New York Peaking Power Plants and Environmental Justice Summary

New York State energy and environmental policy is more about optics than facts.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the recent spate of opinion pieces, reports, and even policy proposals related to peaking power plants.  I evaluated the basis of these items in a series of three posts but because they are very technical I have elected to summarize this issue in this post.

I think this is an important because the vilification of peaking power plants is getting all sorts of undeserved attention.  Although the peaking plants are alleged to be a primary driver of the environmental burden in neighboring environmental justice communities that is unlikely to be the case.  Combine that with the enormous costs of energy storage and the difficulty siting enough renewables within the city to replace these plants that means that a clean energy “solution” is likely not in the best interests of society, particularly in the admittedly over-burdened environmental justice communities.

This post is a summary of three detailed technical posts.  The PEAK Coalition recently released a report entitled: “Dirty Energy, Big Money”.  My first post provided information 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 addressed the motivation for the analysis.  My second post addressed the rationale and feasibility of the proposed plan relative to environmental effects, affordability, and reliability.  Finally, I discussed the  Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State that provided technical information used by the PEAK Coalition.

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.

The Problem

There are two drivers for peaking power plant issues.  In order to provide electricity to everyone who needs it when they need it, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) has to balance power availability with the load on the system.  NYISO is responsible not only for the real-time deliver of power but also for reliability planning.  If the load did not vary this would be much less difficult, but the reality is that load varies diurnally and seasonally.  Most important is meeting demand when loads are highest in the summer and winter when it is necessary to provide electricity to maintain the health and well-being of customers. Ultimately the problem boils down to the fact that there are short periods when so much load is needed that there are units dedicated by intent or circumstances to provide just that load during the year.  This is expensive and inefficient but is, in my opinion, a problem with no easy solution.

The second driver for this issue is that the hot and humid conditions that cause the high energy use in the summer peak are also the conditions conducive to ozone formation and higher levels of PM2.5.  New York State has been working on the issue of emissions and air quality on high electric demand days specifically since at least 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 power on when it is needed most.

The reports both suggested that the payments for the peaking power were unreasonable.  The PEAK Coalition believes that these plants “receive exorbitant payments from utilities and other energy service providers just for the plants to exist”.  This is not my area of expertise but based on the turnover of ownership and other factors, I don’t believe that they are the profit centers the PEAK Coalition believes they are.  Importantly, the units do run when power is needed most so there is a reason for them to exist.

The Analysis

I found that the basis for the technical aspects of the PEAK Coalition report is work by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy.  PSE evaluated Federal data peaking power plants across the country based on fuel type, capacity, technology and how much they ran.  This is a blunt approach that cannot address any of the nuances that have resulted in some units running for short times.  In New York for example, there are simple cycle turbines in New York City that were built specifically to provide peaking power.  There also are some large oil-fired units that run little because their fuel costs are so high.  Off the top of my head I also note that there are units that burn oil and run only when needed due to natural gas supply constraints, but there certainly could be other reasons some units run so little.  As a result the simplistic proposal for replacement is only valid for some of the facilities at best.

In order to prove the need for a clean energy alternative, PSE combined the peaking power plant data with ambient air quality data to show that the peaking plants often run at the same time that there are National Ambient Air Quality Standard exceedances.  That is a well-known fact.  PSE also developed a “cumulative vulnerability index that integrates data on health burdens (asthma, heart attacks, premature birth rates); environmental burdens (ozone, particulate matter, toxics, traffic proximity, lead paint, and hazardous facilities); and demographic indicators (low-income, minority, linguistically isolated, and non-high school-educated populations)”.  All of these data were combined to make the claim that these plants need to be replaced.

However, I don’t think that the PSE approach made a convincing case that the peaking power plants are a primary driver of environmental burdens on neighboring communities.  Their vulnerability index lists other factors but makes no attempt to attribute impacts to each factor.  The ultimate problem with this approach is that the peak unit justification relies on environmental burdens from ozone and particulate matter air quality impacts.  However, ozone is a secondary air pollutant and the vast majority of ambient PM2.5 from power plants is also a secondary pollutant.  As a result, there is enough of a lag between the time emissions are released and creation of either ozone or PM2.5 that the impact is felt far away from the adjacent communities.  That means that the accused peaking power plants do not create the air quality impact problems alleged to occur to the environmental justice communities located near the plants.  In fact, because NOx scavenges ozone, the peaker plants reduce local ozone if they have any effect at all.

The Solution

Dirty Energy, Big Money states “Experts have found—and real-world examples have proven—that battery storage and renewable generation may be less expensive to develop and manage than the rarely used but heavily polluting fossil fuel power plants, while also meeting or exceeding the same performance standards”.  This statement is just plain wrong as I showed in detail.  As soon as energy storage is added to the renewable “solution” the projected costs rise exponentially and there are no real-world examples supporting this as a proven policy approach.  Moreover, the difficulties and cost of siting enough renewable energy within New York City to meet the in-city generation requirements also suggest enormous costs.

