What’s that smokestack peeking around the corner, from behind that building, that tree? The one hovering above the supermarket, next to the bridge, or over the waterfront park? The tall, tubular exhaust pipes of New York City’s peaker plants leave a distinctive mark on an urban landscape long defined more by glass towers than factory silhouettes. Much of the time, the peakers project a heavy silence, lying dormant despite their large spatial footprints. But, scattered around the city’s waterfronts, and clustered in environmental justice communities, these generating stations roar into action when demand for electricity is high, spewing a slew of hazardous particulate matter into the air with measurable, and uneven, impacts on the public health of nearby communities. When New York heats up, with each summer hotter than the last, that demand creates a dangerous feedback loop between a warming climate and the very emissions that feed it. Grassroots action and landmark legislative measures seek to usher in a just energy transition that would phase the peakers out altogether. With their fates hanging in the balance, Amy Howden-Chapman trains her camera on these elusive, “temporary” power plants, while Andrew Michael Gorin highlights people-powered efforts to break the cycle of carbon dependence they help perpetuate.
When the heat peaks in New York City, so does the need for electricity. To provide this extra energy, the City turns on its highly-polluting peaker plants. Powered largely by so-called “natural” gas (but also by petroleum products, including kerosene and oil), these facilities are found across the five boroughs. Some are located down dead-end roads in industrial areas, like the Arthur Kill plant on the western edge of Staten Island. But others are situated near playgrounds, parks, and high-density housing developments, such as the Ravenswood Generating Station, sitting adjacent to the New York City Housing Authority’s Queensbridge Houses. All of the city’s peaker plants have been deemed dangerous to the health of New York residents, and they are increasingly viewed as conspicuous emblems of a carbon-intensive energy economy which is no longer viable in the age of climate crisis.
Local environmental justice and activist groups are petitioning for the city’s peaker plants to be replaced with cleaner energy infrastructure. The PEAK Coalition, led by Brooklyn-based environmental justice organization UPROSE, issued a 2021 report highlighting the negative impacts of plant emissions on local communities and global temperatures alike. The report also points to how these plants take up valuable land which could be used for resources like renewable energy storage facilities. Another collective of environmental and social justice non-profits, including New York Communities for Change and 350Brooklyn, is currently fighting a proposal by Astoria Generating Company (AGC, a subsidiary of Eastern Generation, which is itself owned by the Boston-based private equity firm ArcLight Capital Partners) to extend the life of the Gowanus Generating Station, a floating peaker plant in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay. A third campaign, also spearheaded by New York Communities for Change, is underway in Queens to stop the modification and continued operation of the Astoria Gas Turbines.
The pressure on state agencies to ramp up the transition to renewables and mitigate health hazards posed by peakers is beginning to translate into action. In late 2019, the New York Public Service Commission approved the Ravenswood Energy Storage Project which, if implemented, would replace the Ravenswood Generating Station with battery storage. In 2020, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation adopted new regulations limiting the amount of nitrogen oxide, a key reagent in the production of harmful ground-level ozone, that peaker plants can emit during the high-ozone season (May through September). Then, in March of 2021, the New York State Senate advanced the Pollution Justice Act of 2021, a bill that would require peaker plants in “environmental justice communities” to convert to renewable energy generation within five years of their next permitting renewal.
But environmentalists and community advocates question whether the pace of change is fast enough. The PEAK Coalition emphasizes the disproportionate harms that peaker plants pose to low-income communities and communities of color. New York Communities for Change, which fought hard for the passing of the landmark New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 (CLCPA), urges that fossil fuel projects like the Gowanus Generating Station be halted altogether and supplanted by renewable alternatives if the state is to honor its commitments to decarbonizing 100% of electricity generation by 2040.
Peaker plants are not just a problem for the poor. Along the West Side Highway in Manhattan, one plant sits next to the twisting, pyramidal form of Via 57 West, a residential building designed by Bjarke Ingels Group. In Williamsburg, another plant sits next to the new towers presiding over Domino Park. As luxury developments continue to rise over what used to be industrial waterfronts, more and more New Yorkers are living, working, or recreating near peaker plants. From the Upper East Side to Sunset Park, peakers can be found in New York neighborhoods of varying prosperity.
Yet the public health impacts of these plants vary depending on preexisting vulnerabilities, such as respiratory illnesses or limited access to healthcare. In some places, emissions coming from peaker plants are just one of many environmental burdens on local residents. The Harlem River Yards Power Station, part of an industrial complex located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, is close to a Fresh Direct distribution center, a FedEx shipping facility, and the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. A person living nearby is much more likely to have asthma due to their year-round exposure to vehicles emissions.
On hot summer days, this condition can be exacerbated by a cascade of air-quality problems as ozone accumulates (in addition to pollen, which is more present in summer months). Then, because the city must attempt to cope with the demand for power created by millions of New Yorkers simultaneously turning on or up their air-conditioners, the Harlem River Yards Power Station goes online. As the plant starts to churn, it emits nitrogen oxide, a polluting particulate which causes inflammation of the airways and reacts in the atmosphere to generate dangerous levels of tropospheric ozone. All of this occurs on days when those who cannot afford to cool their homes are forced into the streets in search of relief, further exposing them to air pollution. For these reasons, firing up the Harlem River peaker plant during an extreme heat event is potentially life threating for the most vulnerable residents nearby. Children with asthma living in Mott Haven are three times more likely to end up in the emergency room than children with asthma in other New York City neighborhoods.
