The New York Power Authority (NYPA) is considering replacing six gas-fired peak power plants in the New York City area with battery storage and other advanced energy options, and promised last week to plan the transition in partnership with environmental justice groups.
“The announcement is a win for the environmental justice community, and advocates say it is unique: NYPA agreed to pay for consultants to represent the perspective of five environmental and clean energy groups in considering how the plants may be retired,” Utility Dive reports. The deal covers 10 peaker plants at six locations that were installed in 2001 and only operate 10% of the time or less.
Clean Energy Group President Lewis Milford, whose organization will work with one of the NYPA-funded consultants, called the collaboration a model for utilities and communities in other parts of the United States. With about 1,000 peaker plants across the U.S. that could be retired, “This is a national problem,” he told Utility Dive in an email. “It might be the lowest-hanging fruit in gas replacement.”
“There is no better time to address pollution and inequities of NYC’s energy system,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a Latinx community organization that promotes sustainability and resilience in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. “This collaboration is a model of the innovative and timely work that is necessary to address billions of dollars that are put into infrastructure that impacts the health of our communities.”
Those communities “also feel the burden year-round on their energy bills,” Grist notes. “A recent report estimated that New Yorkers pay US$450 million per year to run the city’s peaker plants no more than a few hundred hours.” That study result came from the newly-formed PEAK Coalition, the alliance of five leading environmental justice groups that will be funded to take part in the upcoming study.
The agreement with NYPA is a major change from past practice, Milford stressed. “The history of energy project fights is littered with environmental justice and local groups getting screwed left and right because they didn’t have the technical resources to fight the good fight,” he wrote. This time, community groups wanted to avoid “a long, drawn-out litigation fight over the fate of NYPA’s fossil peaker plants,” and “to our surprise, NYPA was interested in some alternative as well—we both had an interest in resolving these issues through discussion, instead of litigation.”
That sense of common interest led to a memorandum of understanding that “sets the path for the transition of NYPA’s plants to low- to zero-carbon emission resources and technologies,” the utility said in a statement, while supporting the state’s 2040 target for achieving zero-carbon electricity production. NYPA said it is “committed to being a leader in piloting low- to zero-carbon emission resources and technologies, investigating the feasibility of short- and long-duration battery storage, and driving forward a system-wide transformation to a clean energy economy.”
Milford said it is all the “extremely complex stuff” behind the simple goal of phasing out gas peaker plants that makes the environmental justice collaboration so important. “There are a slew of complicated energy modelling and forecasts and reliability questions that need to get resolved to answer the question whether replacement can happen, over what time frame, and [with what] technology,” he told Utility Dive. Solving those challenges with environmental justice advocates at the table will produce a proven approach that “could be applied in other cities where the same issues are prevalent, and local groups have for the most part not gotten a foothold.”