Energy & Environment

Smokestacks loom over New York’s clean energy plan

New York will have to shut down dozens of fossil fuel power plants to meet its climate goals. Observers worry it’s not on track.

The Ravenswood Generating Station

The Ravenswood Generating Station Marcutti/Getty Images

This story is published in partnership with New York Focus.

Look across the East River from midtown Manhattan, and you can’t miss them: the four towering, candy cane smokestacks of the Ravenswood Generating Station, New York City’s largest power plant. For more than 50 years, the plant has been a cornerstone of the city’s electrical grid and a landmark of the Queens waterfront. Its southern end also sits just opposite the largest public housing development in the country: Queensbridge Houses, home to more than 6,000 people, the majority of them Black and Latino.

“I knew I was home when I would see those,” longtime resident Kaseem Cushnie, 44, said of the smokestacks. Cushnie grew up in the shadow of the power plant, and he expects its smokestacks will be around at least as long as he is.

But a coalition of local public housing residents, environmental justice groups and elected officials hope Ravenswood’s fossil fuel-burning days will soon be over. The plant, powered mostly by natural gas, is one of the biggest polluters in the state. In 2019, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, it pumped out more than 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, roughly 5% of all emissions from the electricity sector in the state. It also released some 360 tons of nitrogen oxides, a major contributor to unhealthy air.

Ravenswood is only one of several power plants concentrated along the Queens waterfront – one factor driving air pollution levels in Long Island City and Astoria above the city average, according to a survey by the city Department of Health. Organizers see the cluster of fossil fuel plants as a textbook case of environmental injustice.

“It’s been an (environmental justice) dream for Ravenswood to shut down because of how big it is and how much it pollutes,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. The cause has drawn the attention of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who told New York Focus and City & State it is one of her “goals in life to close this thing down.”

“It is unconscionable that so many polluting power plants are allowed to emerge in one area,” Maloney said. In September, she rallied with New York City Housing Authority tenant leaders, calling on state lawmakers to shut down “Big Allis,” the plant’s largest smokestack.

In an unusual twist, it’s not the power company they’re fighting. Rise Light & Power, which has owned the plant since 2017, has its own ambitions of transforming Ravenswood into a renewable energy hub. “Our plan has always been for a long-term redevelopment of this site to support the energy transition,” said Clint Plummer, CEO of Rise Light & Power.

Plummer said the company has already shut down most of the plant’s dirtiest peaker units, and it has plans to install 300 megawatts of battery storage – about 5% of the state’s recently expanded 6 gigawatt goal. Last year, the company submitted a major proposal to build new transmission lines that would bring upstate solar and wind power to New York City through the Ravenswood plant.

But the project, one of seven reviewed by the state energy agency NYSERDA, lost to two other contenders: the Champlain Hudson Power Express and Clean Path New York, which Gov. Kathy Hochul has promoted as a flagship of New York’s transition to renewable energy. That left Rise Light & Power’s project in limbo, and Ravenswood as dependent as ever on fossil fuels. The company’s plans to install battery storage were also stalled, Plummer said, because of a lack of a long-term contract, which also depends on state regulators.

It is unconscionable that so many polluting power plants are allowed to emerge in one area.
– Rep. Carolyn Maloney

The drawn-out fight over Ravenswood illustrates the thorny path to achieving one of the key targets of New York’s landmark climate law. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed in 2019, requires the state to supply 70% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2040. That will mean retiring and replacing most of the state’s generating capacity – more than two-thirds of which relies on gas and oil – in less than 20 years, even as overall electricity demand is projected to increase due to electrification of home heating, transportation and other sectors.

Some of those facilities will simply age out: More than a third of the state’s current fossil fuel capacity is on track to be retired by 2030 because it can no longer be operated reliably or profitably, according to an analysis by New York Focus and City & State of data published by the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the electrical grid.

The state has recently signaled that it does not want these plants to be replaced with new polluters. In October, the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied permits to two new gas plants that would have replaced outdated peakers: one proposed by NRG Energy in Astoria and the other by Danskammer in Newburgh. Six weeks later, the company behind a similar project in Gowanus pulled its application and said it would instead pursue plans to replace its peaker facility with battery storage.