Given the health risks associated with poor air quality, New York City does regulate emissions from plants operating within its limits. However, until recently, many peaker plants were able to dodge these regulations, as they operate relatively infrequently and are relatively small. New York’s peaker plants were built during two distinct eras. Ten larger plants were constructed between 1968 and 1971, and then an additional eight, smaller plants were built in the early 2000s. These newer plants, supported at the time by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, are widely understood to have been sited in way that perpetuated environmental racism. They also skirted proper environmental review. The City only required assessment of effects on local communities for plants which generated over 80 megawatts of electricity, so the New York Power Authority cleverly limited the output capacity of the newer power stations to 79.9 megawatts. At the time, politicians and regulators attempted to assuage community concerns about the health impacts of these facilities, highlighting their supposedly “temporary” nature. They promised that the plants would only be in use for three years, the period covered by their initial permits. Two decades later, the plants are still up and running.
Though the Pollution Justice Act would require peaker plants to be phased out within five years of permit renewals, this legislation is unlikely to be signed into law (it currently lacks a sponsor in the State Assembly), and will need to be reintroduced when the legislative session recommences at the beginning of 2022. Even if it were to be passed, it may be some time before the plants are taken offline. Meanwhile, the New York Power Authority, which owns six of the plants built in in recent decades, has submitted applications to renew permits that expired, or will expire, in 2020 and 2021. The Astoria Generating Company, which operates two peaker plants in Brooklyn, is seeking permission from the New York Public Service Commission to go forward with its controversial Gowanus Repowering Project, which would extend the use of the Gowanus Generating Station while retrofitting it with more efficient generation units. AGC also plans to decommission its older, more polluting plant, the Narrows Generating Station in Sunset Park. Environmental groups have launched a campaign to halt this plan, under the slogan “Stop the Gowanus Fracked Gas Plant!” Specifically, the campaign seeks to prevent the New York State Public Service Commission, a body made up of seven commissioners appointed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, from granting AGC permission to proceed. For the plan’s opponents, stopping the plant is also a more symbolic act of transition away from fossil fuel infrastructure.
While AGC claims that closing the less efficient Narrows plant will be an environmental and public-health win for New Yorkers, environmentalists point out that allowing the continued operation or expansion of any fossil-fuel infrastructure runs counter to the aims of the CLCPA. The coalition fighting the Gowanus project also points to the impact that plant has had on Brooklyn neighborhoods within a two-mile radius that includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Greenwood Heights, Sunset Park, and Red Hook. Red Hook in particular bears the brunt of the plant’s pollution, since prevailing winds blow the plant’s emissions into the neighborhood during the summer months. Another argument made against granting AGC an extended operating permit is the huge cost to electricity users — a more general problem with peaker facilities across the city. Over the last decade, “capacity payments” added to individual bills, totaling an estimated $4.5 billion, have gone towards keeping peaker plants online in case they may be needed.
Peaker plants highlight the dangerous feedback loops created by a warming world. As global temperatures rise, more energy is required to deal with extreme heat. In New York City’s case, Environmental Protection Agency scenarios predict that the average number of heat waves (days over 90°F) could triple by 2050. Large swathes of the summer season will become unbearably and dangerously hot. Demand for air-conditioning will continue to grow. Given that fossil fuel emissions create the need for greater cooling in the first place, powering this need by burning even more fossil fuels is untenable.
New York City will always have fluctuations in its energy demand. Reliability and redundancy in the system remain vital to preventing the kind of extreme outages that have occurred recently in deregulated energy markets (for example, during the Texas power crisis of February 2021). But there now exist options, such as batteries, which can provide urban energy security without negatively impacting communities (though there may be some risks, including fire). Batteries are seen as an ideal replacement for peaker plants because they avoid the problematic cascade of harms that emerge when fossil fuels are burned during heatwaves. Instead, energy generated at other times — and, ideally, by clean technologies such as solar or wind — is gathered and stored for periodic use. Rather than further taxing our electricity production and distribution infrastructure when it is most strained, batteries allow cities to prepare well in advance of future needs. Batteries can also be simply hooked up to energy distribution conduits at peaker plant sites.
According to the 2019 CLCPA legislation, all batteries that supply energy in New York State will soon have to be powered entirely by zero-emissions technologies, with renewables accounting for 70% of electrical power by 2030. Shifting the means of energy production to renewables is one of the most important tasks of the coming decade. But while activists and politicians work to reduce emissions in an effort to mitigate the global climate crisis, they are also increasingly attending to local environmental problems and their uneven impacts on communities. These agents of change must simultaneously reckon with the smaller-scale logistical concerns brought by shifting demand for electricity, and the larger systems driving changing climates. They can no longer simply call for the dismantling of fossil fuel infrastructures, but must proactively advocate for specific alternatives as well.
All photographs by Amy Howden-Chapman
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.