The Push To Turn NYC’s Polluting Peaker Plants Into Publicly-Owned Solar Power

A soccer game next to the Ravenswood Generating Station last Fall. CLARISA DIAZ, GOTHAMIST/WNYC

By Clarisa Diaz (Gothamist). John Upton (Climate Central) contributed reporting.

Looming over a playground in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Queens stands the enormous Ravenswood Generating Station, the 23rd largest power plant in the country. Its functions are to operate as a fossil fueled peaker plant, providing an extra surge of electricity during ‘peak times’ of high energy demand, such as when everyone turns on their air-conditioning during a heatwave.

While peaker plants were originally intended to only be used once or twice a year, they now run in New York City on a more regular basis to meet the city’s growing energy demands, particularly in the evening when more lights and devices are turned on. If one spends some time by a peaker plant they may feel a little nauseous. They may feel worse if they reside near one.

It’s one reason why there’s a push to eliminate them, and rethink how the city approaches energy sources. During a pandemic summer, when more people will be indoors using their air-conditioners, the city could be in for even more devastating impacts on the communities where peaker plants are located.

The Problem With Peakers

Respiratory illness in Western Queens is rampant, notably in Long Island City and Astoria, which have higher than average asthma rates when compared with the rest of the borough. “This is our own version of Asthma Alley and these power plants are, I believe, a huge part of that,” said New York City Council Member Costa Constantindes, whose district includes Astoria, East Elmhurst, Long Island City, Woodside. He chairs the council’s Committee on Environmental Protection.

According to the New York Public Service Commission, peaker plants around the city emit twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than regular power plants and 20 times as much nitrogen oxides—responsible for high rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma, heart disease, and cancer. In the Mott Haven and Melrose sections of the Bronx, which are surrounded by peaker plants, the asthma emergency room visit rate among children ages 5 to 17 is nearly triple the citywide rate.

“You don’t want to be here for long, the air does not feel healthy,” said Mychal Johnson, co-founder of the advocacy group South Bronx Unite. Johnson describes the maritime industrial area in the borough, stretching from Port Morris to Hunts Point, as a “toxic soup” of environmental hazards including peaker plants, waste transfer stations, and thousands of diesel trucks that drive in and out of his neighborhood daily, issues that have run rampant in the Bronx for decades.

Mychal Johnson of South Bronx Unite near one of the peaker plants in Port Morris by his Mott Haven home. CLARISA DIAZ, GOTHAMIST/WNYC

The impact of peaker plants on air quality, and contributing to respiratory illness, has left residents of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn living in the vicinity of these plants more susceptible to COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted people of color in low-income areas. Living with long-term air pollution is deemed “a threat multiplier,” drastically impacting health outcomes, which also point to the disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19.

“We've seen a clear line drawn between our continued reliance on peaker plants and the devastation COVID-19 has brought to over-polluted communities,” said Constantinides. “This is only going to get worse this summer, as the energy burden gets shifted from office buildings to homes. In turn, we'll breathe more toxins at a time when our respiratory systems are at greater risk, especially in Black and brown communities.”

“We've seen a clear line drawn between our continued reliance on peaker plants and the devastation COVID-19 has brought to over-polluted communities,” said Constantinides. “This is only going to get worse this summer, as the energy burden gets shifted from office buildings to homes. In turn, we'll breathe more toxins at a time when our respiratory systems are at greater risk, especially in Black and brown communities.”

There are 16 operating peaker plants in New York City that fit into the New York Power Authority’s market and send their energy to the city’s power grid, which is distributed according to demand across the city by companies like Con Edison and National Grid. Almost all of these peaker plants are located in low-lying, industrial flood zones abutting low-income communities and communities of color. With climate change contributing to more destructive storms and storm surges in low-lying areas, peakers can be compromised, offering less of an incentive for them to be built there.

Many of the operating peaker plants in New York City became operational in the early 2000s, under the state’s PowerNow! Project, which was not subject to an environmental review. State energy officials predicted greater demand for electricity in the coming years and sought to prevent the kind of blackouts that California had endured then. This was caused largely by companies such as Enron, which deliberately shut off its plants during peak times in California as a way of artificially inflating their prices.

NYPA led the charge, launching what they called a “crash program” in late August 2000 to install the extra peakers, in response to warnings from officials in the public and private sectors. At the time Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the city was facing “a real emergency,” justifying the construction of peakers.

