A Fine Mess
“When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.” – William Hazlitt
The Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York is home to 11 spectacular lakes that run roughly north-south. Situated below Lake Ontario and formed by the movement of glaciers approximately two million years ago, these long and narrow lakes are characterized by stunning natural beauty, extreme water depths, and terrific trout fishing.
Given their historical, cultural, and ecological significance, preservation of the Finger Lakes is understandably a high priority for environmental groups and regional residents alike. Both the Marcellus and Utica Shales encompass much of the region, and protection of the Finger Lakes was one of the motivating factors behind the State of New York’s decision to ban fracking altogether (initially accomplished by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order in 2015 and codified into law by the state assembly in 2020).
On the western shore of Seneca Lake in the town of Dresden sits an 85-year-old power plant. The facility produced electricity by burning coal from 1937 until 2011 when it was mothballed due to a variety of economic considerations. In 2014, the plant was purchased by affiliates of Atlas Holdings LLC, a private equity firm that specializes in resuscitating distressed industrial facilities. The Greenidge Generation Station was retrofitted to burn natural gas instead of coal, and 107 megawatts of electricity production came back online in 2017. It has been running reliably ever since.
While the fate of a relatively small power plant would not normally warrant much attention, the Greenidge Generating Station is at the center of an amazing confluence of events that reveal an incredible amount about the state of the US economy, its politics, the stability of its grid, and its ability to implement renewable energy at scale in the decades ahead. It’s a story of a reverse merger into a publicly listed shell company, a pivot to bitcoin mining at the peak of the crypto bubble, a scuppered solution to the intermittency issues facing power grids as new renewable energy projects are brought online, and of a company ill-prepared for the full onslaught of the radical environmentalist movement that is driving it toward a possible bankruptcy filing. Let’s dig in.