New York City—home to one of the densest populations and the densest power plant concentrations in the United States—has made progress retiring fossil-fuelled peaker plants, but 75% of them could still be online beyond a 2025 emissions deadline, say advocates, with the city’s most vulnerable people suffering as a result.
In the South Bronx, Sunset Park, and other neighbourhoods of colour, “expensive and inefficient oil and gas peaker plants spew harmful emissions into neighbourhoods already overburdened by pollution, exacerbating widespread health problems,” the PEAK Coalition, an alliance of social justice and environment activists and lawyers, writes in a new report.
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The plants are only fired up briefly during periods of high demand, but even this infrequent use produces a disproportionate amount of harmful emissions due to inadequate pollution controls, PEAK explains. The intermittently-used plants “are ripe for replacement with clean technologies, including renewables, energy storage, demand reduction and flexibility, and energy efficiency.”
In 2019, 19 fossil-fuelled peaker power plants were in operation across NYC, with a combined capacity of 6,093 megawatts. Many were older than 50 years and lacked effective pollution control systems, the coalition says. Their exhaust contributed to severe health impacts for the 750,000 mostly low-income communities of colour living within a mile of them.
“In the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx, one in every three children and one in every four adults suffer from asthma,” PEAK writes, urging an accelerated shutdown of the plants. “It’s so widespread that it’s hardly considered a disability.”
PEAK notes that NYC has made progress towards reducing peaker capacity. “About two-thirds (4,019 MW) of peaker capacity has either retired or announced plans to replace existing turbines with clean alternatives.”
“Out of this total, just under 700 MW of peaking capacity that was operating in 2019 has fully retired, and plans have been announced to retire an additional 3,300 MW before 2040, of which approximately 700 MW is actively moving toward deactivation or decommissioning.”
This transition is under way despite “significant pushback from the fossil fuel industry,” PEAK says. But market barriers, regulatory obstacles, and other challenges still slow progress. As a result, more than 75% of the city’s fossil peaker capacity could still remain online and operating beyond the 2025 deadline when stricter peaker emissions limits take full effect as part of the second phase of the state “Peaker Rule” implemented in 2019, but postponed in 2023.
The rule’s emission limits force the city’s dirtiest peaker plants to prepare and implement compliance plans to meet new emissions limits, creating an opportunity for accelerated retirement and replacement, explains PEAK. Most of the city’s combustion turbines should retire in the next few years, “but transition plans and timelines for several large steam turbines, which collectively represent more than half of New York City’s peaking capacity, remain uncertain or completely unknown at this time.”
Meanwhile, inflationary pressures are derailing renewable energy projects, with many—including offshore wind projects intended for NYC and Long Island—folding or re-evaluating their feasibility. As they falter, there is increasing doubt that clean energy alternatives will roll out fast enough to replace retiring fossil fuel-powered facilities. And in the meantime, electricity demand is expected to continue to rise.
The slow progress on peakers is much to the detriment of local residents. But “the phaseout of fossil fuel peaker plants creates new opportunities for communities to take back control over their future,” PEAK writes. “A strategic transition to renewable energy and battery storage resources can accompany an increase in sustainable careers and local wealth.”
The coalition calls on New York to support workforce retraining and career development programs that can help workers make the transition into new opportunities at facilities that replace the peaker plants, among other policies to ensure energy reliability and sustainability when adopting clean energy options.