But PowerNow! peaker plants were intended to be “temporary,” a quick fix while a longer-term solution was found, and therefore did not require consultation or environmental review. What was supposed to be two to three years of occasional usage has turned into almost 20 years of permanent infrastructure that spews shockingly high levels of pollution.

CLARISA DIAZ, GOTHAMIST/WNYC

“We think that now is the time when they really don't have to be running anymore. Because of awareness of the climate crisis as well as developments in technology and alternative technologies that can be used to replace them,” said Rachel Spector, director of the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Sustainable solutions may include not just providing enough supply, but also reducing demand. According to Spector, there can be pricing incentives that are built into the system to encourage people to not use so much electricity at peak times. “It's not just a supply issue, it's also a demand issue,” explained Spector. “There doesn't have to be this huge spike in electricity demand at peak times. There can be pricing incentives that are built into the system to encourage people to not use so much electricity at peak times. Energy efficiency upgrades can significantly reduce demand on the system.”

Spector estimates that the New Yorkers most affected by pollution from peakers are not necessarily the customers demanding the extra power. “The people who are facing the most risk and harm from fossil fuel emissions are not the ones that are using the resources. It's not like people in low-income communities and in NYCHA [public housing] are coming home and turning on their air conditioners. A lot of them don't even have air conditioners,” said Spector. This summer 22,000 air conditioners will be given to seniors in NYCHA housing, though there are more than 400,000 residents in NYCHA housing in the city.

Residents of the South Bronx, Western Queens, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn have suffered the most from the siting of the city’s peaker plants. “The carcinogens in our air are directly correlated to heart disease, respiratory illness, and cancer. And the top three causes of premature death in Hunts Point are heart disease, respiratory illness, and cancer. So you start to really see the direct effects of polluting infrastructure like peaker plants,” said Fernando Ortiz, climate preparedness and resiliency organizer at The Point CDC, a non-profit based in the Bronx.

Industrial zoning and bordering expressways—such as the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, which is bound by the Bruckner Expressway and regularly sees truck traffic—already created environmental hazards resulting in health problems for residents; pollution from peakers adds insult to injury.

These days, the communities affected most by peaker plants intend to forge the way for New York City’s energy future. “We want to not just advocate for alternative energy sources,” said Ortiz. “We also want to own it.”

What Will Replace Peakers?

The Point CDC is currently conducting a feasibility study for a new project called Hunts Point Community Solar. Organizers hope to utilize warehouse roofs to install solar panels that can be owned and maintained by community members of the South Bronx. “We have all these industrial sites that have historically created issues—environmental and social issues—for the community. And there's now a potential opportunity to remediate some of those past issues,” explained Ortiz. “Give us access to your roof; let's have a more equitable energy system. Let's feed back into the community that you are part of.”

Solar panels on the roof of The Point in the South Bronx. CLARISA DIAZ, GOTHAMIST/WNYC

Solar panels paired with battery storage is increasingly becoming a method for renewable energy across the country.

“A number of studies have shown that batteries are cost competitive. Prices are dropping significantly every year,” said Seth Mullendore, vice president and project director of the Vermont Clean Energy Group. “There are no NOx or particulates being emitted from batteries. So they're better for local populations and they can be distributed pretty easily. You can put them in buildings, you can put them on small plots of land and they take up a lot less space than a power plant.”

Unlike peaker plants that have to be fired up to turn on, batteries are quicker to respond as backup energy.

The downsides to battery storage? Safety and fire risk—batteries catching fire from thermal runaway in high density spaces is a concern—though there are preventative measures that can be taken; like not over-charging the batteries, proper storage, and disposal of a battery after the expiration date or when the battery is no longer functioning properly.

Lithium ion batteries are also not environmentally friendly to produce and there is currently no recycling infrastructure for them. However, as batteries for electric cars start to retire, that could change. The lifespan of a standard battery is 5,000-10,000 charging cycles, each charge running for a limited time of four hours; with industry innovation, newer batteries are now able to run for 8-10 hours at a time.

In July 2019, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) put out a study identifying peaker plants in the state that could be replaced with battery storage, and Ravenswood was identified as a candidate to phase the peaker plant into an 8-hour battery storage facility that can power 250,000 homes.

