More than ten years after it was first conceived, a proposal to upgrade a so-called peaker plant—an electric-generating station that activates when there's peak demand for electricity—in Astoria is now undergoing a public approval process.
Had it been built in 2010, activists say they would have hailed the project as a win at the time in reducing its carbon footprint.
But with state laws now in the books to curtail climate change by discouraging the construction of pollution-causing plants, state Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents the Queens neighborhood, hopes to stop the project.
"It's what I call a half measure, because it's still bad," said Gianaris of the project.
Last month, the public approval process started with a presentation by NRG, which owns and operates the peaker plant it is looking to replace in northwest Queens near Rikers Island. The project promises to reduce air emissions, improve electric reliability, and leave room for future renewable energy resources such as battery storage, which Gianaris wants them to focus more on. The project also aims to create 500 jobs and generate $156 million in economic benefits during the construction phase.
The peaker plant is one of 16 located in New York City that fit into the New York Power Authority’s market, distributing their energy to the city’s power grid that's accessible to Con Edison and National Grid. Peaker rates in the city are considered the most expensive in the country, where costs are passed along to utility customers, according to a May 2020 report by the PEAK, a consortium of activists fighting the project. They include The Point, UPROSE, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Clean Energy Group, and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
Astoria is known as "Asthma Alley," since asthma rates are higher than most parts of the city.
"We have the technology to get off of these peakers," said Harry Manin, an activist with Sunrise NYC and climate policy advisor. "But even more important, we have no other choice between the climate implications and the impact on frontline communities. It's a health crisis. And we've known this for years. And now because of COVID, I think it's finally becoming more clear that this is a public health crisis, something that we can't turn our backs on."
Peaker plants were built under an emergency provision in New York City nearly 20 years ago and were supposed to be a temporary fix to producing electricity during times of high demand such as the summer when air conditioning use increases.
"I've learned the hard way: once these plants are built, they don't just disappear because you want them to. They're financed typically. There's debt obligations that have to be met. The industry fights hard to keep them going wants to built," Gianaris told Gothamist.
The project is currently being reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Gianaris wants the DEC to reject the project, forcing NRG revise the project that complies with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was signed into law last year and encourages the construction of renewal energy facilities such as solar-powered wind farms. In ten years, the state hopes 70% of its electricity is generated by renewable energy under CLCPA. They hope the state is completely carbon-free by 2030.
But because the project details have changed from the time it was first proposed Shay O'Reilly, an organizer with the Sierra Club—a 128-year environmental group that's supporting PEAK's efforts—wants the state to re-set the process for the project, forcing it to undergo through the longer and more Article 10 review process.
"We'd like to see it go back through that longer process because it's very clear to us that given the pandemic and given the fact that we were all blindsided by this, it's not being subjected to enough community review," said O'Reilly, adding that NRG's inclusion of a battery storage plans is a type of "greenwashing."
"I think that they know that they need to say that because people are aware of the harm that fossil fuels do to our communities," said O'Reilly.
NRG did not return a request for comment.
Comments on the project can still be submitted by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"When they first proposed that, I think the general public sentiment was it's progress," said Gianaris. "But this idea has been around so long that the times have changed, the needs have changed, the laws have changed. So it's no longer a good idea."