“We crossed a pretty important threshold where it’s getting harder and harder to build anything new, and it took a lot of work to get there,” said Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director at Food and Water Watch. “But even that’s only the bare minimum first step.”

Shifting the entire grid away from fossil fuels will require not only adding vast amounts of wind and solar power, and expanding and upgrading transmission lines, but also closing dozens of existing plants. As of now, climate organizers and some industry experts said the state lacks a plan to match the scale of the task at hand.

In one sense, New York has a head start on the energy transition: more than half of the electricity the state produced in 2020 was carbon-free, thanks overwhelmingly to upstate nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams (wind, solar, and other renewables made up only about 5%). But gas and oil plants account for the remaining 43% statewide and a whopping 77% in New York City and Long Island.

Statewide, there are about 80 active fossil fuel plants, the bulk of which burn fracked gas from Pennsylvania as their primary fuel. Many have some oil-burning units as well, but very few rely on oil alone and, since 2020, none burn coal. Phasing out the dirtiest fuels has reduced the power sector’s emissions sharply over the past 30 years, and the industry now accounts for only 13% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions – third after buildings and transportation, which are responsible for roughly 30% each.

As those two heavily polluting sectors go electric, though, the question of where the electricity comes from becomes increasingly key. And so far, the state has said much more about the renewables and transmission lines it plans to add than about what will happen to the plants they’re expected to replace. “Elite-level Democrats … are totally cool with incentivizing more clean energy development,” said Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change. “What they generally are unwilling to do is actually cut fossil fuel use directly.”

The governor’s office said the Champlain Hudson and Clean Path transmission projects, combined with new offshore wind and other renewables, will be enough to cut New York City’s use of fossil fuels for electricity by more than 80% in 2030. If all of the projects receive final approval and are built on schedule, they would put a major dent in the state’s overall emissions and bring the CLCPA’s 2030 targets within reach.

The future of the plants they intend to replace is far less clear. The state has moved against one subset of fossil fuel plants so far: the so-called peaker plants that fire up when electricity demand spikes, which are among the dirtiest and most expensive plants to run.

In late 2020, the state adopted rules capping the emissions of nitrogen oxides from such plants, effectively requiring about a dozen plants to retire their dirtiest units by 2025. Independent System Operator estimates this will take about 6% of the state’s fossil fuel power supply off the grid. In her State of the State policy book published this month, Hochul broadened the regulatory push against peakers, saying her administration would establish a blueprint for shutting down “New York’s oldest and most-polluting fossil fuel facilities” by 2030. She did not say how those criteria would be defined or how many plants might be covered, and her office did not respond to a request for more details.

Peakers account for less than 10% of the sector’s emissions. The next big step, climate organizers said, will be to take on the “baseload” facilities that supply the bulk of the state’s power. To do that, climate organizers want to see the state adopt a more stringent version of the “Peaker Rule,” which would apply to a much broader swath of plants across the state and would be tightened every two years.

They also want the state to establish a comprehensive planning process so that the retirement of fossil fuel plants is carefully managed alongside deployment of renewables and transmission upgrades, maintaining the reliability of the grid while protecting workers from layoffs and consumers from rate hikes during the transition.

The state’s Climate Action Council – the body tasked with writing a roadmap to meet the CLCPA targets – has endorsed both prongs of this approach in its Draft Scoping Plan, released in late December. But the council’s recommendations won’t be finalized until the end of the year, and it could take another year or more for new rules to be written and adopted.

Allison Considine, senior New York campaign representative at the Sierra Club, said the state can’t wait that long. “The governor and the Climate Action Council have a public mandate to move really quickly, and to meet or hopefully even exceed (the CLCPA targets),” she said. “Seventy percent by 2030 is not a ceiling.”

Climate organizers also warn that, as of now, the state has not provided funding to match its legally binding climate targets. NYSERDA analysts working with the Climate Action Council estimated that decarbonizing New York’s economy will cost some $15 billion per year. New York Renews, the coalition behind the CLCPA, is pressing the governor and Legislature to include that full amount in this year’s budget.

