As New York Lags on Climate Goals, Some Dirty Plants May Stay Open Past Deadline

Air-polluting “peaker” plants were a top priority for closure in New York’s green transition. But the state isn’t building clean energy fast enough to replace them on time.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   June 14, 2023
The Gowanus Generating Station in Brooklyn seen through a chain-link fence
The Gowanus Generating Station in Brooklyn is one of the "peaker" plants targeted by pollution controls. | Ken Schles

Amid New York’s halting energy transition, there’s been one bright spot for communities facing the most severe air pollution: A swath of the state’s dirtiest power plants are starting to close.

Known as “peakers,” the targeted plants sit idle for most of the year, until hot weather rolls around, New Yorkers crank their air conditioning, and electricity demand spikes. That’s when grid operators call up the reserves: a fleet of aging gas and oil plants largely in and around New York City, some built as early as the 1950s. Most of them are located in disproportionately Black, immigrant, and working class neighborhoods, and the state is cracking down on them in a bid to improve air quality there.

But now, the New York Independent System Operator — the nonprofit that manages the electric grid — is warning that some of the plants may need to stay online longer in order to maintain reliability.

“Given the timeline for development of alternative solutions, it seems likely that some component of those peakers that are targeted for retirement [in 2025] would need to stay on,” said NYISO President Rich Dewey on a call with reporters last week.

Peaker plants keep the lights on when the grid is stressed, but at a high price. They release significantly more pollution per unit of energy they generate than their peers, including planet-warming carbon dioxide but also nitrogen oxides, which contribute to health conditions like asthma for those who live closest to the plants. There’s also a direct cost New Yorkers pay in their utility bills: Over the last decade, the state’s peaker plants have charged hundreds of millions of dollars per year to stand at the ready.

The plants’ outsized environmental impact put them in the crosshairs of advocates and regulators well before New York passed its climate law in summer 2019. That year, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued rules requiring the dirtiest peakers to either close or take steps to reduce pollution, with new controls taking effect this year and ratcheting up in 2025. Some plants have already started closing their dirtiest units in anticipation of limits that went into force this past May. Another batch of smokestacks is due to be retired over the next two years.

The likely delay in the retirement timeline reflects wider challenges to New York’s energy transition. NYISO blames the slower-than-expected buildout of renewables and, above all, transmission lines needed to bring clean energy into New York City. That’s in large part due to pandemic-related shocks to the global economy, including supply chain disruptions and inflation, according to a new report. Those woes have delayed projects including the Champlain Hudson Power Express, a major transmission line bringing Canadian hydropower to the city, which was originally due in 2025 but now isn’t expected until at least spring 2026.

NYISO has long warned that the state’s clean energy buildout is failing to keep up with plant closures. But the new report is its starkest warning yet that New York is falling short of promises to green its grid.

C. Lindsay Anderson, an energy specialist at Cornell University’s school of engineering, said it’s hard to avoid such gaps in an energy transition with so many moving parts.

“Everything has to move sort of in sync to make the plan work,” Anderson said. “Taking [peakers] offline is an important signal that we’re making progress. But with many other pieces of the plan having been delayed, it’s not surprising that we may need to delay this a little bit to let the other pieces catch up.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation said the peaker rule has been effective in reducing pollution, and that off ramps to ensure reliability are working as intended. (The pollution caps include exemptions for plants that regulators deem necessary to keep the lights on.)

“All New York City peaking units will be in compliance with the new regulations this month,” spokesperson Haley Viccaro said. A total of 37 older fossil fuel units at 14 plants will have been retired by this summer, while the DEC expects another nine generators to receive extensions on this year’s deadline for reliability reasons.

Another 26 units are scheduled to be taken offline in summer 2025, according to a recent NYISO assessment. The DEC did not directly address NYISO’s warning that some of those units may need to stay open longer — a finding the grid operator expects to confirm in its next quarterly assessment, due in July.

Environmental justice advocates are concerned at the news, but remain hopeful that the state could still keep plant closures on track. Daniel Chu, energy planner at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, suggested speeding up construction of rooftop solar and battery storage, which could relieve the need for dirty plants in the most congested areas. (Because of transmission constraints, specific plants sometimes need to be fired up to meet demand at the neighborhood level.)

Chu says local leaders and utilities like Con Edison could also do more to promote “demand response” — that is, encouraging New Yorkers to cut their energy use at peak hours. In California, emergency alerts during a severe heat wave last September shaved nearly two gigawatts off expected loads at the peak of the day, avoiding rolling blackouts. But more subtle nudges can help flatten electricity demand year-round, reducing the need for backup power and saving money for everyone.

ConEd has already tested such an approach in sections of Brooklyn and Queens, through a program dating back almost a decade. And the utility is partnering with a company that allows customers with smart meters to earn small rebates on their electric bills by cutting power use at peak times in response to prompts from an app.

But both of these initiatives are restricted to a relatively small subset of customers. Chu would like to see such efforts go further.

ConEd spokesperson Allan Drury told New York Focus that maintaining the utility’s “industry-leading reliability” is paramount as the state and city work to integrate large amounts of renewable energy into the grid. He cited ongoing transmission upgrades in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, and said customer efforts are helping the utility keep total demand on the grid in check during the transition.

“Con Edison carefully monitors the supply/demand balance, and is working with regulators, industry partners, and the NYISO to provide continued reliability for our customers,” Drury said.

If all else fails and some peaker plants still need to stay open, Chu said, regulators should be stringent in extending their permits — ensuring that their use is limited to emergencies and that the payments they receive for staying in service are capped.

Anderson echoed the sentiment, saying that while some peakers may still be needed as “insurance,” it’s important that the process not be dragged out further.

“As long as they’re really just being used in very constrained situations to keep people safe, then I think it makes sense, at least for the short term,” she said. “I hope we’re not having this conversation in a few more years.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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