New York’s irrational war on natural gas continues in this vilification of peaking power plants.  I do not dispute that there is a New York City peaker problem where old, inefficient combustion turbines designed to provide peak power are being used to provide critically needed power when needed most. In order to force their replacement the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC_promulgated new  limits for the simple cycle turbines such that they will be required to install controls or shut down. They should be replaced and probably should have been replaced long ago so the question is why hasn’t this happened.

In my opinion the continued operation of the old simple cycle turbines in New York City is the result of New York’s de-regulated market place.  I am absolutely sure that in a regulated environment the responsible utility would have made a case to the Department of Public Service that replacement with cleaner, more efficient generation was needed, the Department would have agreed  and after it was approved the utility would have built the replacements units and been guaranteed a reasonable return on their investment.  However, in the de-regulated market there wasn’t a strong enough financial incentive to replace the old units.  Before I retired in 2010, I worked on two separate permit applications for new, efficient, and cleaner replacement power for one set of the old combustion turbines.  In both instances the permits were approved but the replacements were never built, apparently because the company decided that the business case was not strong enough to warrant the investment.

According to the plans submitted to comply with DEC’s peaking power plant rule only one company is planning to build replacement peaking power. I fear that in today’s political climate that the proposed re-powering of Gowanus will not be permitted because it is new fossil fuel infrastructure.  However, it is fundamentally different inasmuch as the proposed plant is on a barge.  If New York’s aspirational climate agenda works out  then it won’t be needed and it can simply be moved away to another location to serve as a bridge source of energy elsewhere.  However, I am unconvinced that the clean energy alternatives proposed will work, much less be affordable.  Therefore, this proposed project is invaluable insurance for reliability and affordability.

Conclusion

The claims that peaking power plants are dangers to neighboring environmental justice communities are based on emotion.  In the evaluation I did of the PSE analysis and the PEAK Coalition report, I found that the alleged impacts of the existing peaking power plants over-estimates impact on local communities relative to other sources.  The existing simple cycle peaking turbines in New York City are old, inefficient and much dirtier than a new facility and clearly should be replaced.  However, they reliably produce affordable power when needed most.  In order to maintain that affordability and reliability I think it is best to rely on a proven solution such as the proposed Gowanus re-powering project.  The solar plus energy storage approach advocated by PSE and the PEAK Coalition will likely increase costs significantly if it works.  I cannot over-emphasize the fact that it may not work because solar and energy storage is not a proven technology on the scale necessary to provide New York City’s peaking power requirements.  Sadly in the rush to prove politically correct credentials this unproven technology may be chosen despite the risks to power reliability.

PSE Healthy Energy: New York State Peaker Power Plants

Update June 30, 2020:  I wrote a layman’s summary on this issue here.

Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy is a multidisciplinary, nonprofit research institute that studies the way energy production and use impact public health and the environment. One of their recent programs is the Energy Storage Peaker Plant Replacement Project.  That work formed much of the technical basis for the PEAK Coalition report entitled: “Dirty Energy, Big Money”.  I have prepared two posts on that document (here and here).  This post addresses the PSE report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State.

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 New York peaking power plants in particular for over 20 years from a compliance reporting and operations standpoint and also evaluated impacts and options for this kind of source.  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.

Energy Storage Peaker Plant Replacement Project

PSE defines the alleged problem in the introduction to this project as follows:

The United States relies on more than 1,000 natural gas- and oil-fired peaker power plants across the country to meet infrequent peaks in electricity demand. These peaker plants tend to be more expensive and inefficient to run for every megawatt-hour generated than baseload natural gas plants and emit higher rates of carbon dioxide and health-harming criteria air pollutants. Peaker plants are also typically disproportionately located in disadvantaged communities, where vulnerable populations already experience high levels of health and environmental burdens.

The text for the New York specific report describes the problem similarly:

Across New York, 49 oil- and gas-fired peaker power plants and peaking units at larger plants help meet statewide peak electric demand.  These include both combustion turbines designed to ramp quickly to meet peak demand, and aging steam turbines now used infrequently to meet peak needs. More than a third of New York’s peaker plants burn primarily oil, and three-quarters are over 30 years old resulting in numerous inefficient plants with high rates of greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions for every unit of electricity generated. Some of these plants are in very urban areas: ten plants have more than a million people living within three miles. One-third of the plants are located in areas the state considers to be environmental justice communities, where vulnerable populations typically already experience high levels of health and environmental burdens. New York has set energy storage targets and recently designed peaker plant emission reduction targets, providing an opportunity to replace inefficient, high-emitting peaker plants in vulnerable communities throughout the state with energy storage and solar.

Their proposed solution:

Renewable energy and energy storage systems are beginning to emerge as competitive replacements for this fossil fuel infrastructure. Simultaneously, numerous states across the country are designing incentives and targets to support energy storage deployment. Together, these developments provide a unique opportunity to use energy storage to strategically displace some of the most polluting peaker power plants on the grid.

