Update June 30, 2020: I wrote a layman’s summary on this issue here.
New York State energy and environmental policy is more about optics than results. Nowhere is this more apparent than the recent spate of opinion pieces, reports, and even policy proposals related to peaking power plants. In May 2020, the PEAK Coalition released a report entitled: “Dirty Energy, Big Money”. The focus of the study is the “peaker” power plants that operate when energy demand in New York City spikes above normal levels. Because I have been involved with this issue and these plants for over 20 years, I want to review this report.
At first glance there are enough technical issues for a blog essay but when I started to research the article, I realized that I needed to do a background post on the primary air quality problem associated with these facilities, the organizations behind the report, the State’s response to date, the underlying issue of environmental justice and address the motivation for the analysis. This post addresses those aspects of the report and will be followed up by a post on technical issues and another post on the analysis that was the basis of the technical claims.
I am a retired electric utility meteorologist with nearly 40 years-experience analyzing the effects of meteorology on electric operations. I have been involved with the peaking power plants in particular for over 20 years both from a compliance reporting standpoint and also evaluation of impacts and options for these sources. This background served me well preparing this post. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Air Quality Background
In my opinion the most difficult air quality issue today is ozone attainment. Ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Those pollutants are emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, natural sources and other man-made sources and when they chemically react in the presence of sunlight, they create ozone. Ozone is most likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments but because NOx and VOC as well as ozone can be transported long distances by wind rural areas are affected and urban areas are affected by sources far upwind. Ultimately the problem is that the conditions most conducive to create ozone are also the conditions that increase electricity demand for cooling so the peak load of electric generation produces the most emissions. In order to provide the power necessary to keep the lights on when people really want and need it, the existing power grid has facilities that were designed to operate infrequently. In New York City that capability is exemplified by 86 simple-cycle turbines currently operating.
The PEAK Coalition defines their problem with the existing situation as follows:
“On days with extreme weather, like heat waves or sub-zero temperatures, residents consume more energy to stay cool and warm, which puts excessive demand on the grid. In response to this increased demand in electricity, highly polluting power plants known as “peakers” fire up in the South Bronx, Sunset Park, and other communities of color throughout New York City. These inefficient peakers spew harmful emissions into neighborhoods already overburdened by pollution, exacerbating widespread health problems. Peaker plants are a prime example of how low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of a host of energy and industrial infrastructure that poses significant public health and environmental hazards.”
Note that the Coalition quite rightly points out that these power plants also operate in the winter when energy demand also increases. As New York State implements its aspirational greenhouse gas emission reduction goals natural gas and oil heating will have to be replaced by electric heating so demand will be further increased.
The air quality problem in the Northeast is so complicated that the Clean Air Act created the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) specifically to with EPA on transport issues and for developing and implementing regional solutions to the ground-level ozone problem in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. New York State has been actively involved with this organization since its inception. The first related presentation that I could find that specifically addressed emissions and air quality on high electric demand days was in 2006. While there is an undeniable link between high energy demand and the high emissions that create peak ozone levels there is on over-riding requirement to keep the lights on.
DEC worked for years with other agencies, the New York Independent System Operator and other stakeholders to address this aspect of the peaking units. Ultimately in late 2019 they promulgated new limits for the simple cycle turbines such that they will be required to install controls or shut down. The compliance date for that regulation is May 2023 and the state may grant a two-year compliance extension to peaker plants deemed a “reliability resource by the NYISO or transmission owner”. The reliability analyses and expected responses are evolving at this time.
Advocates believe that EJ communities are New York City’s most climate-vulnerable people. New York State recently enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) that establishes Statewide GHG emission reduction requirements and renewable and clean energy generation targets. The CLCPA also includes “multiple provisions that recognize that historically disadvantaged communities often suffer disproportionate and inequitable impacts from climate change”. The DEC is currently revising its proposing revisions to 6 NYCRR Part 242, “CO2 Budget Trading Program” that implement regulations for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The proposed revisions expand its applicability to include certain smaller sources that are also named in this report.