If it doesn’t help keep the lights on, it’s really not accomplishing what we set out to do here.
– Gavin Donohue, Independent Power Producers of New York president and CEO

When it comes to the power sector, the state can count on at least one new source of funding: A portion of the $65 billion for grid upgrades that was included in the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November. A state environmental department spokesperson said that historically New York has received about 7% of federal formula funding, which would translate to $4.5 billion for the grid over the next five years, but the state is still waiting for details.

More than 50 state Democratic lawmakers want the governor to include the Build Public Renewables Act in her budget. The bill would enable the New York Power Authority to build new large-scale wind and solar facilities, and require it to phase out its fossil fuel facilities by 2025. Proponents said the effort would pay for itself, relying on the authority’s well-established bond program.

So far, Hochul has shown no sign of backing either approach. In her State of the State speech, she announced $500 million to develop offshore wind and proposed a $1 billion increase to the $3 billion Environmental Bond Act that was passed in the budget last year. But only about a third of the funds in the bond act are slated directly for climate mitigation – the mandate of the CLCPA. And none of it would go toward greening the grid. The bond act also still needs to be approved by voters through a ballot initiative in November.

Without a major infusion of new climate funding in the budget, Hochul’s promises in the State of the State would amount to “just more unfunded goals, which has been NY’s M.O. for a long long long time,” Sikora said by text message.

Climate organizers aren’t the only ones voicing these concerns. Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York, a statewide trade association representing both fossil fuel and renewable electric companies, said the state has “a long way to go” in planning and above all paying for the transition to a clean grid.

Donohue, a member of the Climate Action Council, is especially worried about the costs that could be passed on to ratepayers if the state doesn’t implement carbon pricing or another mechanism to fund the transition. He’s also concerned about reliability, an area that he doesn’t think climate advocates take seriously enough.

“All the activists can claim all they want about the value of this stuff, but if it doesn’t help keep the lights on, it’s really not accomplishing what we set out to do here,” said Donohue, whose group has lobbied against proposals to block new fossil fuel plants statewide. Independent System Operator’s latest reliability plan warned that if renewable energy deployment and grid upgrades don’t stay on schedule, the combination of climate impacts and regulations like the Peaker Rule could leave New York City with relatively little backup in an emergency.

Donohue also said that closing plants too quickly could take a toll on jobs, and organized labor wasn’t given enough of a role on the Climate Action Council. 

Experts on the council stressed that decarbonization is projected to create far more jobs than it will cost. The council’s Just Transition Working Group projects that the rapidly growing electricity sector, which includes power plants, could add upward of 38,000 jobs by 2030 compared to 2,000 jobs lost. (Estimates of total New York fossil fuel plant employment today range from 4,000 to 10,000 workers – 0.1% or less of the state’s total workforce.) But those costs and benefits aren’t always distributed evenly, and organizers insisted that a portion of any funding for the energy transition go toward the workers and communities long dependent on fossil fuel plants to ensure they don’t get left behind.  

As for Ravenswood, Rise Light & Power hopes Hochul’s recent promises to promote battery storage could finally allow the company to make good on its promises of a green transition. (Her State of the State included a directive to prioritize storage projects that will help eliminate the dirtiest plants, as well as doubling the CLCPA’s target of 3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2030.)

Some local residents, though, said phasing out fossil fuels would be just the beginning of what the company owes the community.

“I think there has to be some restitution paid,” said Lashawn “Suga Ray” Marston, a filmmaker and community health advocate. His mother, who has lived in Queensbridge for 35 years, is one of many in the area who suffer from asthma, and he says nearby power plants are at least partly to blame.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and steering committee member of New York Renews, shares the sentiment. The energy transition’s projected $15 billion cost, he says, is “a pretty good deal” for big polluters.

“If we were to externalize the price that they’ve caused, specifically to indigenous, Black, brown and poor white communities in lost lives and ailing health, the fee would be even higher, and they would basically just have to go out of business,” he said. “We are letting them off easy.”