In the Energy Storage Peaker Plant Replacement Project PSE did a screening analysis across nine states that identified peaker power plants that “may be prime candidates for replacement based on operational and grid characteristics, and whose replacement may yield the greatest health, environment and equity co-benefits”.  They claim that their approach “aligns state efforts to adopt energy storage with environmental and societal goals”.

The following section is the summary of the report.  Based on my review of the New York State-specific results I believe further study is needed to actually determine if all the peaker units identified can actually be considered candidates for replacement with energy storage and solar.  I also worry that the PSE analysis is mis-leading inasmuch as it does not address the fact that peaker plants fulfill niche operational backup roles that vary widely across the country.  I am familiar with New York State peaker plants and will show why that is important in New York.

PSE Summary

“The majority of New York’s peaker plants are located in densely urban areas in New York City and Manhattan, a region that is in non-attainment for federal ozone standards. These include old, inefficient  and oil-burning units near populations that experience high cumulative environmental health and socioeconomic burdens.  The state’s new emission reduction standards for nitrogen oxides, along with its energy storage deployment goals, provide a clear opportunity to target inefficient and polluting facilities for replacement with cleaner alternatives, particularly in urban areas. In the attached table, we provide operational, environmental and demographic data for New York peakers and nearby populations. Indicators such as nearby population, emission rates, heat rate (a measure of efifciency), operation on poor air quality days, capacity factor, typical run hours, and location in an environmental justice community or in an import-constrained load zones downstate can help inform whether a given plant might be a good target for replacement with storage, solar+storage, demand response, or other clean energy alternatives. These data should be accompanied by engagement with accompanied by engagement with affected communities to determine replacement priorities and strategies.”

The New York report has four sections: New York State Policy and Regulatory Environment, New York State Peaker Plants, Nearby Populations, and Emissions and the Environment.  I will address those sections in the following.

New York State Policy and Regulatory Environment

There isn’t much to comment on in this section.  The PSE report only describes New York’s climate initiatives.  Although the summary notes that New York has new emission reduction standards for nitrogen oxides, it does not highlight the fact that the regulation was specifically intended to address emissions from the old, inefficient simple cycle combustion turbines in New York City.  I described New York’s specific initiatives in my background post on the PEAK Coalition Dirty Energy, Big Money report.

New York State Peaker Plants

This analysis and report were intended to provide background information to support “clean energy alternatives” for peaker plants.  A primary component of that information is identification of peaker plants.  The technical documentation describes peaker power plants and the selection criteria used in their screening analysis.  PSE states “The phrase peaker plant commonly refers to fossil fuel-burning power generation used to meet peak demand on the electric grid, but the term itself does not have a precise definition”.  Actually, for EPA reporting purposes there is an exact, regulatory definition.  40 CFR Part 75  §72.2, states that a combustion unit is a peaking unit if it has an average annual capacity factor of 10.0 percent or less over the past three years and an annual capacity factor of 20.0 percent or less in each of those three years.

PSE chose to select peaking power plants based on the following criteria: fuel type: oil & natural gas; Capacity: ≥ 5 MW; capacity factor: ≤15% (3-yr. avg.); unit technology type: simple cycle combustion turbine, steam turbine & internal combustion; application: entire peaker plants & peaking units at larger plants; and status: existing and proposed units.  Relative to the peaking power plants subject to EPA reporting requirements, the biggest difference is that the PSE criteria selects small units between 5 and 15 MW that are so small that their emissions and impacts are generally considered insignificant.  Those facilities do not report continuous emissions monitoring data that the units >15 MW do.

Briefly, PSE collected data from EPA and EIA then screened it with their criteria to identify peaking units.  They calculated operational and emissions data.  Then they compared operational data with ambient monitoring data and found periods when the peaking units operated during periods of high ambient levels.  This is a straight-forward number crunching exercise and I have no comments on the methodology.

The technical and policy documentation for the Energy Storage peaker plant replacement project includes a section titled “Grid requirements: transmission constraints and capacity needs” that includes a discussion of New York.  For the most part PSE relied on the New York Independent System Operator analyses of the peaker plants. They note that the impacts of removing capacity is highly location dependent quoting NYISO reports: “lower amounts of capacity removal are likely to result in reliability issues at specific transmission locations” and that NYISO did not “attempt to assess a comprehensive set of potential scenarios that might arise from specific unit retirements”.  Despite the fact that NYISO cannot make specific recommendations PSE goes ahead and makes recommendations for five plants in New York City and five plants on Long Island that are “replacement opportunities” in PSE Peaker Documentation Table 5.3.

