should receive a green light by June, Baker said.

The only opposition to the project has come from Con Edison and the New York Power Authority, which share property adjacent to the Orion site. A cooling tower to be built as part of the repowering would release salt particulate from the river water into the air, which both Con Ed and NYPA fear will leave deposits on their substations and other equipment, according to Baker.

“We’re trying to work through that with them,” Baker said.

Once begun, construction will be carried out in two phases — the first is expected take between 18 months and two years, while the second should be completed one year after that.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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