Without warning, on the most bitter winter days, or the hottest of summer, smoke stacks that sit idle much of the year switch online, spewing trails of climate-altering, coronavirus-exacerbating pollutants across the sky, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), known for penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the blood system.
One thousand power plants known as “peaker plants” are still operational across the U.S. Their name derives from the function they serve, shifting from idle to burning gas or oil in infrequent moments when energy demand peaks beyond average — typically when heating and cooling needs are the greatest.
In addition to serving as eyesores and taking up large swaths of space that might better serve the needs of crowded communities, the plants are often located alongside waste treatment facilities and other undesirable infrastructure in low-income and communities of color. Many of the plants were built in these locations during the era of redlining, or later, in or near areas that had been redlined. Decades down the line, many of the Black and Brown neighborhoods that host them also have the highest COVID-19 mortality rates, due to the long legacy of health inequities. An estimated 397 of every 100,000 people living in the Bronx neighborhood where a plant called Hell Gate is located have died of the virus, in comparison with the U.S. average of 171 per 100,000. In other words, the neighborhood has lost one out of every 252 residents.
An informal network of scientists, activists and lawmakers in at least nine states have identified the plants as a first-line target to be replaced with wind, solar and distributed battery storage, and say doing so would save money and lives. In March, a coalition of community organizations dedicated to environmental justice in New York City published a detailed report offering a blueprint for lawmakers to deliver on the vision, in two five-year waves, which they’ll introduce to the public in an April 21 webinar.
Peaker plants tend to be older and inefficient, says Carlos Garcia, energy planner with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA). “A lot of them run on jet fuel oil, and some natural gas, which is literally the dirtiest type of energy fuel source you can imagine,” Garcia tells Truthout. Though many of them only come online a handful of times a year, those that burn natural gas emit 30 times the nitrous oxide (NOx) of newer plants. The PM2.5 particulates they spew are linked to higher COVID-19 mortality rates, as well as 6,000 emergency department visits each year for asthma in New York City.
NYC-EJA is one of five organizations comprising the PEAK Coalition, which launched in 2020 and is working with the New York Power Authority to advocate for replacing peaker plants with community-led energy generation projects. Other members of the coalition include UPROSE, THE POINT CDC, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and Clean Energy Group.
Not only do peakers tend to be dirtier than base load plants, but using them raises utility costs significantly, due to the expense of maintaining them at central locations and powering them on and off with short notice. Companies that own them collect millions in subsidy payments, while residents foot the bill. In New York, peaker plants received $4.9 billion during the last decade, in comparison with $112 million in incentives for solar projects over the last two decades, according to the coalition’s report.
“Inequities in our dated energy system are rooted in the continued investments in fossil fuels at the expense of the health of our most vulnerable communities,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a multiracial Brooklyn-based community development organization focused on bringing about a just transition for residents, said in a statement. “We must move funds to frontline communities for clean energy projects and stop fossil fuel developers from perpetuating conventional investments in dirty energy and injustice,” Yeampierre said, noting the ongoing effort of power company NRG to add yet another natural gas burning peaker to its fleet in Astoria, known as “asthma alley.”
Residents living within a one-mile radius of the Oswego Harbor Power Plant, one of only a handful of such plants left in Upstate New York, are ranked in the 99th percentile for incidence of heart attacks, based on an analysis of New York State Health Department data by the nonprofit research institute Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE). The 73-year-old plant only went online six times in 2018 (the most recent year for which data are available). But if residents suspect hazier-than-usual skies, no federal air quality data exists to help make sense of the short-lived plume of pollution, as the closest Environmental Protection Agency monitors are 40 and 70 miles away, respectively, in Syracuse and Rochester.
The social toll of peaker plants is significantly greater in urban places like New York City, with 750,000 people living within a mile of a peaker plant, 78 percent of whom are low-income and/or people of color. And whereas the upstate plants only operate a few days annually, the Hell Gate plant, for instance, averages turning on 149 times each year, often on days when air pollution levels are already at their highest. In general, that burden is in line with the findings of research on plants in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas, among other states, says Elena Krieger, director of research at PSE. “Your highest-rate emitters are often near disproportionately impacted communities, so they should probably be the first [in] line for replacement,” Krieger said of her initial findings in a 2016 study of power plants across California, which the latest PSE research builds on.
The PEAK Coalition’s proposal to phase out select plants in 2025, including Hell Gate, and the remaining plants in 2030 is designed to prioritize communities most impacted by peakers, by ceasing damage to the immediate environment and creating new local job opportunities, the report states. Emissions from the city’s peaker fleet cost the state $43 million annually, on track to rise to $50 million annually by 2030, in expenses related to morbidity and mortality.
By 2025, the PEAK Coalition suggests, peaker plants could be replaced by 1.5 gigawatts of offshore wind, growing to 3 gigawatts by 2030. New York State’s existing offshore wind goal is 9 gigawatts by 2035.
Wind turbines are notoriously low-performing during summer months when demand often skyrockets — just the time when peaker plants are used more frequently. But that’s where solar comes in. Solar panels, which the PEAK Coalition envisions becoming ubiquitous atop city rooftops, generate energy at increased capacity during summer months. The report calls for 2.8 gigawatts of rooftop solar by 2025, and 5.6 gigawatts by 2030, aggregating and storing that power in distributed batteries and through advancements like “virtual power plants.” Energy storage capacity would need to roughly double during those years, and be paired with significant energy efficiency efforts.
“The previous barrier was that of technology, and that’s just not the case anymore,” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for NYLPI, told Truthout. “You have both the solar and wind technology to unleash at the local, regional and national levels.” Solar energy is now the “cheapest electricity in history,” as Carbon Brief has reported.
Rogers-Wright was seven years old when he moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City, where he joined West Side Little League, and remembers being stunned by how many of his teammates, mostly Black and/or Latino boys, relied on inhalers, as compared with his peers in D.C. “They clearly had a lot of cardiovascular impairment simply because of what was built by where they live,” Rogers-Wright said.
The PEAK Coalition’s blueprint provides an opportunity for state officials to deliver on climate policy set out in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, Rogers-Wright said, which establishes a goal of 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030. The plan is also in line with the Biden administration and New York State environmental justice commitments, ensuring that at least 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy investments go to disadvantaged communities. Based on the average emissions of New York City peaker plants from 2017 to 2019, retiring the city’s peaker fleet could result in a reduction of 2.66 million tons of CO2 each year, or about one-fifth of New York City’s annual CO2 emissions generated by commercial sources. As Krieger has pointed out, peaker replacement is only the very tip of the iceberg in the transition to renewables, and is more feasible in certain areas, but represents a logical, actionable, justice-oriented first-step.
Garcia points out that the tendency of the “Big Green” organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council to be awarded funding over smaller-scale organizations is an impediment to the community-led transition the PEAK Coalition envisions, as is the tendency of peaker plant owners like Consolidated Edison to be gatekeepers of their energy generation data.
But Rogers-Wright calls “political will” the greatest existing barrier, noting, however, that the New York State Senate recently passed the Pollution Justice Act of 2021. The bill, which would require peakers to be replaced with renewable energy systems and battery storage within five years of the renewal of a plant’s operating permit, is currently in committee before the New York State Assembly. The PEAK Coalition is also working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-New York) on a federal bill they’ll introduce later this year.
“People in environmental justice communities are being choked by toxic policies, toxic emissions and toxic police officers — they’re extremely linked,” Rogers-Wright said, noting the necessity of intersectional organizing that brings abolitionists and environmental justice advocates together with labor groups to continually exert pressure on lawmakers.
“I think the [peaker plant replacement] blueprint will serve as that organizing tool.”