While I am certainly no expert on New York City reliability requirements I believe that there are ramifications not considered by PSE.  The NYISO Gold Book Data for Table 5.3 Replacement Opportunities table provides additional data for the PSE opportunities.  First note that PSE did not identify peaking units that operate at facilities with other units.  There is a combustion turbine at Northport and Arthur Kill that operates with the capacity factor listed.  PSE apparently does not understand that the primary purpose of those units is for black starts, that is to say when they provide power necessary to start the steam turbine units when there is no off-site power available.  In theory battery storage could be used for that but because of reliability considerations the battery would have to always be kept with enough energy to start the plant for the very rare occasion when there is a blackout.  There is no way that could be cost-effective.  My table also lists the fuel burned and it is instructive that all but one of the units listed can burn kerosene or number 2 fuel oil.  There are specific requirements for minimum oil burning when there is a possibility that the gas supply could be cut off.  Because this is not the standard peaking power plant replacement scenario, I am not sure whether battery storage would be cost-effective for this requirement.

Advocates for “clean energy alternatives” point out that New York has a law that requires that no electricity will be generated by fossil fuels in 2040.  Until such time that the State has a plan to meet that goal that explains how reliability and affordability can be maintained, then I will continue to believe that meeting that aspirational goal is more than simply a matter of political will.  For example, the Gowanus power plant has a nameplate capacity of around 540 MW. For all the Article Ten solar energy applications currently in the queue 5.4 acres per MW was the lowest spatial requirement.  That means that solar panels totaling at least 4.6 square miles will be needed to replace this source of in-city generation. While that may be possible, there are a host of logistical issues starting with the need to provide the power where it is needed when it is needed.  New York City is a load pocket relative to the rest of the grid but there are numerous smaller load pockets within the city.

Nearby Populations

The report notes that “Ten of the New York peaker plants each have more than a million people living within a three-mile radius. The most urban plants tend to also be in relatively low-income, minority communities, due to both the location of some facilities in low-income, environmentally overburdened communities of color.”  In my background post on the PEAK Coalition Dirty Energy, Big Money report I described the environmental justice concept of dis-proportionate impacts.  I do not know how to deal with dis-proportionate impacts when the location of some facilities impact rich communities at the same time they impact low-income communities.

PSE developed a “cumulative vulnerability index that integrates data on health burdens (asthma, heart attacks, premature birth rates); environmental burdens (ozone, particulate matter, toxics, traffic proximity, lead paint, and hazardous facilities); and demographic indicators (low-income, minority, linguistically isolated, and non-high school-educated populations)”.  It is vital to determine the effect of the peaker power plants relative to all the other impacts on the admittedly over-burdened environmental justice communities.

Emissions and the Environment – Air Quality Impacts

In order to determine the relative impact of peak power plants we have to consider their air quality impacts.  In order to be permitted to operate, all power plants have to evaluate the potential impacts of their emissions relative to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).  There are two types of standards.  Primary standards provide public health protection, including protecting the health of “sensitive” populations such as asthmatics, children, and the elderly. Secondary standards provide public welfare protection, including protection against decreased visibility and damage to animals, crops, vegetation, and buildings.  Air quality models combine information about the emissions, operating characteristics, and meteorological conditions to estimate the ambient concentrations from the power plants and those estimates are compared to the NAAQS.  If the contribution from the facility directly causes an exceedance of any NAAQS limit then the plant cannot operate until changes are made to reduce the impact.  If nothing can be done to reduce the impacts lower than the limits then it cannot be permitted to operate.

The air quality modeling used to permit a power plant to operate considers pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide that are directly emitted by the plant.  Power plants also emit pollutants that are precursors to other pollutants that form in secondary reactions.  Modeling secondary pollutants is more complicated and ascribing the impacts of particular facilities on air quality is more difficult.  Permit conditions for secondary pollutants such as ozone and inhalable particulate matter can also limit emissions of the precursor pollutants.

In my opinion the most difficult air quality issue today is ozone attainment because the emission source characteristics and meteorological conditions are not only complex and difficult to understand but also because making the reductions necessary are costly and impactful.   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.

It has been observed that when widespread transportation restrictions are implemented (e.g. during the Atlanta Olympics) that there is a marked improvement in ozone levels.  However, the fact is that there is little societal desire to maintain the draconian restrictions of automobile use that produce those improvements.  For peaking power plants, the problem is that the conditions most conducive to create ozone are also the hot and muggy conditions that increase electricity demand for cooling, so the peak load of electric generation produces the most emissions at the worst time.  However, in order to provide the power necessary to keep the lights on when people really want and need it, the existing power grid has peaking facilities.  In my second post on the PEAK coalition report I described the process used to determine if these units are needed and why I think they have not been replaced yet.

Recall that PSE developed a cumulative vulnerability index that integrates data on environmental burdens including ozone and particulate matter.   The point of this entire discussion is that ozone is a secondary air pollutant and the vast majority of ambient PM2.5 from power plants is also a secondary pollutant.  In other words, there is a lag between the time of relevant emissions and creation of either ozone or PM2.5.  As a result, the accused peaking power plants do not create the air quality impact problems alleged to occur to the environmental justice communities near the peaking power plants.  In fact, because NOx scavenges ozone the peaker plants reduce local ozone if they have any effect at all.