Most of the Ravenswood transition aims to be completed by March 2021, and this transformation is considered a new sustainable model for the city to transition other peaker plants to zero emissions. The Ravenswood battery will be the largest battery-run plant in the state, considered the first of its kind in the region, and falls in line with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal goals of 1,500 MW of storage in New York by 2025 and 3,000 MW of storage by 2030. The state recently finalized new pollution restrictions that would drive the most polluting plants into retirement.

The Ravenswood Generating Station next to a city park and playground in Queensbridge. CLARISA DIAZ, GOTHAMIST/WNYC

Still, batteries are only as environmentally friendly as the sources of the power that recharge them. The Ravenswood battery would still be charged in part by existing fossil fuel infrastructure. “It's a good step in the right direction, but we would rather see them fill those batteries with renewables than just using off-peak hour fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Constantinides. “It's not the complete win that we could have.”

According to Constantinides, New York City needs a true public utility. “Con Edison and National Grid have demonstrated who they are. They're for-profit companies that masquerade as public utilities,” Constantinides described. “They're giving us service that has been poor. We need a public utility to take over.”

New Yorkers are all too familiar with Con Edison’s failures, including a blackout last summer. “I’d rather have someone that’s accountable to the people of the city of New York. We’ve had two hearings; Con Edison walked away saying how they want to work with us. But I’ve seen no real substantive changes in their operating procedures,” said Constantinides.

Keeping peaker plants operating has come at the expense of all electricity-paying New York City residents. According to a newly released report by PEAK Coalition, about $4.5 billion in capacity payments have been paid to owners of both public and private peaker plants between 2010 and 2019, ultimately at the expense of New York City electricity customers. The analysis by PEAK Coalition also estimates that the three private owners (ArcLight Capital, NRG, and LS Power) have likely collected over $3.9 billion in capacity payment revenue over the last ten years.

Along with financial costs, the social costs of peakers are not accounted for. The cost-benefit analysis of switching to solar and storage extends beyond the dollar-for-dollar cost of installation. “We’re paying a really heavy price when a kid shows up at the emergency room and is struggling to breathe,” explained Constantinides. “There needs to be more of a recognition of the seriousness of the times that we’re in and the political will to push us forward.”

He calls for more transformative policy, embodied in his Renewable Rikers Act legislation, which would convert the uninhabitable ‘house of horrors’ into a renewable island of solar arrays and a water treatment facility. “We can change what Rikers Island means to this city—a place for opportunity, that people can look to and say that’s the beginning of our green revolution,” said Constantinides.

Sustainable CUNY and the Center for Urban Environmental Reform are some groups working with Constantindes to study the feasibility of the capacity of Rikers Island to replace all of the city’s grid-feeding peaker plants. “Our legislation would do a much deeper energy study to see how much energy we could get,” explained Constantinides, The study would focus on multiple energy options including how much energy could be produced if wind power is added to the solar/battery mix.

Exploring a Cooperative Model

Starting a municipally-owned, public power utility is currently happening in other parts of the country. Austin, Texas has a robust community solar program and public power utility, as does Salt Lake City, Utah with Rocky Mountain Power Authority. It’s a lengthy process particularly if the shift is from investor-owned or monopoly utilities. “Sometimes it takes five years if a utility is willing to sell; 10 years average,” explained Ursula Schryver, vice president of education and customer programs at the American Public Power Association (APPA).

“It definitely requires commitment of the community. And I think the larger the utility, there will be even more resistance to let customers go.” As an example, Boulder, Colorado has been trying to get out from their investor-owned utility Xcel Energy for the past 10 years.

But Salt Lake City took a different approach. “We don’t have the funds to buy them out,” said Vicki Bennett, sustainability director for Salt Lake City on Rocky Mountain Power Authority. “It really came down to how could we partner with Rocky Mountain Power? Look at some sort of way that we could move forward in good faith with them, understanding how they make money and how they could still be part of the picture, yet meet our renewable energy goals.”

Salt Lake City didn’t go it alone, but joined with other cities and towns in the state that wanted to participate to write joint legislation between community partners and the power authority.

“We did have both an employee and consultant/attorney that were really familiar with the local regulatory environment, so Rocky Mountain Power knew that we understood the options. They couldn’t try and make things sound easier or harder than they really were,” said Bennett.

Based on how many committed communities are interested (by passing a resolution to have 100% net renewable energy by 2030), Rocky Mountain Power caters their energy infrastructure to customer demand, only in the renewable forms they accept.