The PEAK Coalition has been organized to “end the long-standing pollution burden from power plants” in New York City’s environmental justice communities. According to their overview the following organizations are in the PEAK Coalition: UPROSE, THE POINT CDC, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), and Clean Energy Group (CEG). UPROSE promotes “sustainability and resiliency in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood through community organizing, education, indigenous and youth leadership development, and cultural/artistic expression”. THE POINT Community Development Corporation is “dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx”. NYC-EJA is a “non-profit, city-wide membership network linking grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in their struggle for environmental justice”. NYLPI has “fought for more than 40 years to protect civil rights and achieve lived equality for communities in need”. CEG is a “leading national, nonprofit advocacy organization working on innovative policy, technology, and finance strategies in the areas of clean energy and climate change”.
The following is the text from the report’s acknowledgement section:
Dirty Energy, Big Money was prepared by the PEAK Coalition and produced in collaboration with a national network of research partners. This report would not have been possible without the help of many dedicated people. We want to thank the exceptionally hard working and talented teams at Strategen Consulting and at Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy for their assistance.
The authors would also like to thank the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, New York Power Authority, and New York City Council member Costa Constantinides for their continued support in helping advance the transition to a cleaner and more equitable energy system.
Finally, PEAK also thanks the numerous individuals and organizations that provided constructive technical feedback during the stakeholder review period. These efforts dramatically improved the quality of the final product.
This section provides an overview of environmental justice as background to the report. EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”. They state that this goal will be achieved “when everyone enjoys: the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work”.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) defines environmental justice as the “fair and meaningful treatment of all people, regardless of race, income, national origin or color, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Environmental Justice allows for disproportionately impacted residents to access the tools to address environmental concerns across all of DEC’s operations”.
Ultimately environmental justice (EJ) is another way of expressing the Golden Rule and I fully support the concept and intent of incorporating specific requirements to address this in environmental decision-making. So far so good. However, I am a numbers guy and have had trouble figuring out how this should be applied in practice. New York State’s Article 10 permitting process for siting major electric generating facilities references the DEC regulation Part 487 “Analyzing Environmental Justice Issues in Siting of Major Electric Generating Facilities Pursuant to Public Service Law Article 10”. In my opinion, New York’s approach to environmental justice is keyed to disproportionate impacts.
The definition of disproportionate is critical to the ramifications of New York EJ regulation. However, the definition is so vague that interpretation is a problem. Disproportionate impact analysis requires comparison between the EJ community and a “Comparison Area”. The Comparison Area is defined as a community in the same county and adjacent to the EJ community. Section 487.9 Comprehensive Demographic, Economic and Physical Descriptions (d)(2) defines the measures used for the comparison:
In evaluating the significance of any adverse environmental and public health impacts of the proposed facility, the applicant shall measure the impacts against regulatory thresholds or standards, as applicable, and shall also consider the following:
- scope, magnitude, frequency, and duration of the impacts on the environment, public health, and quality of life in the Impact Study Area;
- nature of the impacts on sensitive populations including children and the elderly;
- degree of increased risk in the event of natural or man-made disasters; and
- any other information necessary to evaluate significance of the adverse impacts.
For the purposes of illustrating the potential difficulties defining disproportionate impacts, consider the following example for the air quality impacts of a facility on three communities. In all the examples, the total impact is less than the National Ambient Air Quality Standard so the concern is whether the effect of the facility is disproportionate. Mediterranean Avenue and Baltic Avenue represent the Environmental Justice Community of Monopoly where the lowest rents are charged. The comparison communities are the adjacent properties of Oriental, Vermont and Connecticut Avenues (grey community) and Park Place and Boardwalk (blue community) where the highest rents are charged.