Conclusion

The PSE report notes that “These data should be accompanied by engagement with accompanied by engagement with affected communities to determine replacement priorities and strategies.”  I do not want anyone to misunderstand that I am not arguing that something should not be done about New York City’s simple cycle combustion turbine peaking power plants.  They are old, inefficient and relatively dirty.  However, in order to do the right thing, we need to understand all the background information.  The PSE analyses and the PEAK Coalition vilification of fossil-fired power plants only tells one side of the story and, inasmuch as most of the alleged environmental impacts are based on ozone and PM2.5 impacts, they misleadingly imply much more of an environmental benefit to the affected communities than will actually occur if the existing power plants are replaced by the latest generation of natural-gas fired power plants.

As noted in my post on the feasibility of the “clean energy alternative”, I have reservations about that proposed solution.  Even though the cost for developing renewable energy resources is allegedly cheaper than the cost of equivalent fossil-fired energy resources, the cost to ensure that electricity is available when and where it is needed for the two resources are not even close.  Because renewable energy is intermittent energy storage is required and my feasibility post demonstrated those costs are immense and would have to drop by an order of magnitude to make the solar+storage option comparable in cost.

Post Script

The PSE report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State includes a table that lists all the power plants in New York State that meet their screening criteria defining a peak plant.  The title of the report suggests that this list contains facilities that could be replaced by energy storage.  However, it includes steam turbine units that burn residual oil.  Because those units burn an expensive fuel, they don’t run much but because their operating costs are relatively low, they can be kept available for the rare occasions when they are needed. I was working at one of the named Upstate plants, Oswego, when the 2003 Northeast blackout occurred.  When the transmission system lost power, three nuclear units nine miles east of the plant had to shut down.  In order to bring the system back on-line, both of Oswego’s 850 MW units were turned on, ran for a combined 231 hours and generated 71,684 MWh.  I cannot think of any scenario where it would be in the best interest of New York to build enough energy storage to replace the Oswego power plant for this type of incident.

PEAK Coalition Dirty Energy, Big Money: Rationale and Feasibility

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 the report.

This is my second post on this topic.  The first post provided information 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 the rationale and feasibility of the proposed plan relative to environmental effects, affordability, and reliability.

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.

Background

The Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy is a multidisciplinary, nonprofit research institute that studies the way energy production and use impact public health and the environment. Their report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State formed much of the technical basis for this PEAK Coalition analysis.   I discuss that report here.

The full title of Dirty Energy, Big Money includes: “How Private Companies Make Billions from Polluting Fossil Fuel Peaker Plants in New York City’s Environmental Justice Communities—and How to Create a Cleaner, More Just Alternative Public Health Impacts”.  The table of contents includes sections on public health impacts, New York’s reliability process and payments, clean energy alternatives and the benefits of the PEAK Coalition proposed alternative.  I will address each of these topics.

The report has a table of Peaker Power Plants Operating in New York City which is based on a Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy report: Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State.  The peaking units included in that report cover not only small combustion turbines with nameplate capacities down to 16 MW but also steam turbine boilers such as Ravenswood ST03 with a nameplate capacity of 1,027 MW.  The problem with using that overview analysis in this instance is that the impacts and alternatives for such widely different power plants are completely different.   Unfortunately, the report does not address the differences and suffers as a result.

Public Health Impacts

The PEAK coalition description of air quality public health impacts claims that “When New York’s gas-fired peaker plants are operating, they can account for over one-third of New York’s daily power plant NOx emissions,” but the citation is from a press release so I could not track down the basis for that claim.  This is one example of the problem resulting from the broad definition of peaker plants that considers both steam turbine boilers and combustion turbines.  Because steam turbine boilers have relatively tall stacks and hot plumes there are very few direct impacts on local neighborhoods from their emissions simply because there is no opportunity for the plume to reach the ground so close.  The press release is apparently referring to the older simple cycle combustion turbines that either have to retire or install controls by May 1, 2023.  More importantly, the discussion of health impacts focuses on PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less that is small enough to be inhaled deep into the lung) and ozone.  Neither of those pollutants is associated with local impacts from natural gas and oil-fired power plants because they are primarily a result of secondary pollutant effects meaning that they result from reactions with other directly emitted pollutants.  Those reactions take time and by the time they occur the air mass has moved away from the local neighborhoods.

The primary public health reference was the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Air Pollution and the Health of New Yorkers report.  The PEAK Coalition quotes the conclusion from that report: “each year, PM2.5 pollution in [New York City] causes more than 3,000 deaths, 2,000 hospital admissions for lung and heart conditions, and approximately 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma in children and adults.”  Each year they claim exposures to ozone concentrations above background levels cause an estimated “400 premature deaths, 850 hospitalizations for asthma and 4,500 emergency department visits for asthma.”  What is not made clear is that these conclusions are for total air pollution in NYC and are based on air quality conditions from 2005-2007.