“Any customer in Salt Lake that doesn't want to be part of this will have to have the opportunity to opt out, which is fair,” Bennett said. “We've got till 2030 and we actually think we can get this done a lot faster, with the costs of renewable energy dropping so fast, we don't think it's going to cost more.”

There is also a net metering program where people can install their own solar roof and sell excess energy to Rocky Mountain Power Authority, a financial benefit for many residents who want to live off the main grid. The power authority has also installed a shared solar farm that residents can buy into.

“It’s like if you own a condo and you can’t have your own solar, you can buy a piece of the solar farm, and that gives you the ability to own your own system,” described Bennett.

In Sunset Park, local community-based organization UPROSE is leading the construction of Sunset Park Solar, one of the nation’s first—and New York’s first—cooperatively-owned community solar project, on top of the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

A cooperatively owned solar array will be installed on the roof of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. SUNSET PARK SOLAR COURTESY UPROSE

UPROSE has been organizing for local renewable energy since Hurricane Sandy, when residents realized they needed to run their own power.

“The project didn’t start with the [Request for Proposal], it’s been a long time coming,” said Summer Sandoval, Energy Democracy Coordinator for UPROSE. The solar panel farm will be a 685-kilowatt system that can support about 200 local households and small businesses, which is signing up subscribers now.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) is leasing the rooftop of the terminal, along with Solar One, which is providing technical training to community members. Initially, the project will be cooperatively-owned with a tax investor for start-up funding with a limited number of years to collect federal tax credits. After the financing period, the project will then transfer ownership to Co-op Power and UPROSE. UPROSE will then determine whether to share ownership and management with Co-op Power or purchase the remainder of the project for full community ownership.

Community member subscribers to Sunset Park Solar will also be members of the New York City Community Energy Cooperative, and engage in decision-making meetings where they can vote and have a say in the future of the project.

Community organizations across the city are looking at Sunset Park Solar as a potential model for how community solar programs can work with city agencies and multiple types of partners.

“Community owned solar is one piece of the big transition puzzle of how do we move from where we are today to where we need to go,” said Sandoval. “It's not one-size-fits-all. You're always back to the drawing board of what works, because even though the concept of community solar is not new, in practice it is very new because it is so dependent on the partners, the building typology, the local and state legislation, all these things that really can impact what a project looks like. It's uncharted waters.”

For something like Sunset Park Solar to be replicable, real estate development in the city will need to change. “There are agencies within city government that are really concerned about reducing carbon, about addressing pollutants and the environmental burdens that have hurt our communities for years,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE. “But I don’t think there is an analysis about how we use the spaces that we have available to do that.”

To Yeampierre and other environmental justice advocates, it comes down to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership. “From a local perspective, what we see is an inconsistency between the Mayor’s goals on climate and the Mayor’s comfort with developers,” continued Yeampierre. “What’s in the way is a lack of vision and political will to make things happen. It can't be governance that is thinking about favors that have to be paid or deals that need to be cut because climate change disrupts all that. It takes a different kind of person and leadership who really knows how to use the spaces that we have available.”

The incentive for developers, according to environmental groups, is being ahead of the game by understanding how climate change will affect business in the long-run, moving more towards a model that will be necessary for equity and sustainability.

The city is working to achieve 1,000 MW of solar capacity by 2030, enough to power 250,000 homes and create 14,000 jobs.

“The Mayor set a bold goal in OneNYC of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and supporting solar development that benefits all New Yorkers is a critical part of that work,” said Julia Arredondo, spokesperson at City Hall. “We’ve made major progress, including implementing the Green New Deal, a groundbreaking slate of legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions with a focus on our buildings, which included a sustainable rooftop mandate for buildings across the five boroughs. We continue to be committed to making New York City a cleaner city for all and we will ensure that environmental justice and addressing global warming are at the center of our recovery from this pandemic.”

For now, the city’s peaker plants are still operating.

“This should be the last summer we have to stress about our lives being on the line over peaker plants,” Constantinides declared. “We should focus our recovery from this crisis on sustainability, and renewable energy, which will make our air cleaner and our city healthier.”

Clarisa Diaz is a designer and reporter for Gothamist / WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @Clarii_D.

John Upton at Climate Central contributed to this story under an ongoing energy collaboration.

Read the original story from Gothamist here