The Disproportionate Impact Table illustrates the wide range of relative impacts for this simple example. If the EJ community is impacted by the facility and impacted by cumulative impacts while the comparison communities are not affected by either, then the impact is clearly disproportionate. If all the impacts are the same then the impact clearly is proportionate. However, neither situation is likely. Adjacent communities likely have similar direct and cumulative impacts and must have the same background. Even when dealing with a specific numerical limit, interpretation is ambiguous. For example, if the impacts to the EJ community and the grey comparison community are the same, but the blue community has very much lower impacts is that disproportionate to the EJ community?
As previously noted, I support the concept that EJ communities should not be disproportionately impacted by power plants. Assuming that stakeholders can agree on what constitutes a disproportionate impact then we can move forward. The problem that I believe is coming up now is that the EJ advocacy organizations are demanding zero risks in order to redress past injustices. For example, in May 2017 Governor Cuomo announced New Locally Sourced Microgrid to Power the Empire State Plaza but the following February the New York Power Authority announced additional studies for the project in response to intense EJ advocacy efforts. In September 2019 the microgrid plan was cancelled much to the delight of the local EJ advocates. While the microgrid plan did have effects on the local community they represent orders of magnitude less impacts than the original facility but that was not good enough. There is no benign way to generate electricity. I worry that emotional arguments will color future EJ discussions and prevent rational decision-making for cost-effective solutions.
Motivation for the Report
The overview of the report notes that The PEAK coalition will be the “first comprehensive effort in the US to reduce the negative and racially disproportionate health impacts of a city’s peaker plants by replacing them with renewable energy and storage solutions”. Their collaboration brings “technical, legal, public health, and planning expertise to support organizing and advocacy led by communities harmed by peaker plant emissions”. They propose a “system of localized renewable energy generation and battery storage to replace peaker plants”. This is supposed to “reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, lower energy bills, improve equity and public health, and make the electricity system more resilient in the face of increased storms and climate impacts”. I will address those claims in another post.
As noted, the CLCPA includes specific requirements to address EJ community concerns, DEC has promulgated a law that will shut down 100 of the old and inefficient simple cycle turbines as soon as possible without endangering reliability and the proposed revisions to New York’s RGGI rules expands applicability to many of the sources that are called out in the report. It seems to me that this shows that the Cuomo Administration has delivered on its promises to the EJ community so why did this report come out at this time.
The conclusion of the report suggests that the timing is an example of not letting a crisis go to waste.
“As the nation faces an unprecedented public health crisis with the COVID-19 respiratory virus, the historic and disproportionate environmental burdens imposed on the most vulnerable among us by burning fossil fuels can no longer be ignored as a serious public health threat. COVID-19 has cast a light on the existing health disparities and vulnerability in environmental justice communities. New research links the direct correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and significantly higher rates of death in people with COVID-19, which we are seeing now in environmental justice communities long-plagued by health disparities and vulnerability due to the exposure to air pollution from peaker plants—nearly always sited in under-resourced communities.”
I believe that this “new research” is referring to a Harvard study that on April 24, 2020 claimed “ that an increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate (95% confidence interval [CI]: 2%, 15%”. Several days earlier this report was claiming that the increase in death rate was 15%. But a new study from University of Washington and Stanford University researchers reports an inverse relationship between smoking and death from COVID-19 — i.e., countries with higher rates of smoking had lower rates of death from COVID-19. As noted here, smoking is a very intense exposure to PM2.5. In breathing an hour of average US air, you will shallowly inhale less than 9 micrograms of PM2.5. Compare that with smoking a single cigarette during which you will deeply inhale anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 micrograms of PM2.5. I suggest that it is premature to claim any effect on COVID-19 from air pollution.
While I support the concept of addressing environmental justice concerns, I also suspect that criticizing aspects of their demands is something akin to disparaging mom and apple pie. The primary reason I prepare these analyses is that I believe that cheap and reliable energy, in general, and electricity, in particular, is a basic human right so that should be a primary social and environmental justice concern. I am convinced that that New York State energy policy is going raise the cost of energy significantly and I worry that it will risk electric reliability as well. I intend to follow this background post up with an evaluation of the technical claims and proposed solutions in this report to see how they rate in that context.