The DOHMOH report describes PM2.5 and its sources:

Fine Particles (PM2.5) are small, airborne particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. Major sources of PM2.5 include on-road vehicles (trucks, buses and cars); fossil fuel combustion for generating electric power and heating residential and commercial buildings; off-road vehicles (such as construction equipment); and commercial cooking (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Emissions Inventory). Fine particles can also become airborne from mechanical processes such as construction or demolition, industrial metal fabrication, or when traffic or wind stirs up road dust.

An article entitled Fine Particulate Matter Constituents Associated with Cardiovascular Hospitalizations and Mortality in New York City by Ito et al., 2011 concludes that “Local combustion sources, including traffic and residual oil burning, may play a year round role in the associations between air pollution and cardiovascular disease outcomes, but transported aerosols may explain the seasonal variation in associations shown by PM2.5 mass”.  Residual oil burning at the PEAK coalition peaker power plants is a backup fuel source used when there is a scarcity of natural gas or there are transmission constraint requirements that require a minimum oil burn.  Because of the fuel use characteristics, the tall stacks, and the conversion time between SO2 emissions and sulfate aerosols it is unlikely that these power plants have neighborhood impacts.  It is more likely that traffic sources are a larger contributor to EJ communities near the power plants.

There is one more aspect of the DOHMOH PM2.5 report that needs to be addressed.  The report specified four scenarios for comparisons (DOHMOH Figure 4) and calculated health events that it attributed to citywide PM2.5 (DOHMOH Table 5).  Based on their results the report notes that:

Even a feasible, modest reduction (10%) in PM2.5 concentrations could prevent more than 300 premature deaths, 200 hospital admissions and 600 emergency department visits. Achieving the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city” would result in even more substantial public health benefits.

It is important to note how the air quality has improved since the time of this analysis.  The NYS DEC air quality monitoring system has operated a PM2.5 monitor at the Botanical Garden in New York city since 1999 so I compared the data from that site for the same period as this analysis relative to today (Data from Figure 4. Baseline annual average PM2.5 levels in New York City). The Botanical Garden site had an annual average PM2.5 level of 13 ug/m3 for the same period as the report’s 13.9 ug/m3 “current conditions” city-wide average (my estimate based on their graph).  The important thing to note is that the latest available average (2016-2018) for a comparable three-year average at the Botanical Garden is 8.1 ug/m3 which represents a 38% decrease which is substantially lower than the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city”.

The DOHMOH analysis used a linear no-threshold health impact analysis.  As a result, it is possible to estimate the air quality health effects of the observed decrease in PM2.5 using their model (Modified Table 5. Annual health events attributable to citywide PM2 5 level).  Note that in DOHMOH Table 5 the annual health events for the 10% reduction and “cleanest” city scenarios are shown as changes not as the total number of events listed for the current levels.  My modified table converts those estimates to totals so that the numbers are directly comparable.  I excluded the confidence interval information because I don’t know how it would be modified.  I tested the linear hypothesis by scaling the “current level” scenario number of events to the proportion of the PM 2.5 concentrations for the “current level” and the other two scenarios.  My estimated health impacts were all within 1% which demonstrates that is all the DOHMOH analysis did.  Therefore, I could estimate the health impact improvements due to the observed reductions in PM2.5 as shown in my modified table.

I do not believe that the linear no-threshold air quality health impact model is correct.  I could be convinced, however, if the DOHMOH could demonstrate that the observed health impacts improved as predicted by the model.  Until such time as someone validates the performance of this kind of model I recommend caution in these results.

The DOHMOH report also describes ozone:

Ozone is not emitted directly from fuel combustion; it is produced by chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxides (NOx)—a mixture including nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2)—volatile organic compounds and sunlight. O3 concentrations typically peak in the afternoon and are highest in the summer, when daylight hours are long and temperatures are high. Although NOx emissions from vehicles contribute to higher ozone in urban areas, in city locations where fresh NOx emissions are concentrated, NO reacts with, and removes, ozone from the atmosphere in a reaction known as ozone “scavenging.” As a result, concentrations in urban areas with an abundance of NOx from traffic sources tend to have somewhat lower concentrations of ozone than more suburban locations downwind from the city center.

For the purposes of this evaluation of localized neighborhood impacts from the peaker plants note two things.  Because ozone is a secondary pollutant the emissions from the peaker plants do not create ozone that affects neighbors.  The reason the DEC put controls on the peaking turbines last year was because of their impact on ozone levels downwind in Connecticut.  Moreover, as the DOHMOH report explains if there is any effect of these power plants on the neighborhoods it would be a reduction in ozone because of “scavenging”.

