- The New York Power Authority (NYPA) on Tuesday announced that it will consider utilizing battery storage and other advanced energy technologies to replace 461 MW of gas peaking generation operating at six sites in New York City.
- The announcement is a win for the environmental justice community, and advocates say it is unique: NYPA agreed to pay for consultants to represent the perspective of five environmental and clean energy groups in considering how the plants may be retired.
- The collaboration between the largest state public power utility in the United States and the environmental justice community could be a model for elsewhere in the country, said Lewis Milford, president of Clean Energy Group (CEG), one of the groups that will be represented by NYPA-paid consultants. Local advocacy groups are often underrepresented in energy infrastructure debates because they lack technical resources and funds, he said.
NYPA's announcement is two stories in one, according to Milford: the potential for batteries to replace peaking plants, and how to involve local activists.
"The history of energy project fights are littered with environmental justice and local groups getting screwed left and right because they didn't have the technical resources to fight the good fight," Milford said.
NYPA's announcement resulted from a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with PEAK Coalition, which represents the environmental groups: CEG, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE, THE POINT CDC, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
The PEAK Coalition proposed the agreement to NYPA earlier this spring, and officials said it took a few months to work out the details in the MOU.
The groups wanted to find an alternative to "a long, drawn out litigation fight over the fate of NYPA’s fossil peaker plants," Milford explained in an email. "To our surprise, NYPA was interested in some alternative as well — we both had an interest in resolving these issues through discussion, instead of litigation."
The MOU "sets the path for the transition of NYPA’s plants to low to zero carbon emission resources and technologies," the utility said in a statement. The utility is working to meet clean energy goals set out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which calls for zero-carbon emission electricity in New York state by 2040.
The MOU specifies the analysis will consider 10 small gas-fired plants at six sites in New York City.
NYPA said the gas peaker plants were installed in 2001 and operate "infrequently" — only about 10% of the time or less — when directed to do so by the New York Independent System Operator and Consolidated Edison.
"There is no better time to address pollution and inequities of NYC's energy system," UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre said in a statement. The Latino community-based organization promotes sustainability and resiliency in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood.
"This collaboration is a model of the innovative and timely work that is necessary to address billions of dollars that are put into infrastructure that impacts the health of our communities," Yeampierre said.
NYPA said it is "committed to being a leader in piloting low to zero carbon emission resources and technologies, investigating the feasibility of short- and long-duration battery storage, and driving forward a system-wide transformation to a clean energy economy."
According to Milford, there are about a thousand peaker plants around the United States that could be retired — possibly through a similar process.
"This is a national problem," said Milford. "It might be the lowest hanging fruit in gas replacement."
PEAK Coalition published research in May showing New York City ratepayers paid $4.5 billion in capacity payments in the last decade to keep 16 fossil fuel-based peaking plants available, though the plants run only a few hundred hours per year. NYPA's peakers were among the plants examined in the report.
While Milford said the decision to close peaking plants may be clear, it is also "extremely complex stuff" highlighting why the environmental justice collaboration is such a big deal.
"There are a slew of complicated energy modeling and forecasts and reliability questions that need to get resolved to answer the question whether replacement can happen, over what timeframe and [with what] technology." The collaboration being used in New York City "could be applied in other cities where the same issues are prevalent and local groups have for the most part not gotten a foothold."
NYPA will now issue a request for proposals to hire consultants for the project. According to the MOU, the consultants must have a scope of work by January 2021.
NYPA will "most likely" own the replacement generation, a spokesperson said in an email. "But we need to see what the consultants come back with first."