Can NYC meet its clean energy goals?

Let's see what experts have to say!

By 2030, New York is projected to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels by half, if two newly approved projects go ahead as planned.

Clean Path New York, a joint initiative between New York Power Authority and two firms, EnergyRe and Invenergy, could bring over 7.5 million megawatt hours of solar and wind energy into the city. One megawatt hour is about the same as the amount of electricity used by 330 houses in an hour. The other project — the Champlain Hudson Power Express — could bring 1,250 megawatts of hydropower from Canada enough to power 1.2 million families with power for a year. The city currently consumes about 52 million megawatt hours of power every year, according to Politico.

The city and state’s move to embrace cleaner energy has long been brewing. Both projects arose out of the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which created a Climate Action Council charged with developing a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, then Governor Andrew Cuomo launched an initiative that mandated that half of all the electricity consumed in New York be generated from renewable sources by 2030. The city’s goal is to be entirely dependent on clean electricity by 2040 and be carbon neutral by 2050.

But for many people who have been advocating to get rid of some of the city’s dirtiest power plants—called peaker plants—the new projects are not exactly the solution they had hoped for.

“Compared to other cities that’s a fairly aggressive goal. But, is it aggressive enough? No. We’re going to have to do better than that,” Seth Mullendore, president and executive director of Clean Energy Group said.

A power plant in Astoria, Queens
A power plant in Astoria, Queens

Solar and wind are not without negative effects, even as they have much smaller negative effects compared to coal and fossil powered plants, according to Professor Matthew Neidell, who specializes in the intersection of health, labor and environmental issues, at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

New York City has 18 special power plants, commonly called peaker plants, most of which were built in the early 2000s. These plants were part of the state’s PowerNow! Project and did not go through an environmental review, according to Climate activist Keith Schue.

The problem with peaker plants isn’t isolated to Queens and New York City. Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit started an initiative in 2018 called Phase Out Peakers, a campaign calling to replace these “polluting power plants,” as they describe them, with renewable energy sources.

Based on publicly available data, the group found that there are nearly 180 peaker plants spread across some of the country’s most populated metro areas, which include Los Angeles, Washington DC-Baltimore area and Philadelphia, among others. From this list, the highest concentration of peaker plants is 46 plants in the New York-New Jersey belt.

In the city, these plants were intended to run during summer months when there’s an increased demand — a peak in demand for power supply. That intention shifted over the years and now they’re run throughout the year, according to former city council member Costa Constantinides.

Of these 18 plants, six are located in Queens, including the city’s oldest one, built in 1954, which is in Astoria. Queens is also home to a greater percentage of immigrant population compared to other boroughs. About half of the borough’s population is foreign-born, according to the latest figures available from the American Community Survey.

Peaker plants pose health risks to those who live near them. Last year, PEAK Coalition, a group of clean energy and environmental justice advocates including the Clean Energy Group, launched a campaign against peaker plants in the city. The group published a report titled Dirty Energy, Big Money, inspecting the long-term health disparities from exposure to these plants in low-income neighborhoods, especially those populated by people of color.

750,000 people in the city live within a mile of a peaker plant and 78 percent of these people are either low-income or people of color, according to the report.

Three zip codes in Queens — 11101, 11102, 11106 — have higher asthma rates than the entire borough, with 145 asthma related emergency visits for every 10,000 children. The lowest number is for children in Manhattan’s Financial District with 28 visits for every 10,000 children, according to the latest available community health profile for the neighborhood. The Queens neighborhoods are popularly referred to as “Asthma Alley” due to high levels of asthma cases. It’s not just asthma, Constantinides said. The rates of other respiratory illnesses are also higher in these neighborhoods, he said.

In Long Island City and Astoria neighborhoods of Queens, close to the oldest plant, the levels of the most harmful air pollutant — fine particulate matter — are 7.8 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to 7.5 micrograms per cubic meter for the entire city, according to the same health profile report. EPA’s standard for safe exposure to the same matter is an average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. In Bronx’s Haven and Melrose neighborhoods, which too are close to peaker plants, the levels are even higher at 8.6 per cubic meter. The asthma emergency room visit rate among children ages 5 to 17 is also higher — 647 per 10,000 nearly triple the citywide rate.

Neidell living near fossil fuel-powered plants has other issues too.

“There’s social welfare impacts too. Things like workers’ productivity, students’ academic performance, a whole bunch of factors are affected by pollution from fossil fuel plants,” he said.

There has been a growing community-driven push to shut peaker plants. Last month, residents and environmental justice activists in South Bronx called for New York Power Authority to shut four peaker plants in the area.

But, given the city’s current dependence on these plants, some experts believe, that might not be an attainable goal. Not any time soon, at least.

“On any given day, Astoria alone meets 55 percent of the city’s power needs. We have the largest cluster of power plants here,” Constantinides said.

Climate activist Keith Schue offers a different solution, vouching to shift focus away from just peaker plants. If we look at the total pollution that comes from fossil fuels-powered plants, peaker plants are in fact a smaller part of the bigger problem, Schue said, vouching to rid the entire city grid of fossil fuel-dependent plants. For him, a reliable solution to the city and state’s clean energy needs is producing more nuclear power.

“Nobody wants to talk about nuclear energy but it’s what we need I would argue,” he said.

In 2021, the city shut the Indian Point nuclear power plant after 59 years of operation. Queens resident and environmentalist Isuru Seneviratne agreed. “It’s socially uncomfortable to talk nuclear but that’s the direction we need to be headed in.”

“If you think about decarbonizing the right way, there has to be an energy mix,” he said. “Solar and wind are intermittent sources. With energy supply, you can’t really have limits. So what’s ideal? A combination of solar, wind and nuclear energy.”

The two big concerns with renewable energy are their cost and reliability, Neidell said, and even though cost has reduced significantly, reliability remains a concern.

“Will we get enough energy to meet everybody’s energy needs with just solar and wind,” he said, “that’s where nuclear comes in.” He also stressed on the need to replace the entire grid with clean energy, and not just peaker plants.

“Sun and wind aren’t available on demand,” he said, “if you want to stop using peakers, you have to build clean storage too.”

The challenge with increasing nuclear energy supply is a sense of fear and social stigma that’s attached with the word ‘nuclear,’ Seneviratne said. The perfect energy profile isn’t an easy policy task, Seneviratne said.

“We’re climate fanatics to an extent, but we’re also pro-humans. Our emission challenge shouldn’t be solved with eating one less meal a day. We have to also keep in mind how to create jobs.”