New York’s Reliability Process and Payments

The description of New York’s energy reliability process provides a good overview and appropriately stresses the importance of reliable energy to prevent blackouts and brownouts.  It describes the process which determines the energy mandates, procurement process and specifies energy needed for peak energy demand.  Despite apparently understanding the process and the importance of having power available for peak demands, the capacity market is vilified as unwarranted “big money”.  The de-regulated market needs a mechanism to pay the power plant owners for their services.  If the load did not vary diurnally, seasonally, and was not subject to high energy demands, payments would be simple.

However, because it is not simple, the market mechanism includes both payments for electricity provided but also for capacity.  The report states “This means that all peaker plants in New York City collect millions of dollars every year just to be “on standby” to produce very little energy —sometimes for only a few days each year.”  That is true but it neglects the obvious point that if they were not available for those few days each year there would not be enough energy and brownouts and blackouts would be the result.

I do not dispute that there is a New York City peaker problem where old, inefficient combustion turbines are being used to provide critically needed power when needed most. In order to force their replacement the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 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”.

In my opinion the New York City peaker problem is the result of New York’s de-regulated market place.  I am absolutely sure that in a regulated environment the responsible utility would have made a case to the Department of Public Service that replacement with more efficient generation was needed and after it was approved the utility would have been guaranteed a reasonable return on their investment.  However, in the de-regulated market there wasn’t a strong enough signal to replace the old units.  Before I retired in 2010, I worked on two separate permit applications for new efficient and cleaner replacement power for one set of the old combustion turbines.  In both instances the permits were approved but the replacements were never built, apparently because the company decided that the business case was not strong enough to warrant the investment.

The PEAK Coalition apparently believes that there are problems with payments for the existing generators.  I have neither the background or time to evaluate those claims in detail so I cannot comment on them.  The fact that there has been a lot of turnover in ownership for New York’s peaking units suggests that no one is making great profits under the existing system.  Moreover, it should be kept in mind that in the de-regulated market, generation owners have no obligation to serve.  If they cannot make money they will just shut down.

Clean Energy Alternatives

This report proposes replacing peaker plants with “renewable and clean energy alternatives”.  It states:

However, solar and wind power alone cannot replace peaker plants, because the power they produce cannot be dispatched on command, and they have limitations on when they generate energy (e.g., solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can only generate optimal energy amounts on sunny days). For this reason, wind and solar energy systems are known as variable renewable energy sources. Combining battery storage technologies with renewables can address this limitation. Replacing peaker plants with batteries has now become a viable and profitable solution, due to the rapidly declining cost of energy storage systems.  Ideally, the batteries replacing peaker plants would be charged with local, renewable energy resources.

The motivation for the PSE peaker project that provides the technical basis of this report appears to support the use of batteries as a clean energy alternative to fossil-fired power plants.  By motivation I mean the likely source of funding for their analysis.  As a result, it is no surprise that batteries are touted as the solution.  Unfortunately, the PEAK coalition report fails to temper the enthusiasm of the battery “solution”.  Statements such as “Experts have found—and real-world examples have proven—that battery storage and renewable generation may be less expensive to develop and manage than the rarely used but heavily polluting fossil fuel power plants, while also meeting or exceeding the same performance standards” are suspect at best.

For example, I will consider options to build new generation to replace the energy produced at the Astoria Gas Turbine, Gowanus Generating Station, and Narrows Generating Station peaking plants on a typical high-load day – June 18, 2018.  All three plants operate simple-cycle combustion turbines that can burn natural gas or kerosene. All three facilities are on the order of 50 years old and, in my opinion, should be replaced.

The peak hourly load in this example was 752 MW so I used US Energy Information Administration (EIA) construction cost data for electric generators installed in 2017 information to estimate costs.  The report provides $/kW estimates for different technologies, locations and configurations.  I estimated the cost of a new combined cycle power plant similar to the one proposed to re-power Gowanus and Narrows and what was proposed for the two permit applications for re-powering the Astoria gas turbine facility.  According to EIA the average construction cost ($/kilowatt of installed nameplate capacity) of a combined cycle unit was $829 so a replacement facility would cost $674 million.  The average construction cost ($/kilowatt of installed nameplate capacity) of a utility-scale solar PV facility using crystalline silicon, axis-based tracking panels is $2,135 so a replacement facility would cost $1,606 million or nearly twice as much.   The average construction cost ($/kilowatt of installed nameplate capacity) of a land-based wind turbine facility (plant size 200-500 MW) is $1,526 so a replacement facility would cost $1,148 million.  It is often said that renewable energy is cheaper than fossil-fired energy but these numbers from 2017 clearly are refute that presumption.

The bigger problem, and one that should always be kept in mind that even if the cost of a solar and wind are equal to or a little less than the cost of a new fossil-fired plant, renewable energy is not dispatchable.  In this example I will only address the storage needed to handle the output for the existing peaking turbines but because renewable energy is diffuse transmission lines are needed.  Fossil-fired units provide grid support services but solar and wind generators do not.  Those support services are not considered in this example.

My interpretation of the PSE proposed alternative and the PEAK Coalition plan is to rely on energy storage to replace the output of the existing combustion turbines.  The Calculated Cost Breakdown for a U.S. Li-ion Standalone Storage System for June 18 2018 Example Peak provides the information necessary to estimate the energy storage batteries necessary to replace the turbines as well as the estimated battery requirements.  I simply estimated battery configurations needed by picking a capacity to cover the minimum needed for as long a period as possible and then repeated the process until the storage capacity met the observed load.  For example, at Astoria there were six hours of load and a battery with 280 MW capacity operating for six hours combined with a battery with 200 MW operating for one hour could completely cover the generation at that facility.  This simplistic approach also does not include energy losses due to charging and discharging.

I relied on two National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) reports to estimate the costs of energy storage: “2018 U.S. Utility-Scale Photovoltaics-Plus-Energy Storage System Cost Benchmark” and “Life Prediction Model for Grid-Connected Li-ion Battery Energy Storage System”.  I estimated the parameters used by NREL to project costs so that I could calculate the cost of any battery configuration.  Keep in mind that I did not try to optimize battery resources in any way so these should be considered first-cut estimates.  I estimate that $1,797 million of Li-Ion batteries would be required to replace the power assuming that the battery capacity equals the observed generation.

It turns out that assumption is wrong because the second NREL report abstract notes that “The lifetime of these batteries will vary depending on their thermal environment and how they are charged and discharged. Optimal utilization of a battery over its lifetime requires characterization of its performance degradation under different storage and cycling conditions.”   The report concludes: “Without active thermal management, 7 years lifetime is possible provided the battery is cycled within a restricted 47% DOD operating range. With active thermal management, 10 years lifetime is possible provided the battery is cycled within a restricted 54% operating range.”  Because of the high cost of the batteries I assume that it would be best to extend the lifetime as much as possible.  When the 54% operating range constraint is added, more batteries are required and cost to replace the power produced by these three peaking plants on June 18, 2018 would be $3,651 million.  One other thing needs to be pointed out. If we assume that the life expectancy of the combustion turbines, solar arrays and wind turbines is 30 years that means that the battery storage for the renewable power would have to be replaced twice over the lifetime of the facilities.

Furthermore, the energy storage estimates in this example have no real-world counter parts.  According to the Hornsdale Power Reserve website “At 100MW/129MWh, the Hornsdale Power Reserve is the largest lithium-ion battery in the world, and provides network security services to South Australian electricity consumers in concert with the South Australian Government and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)”.  According to the PEAK coalition report “In October 2019, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the development of a 316-MW, 8-hour-duration battery at the Ravenswood Generating Station in Long Island City”.

Dirty Energy, Big Money states “Experts have found—and real-world examples have proven—that battery storage and renewable generation may be less expensive to develop and manage than the rarely used but heavily polluting fossil fuel power plants, while also meeting or exceeding the same performance standards”.  This statement is just plain wrong.  As soon as energy storage is added to the renewable “solution” the projected costs rise exponentially and there are no real-world examples for policy decisions.

Benefits of the PEAK Coalition Proposed Alternative

The report claims that “Replacing peaker plants with renewable energy and battery storage, if done right, brings a host of benefits in addition to efficient, clean, dispatchable electricity.”  The report does not explain how a “done right” replacement with renewable energy and battery storage could be accomplished.  For example, there is no apparent recognition that the NYISO currently requires that at least 80% of New York City’s electric generating capacity needs be met through in‐City generation. My impression is that the presumption is that the PEAK Coalition believes that solar can be used in the city.  However, I think the space requirements make that unlikely.  For ten Article Ten solar energy applications currently in the queue, 5.4 acres per MW was the lowest spatial requirement.  For my example of 752 MW of peaking power, 602 MW would have to be produced in the city and at 5.4 acres per MW that means that there would have to be five square miles of solar panels.  I am sure that there are no open areas that size so the panels will have to be installed on buildings.  That would add to the costs substantially.

The lack of any kind of plan is not the only issue with proposed alternative.  The benefits listed are as superficial and innumerate.  Consider the discussion on resiliency per: “A transition toward renewable energy and energy storage technologies can provide energy resiliency, backup power, and other benefits at the local level”.  I do not consider an energy system resilient when it is unavailable half the time like solar or is subject to the vagaries of weather like the wind.  The current emphasis is on the summer peak but New York’s aspirational climate targets will require electrification of heating a necessity which means the winter peak will become much more of an issue.  As a result, the worst-case load situation may not be the annual peak peak but could be a combination of high load and low renewable energy inputs.  That is not the sign of a resilient system.  It gets worse when the report states “Resiliency planning is particularly important for critical facilities throughout the five boroughs, including hospitals, evacuation centers, cooling centers, and food distributions hubs” and gives an example of a solar array on a school that serves as an evacuation center during emergencies.  If the facility is critical then redundant energy supplies not based on intermittent renewables are needed.  If there is an ice storm and the power lines go down then what?  The obvious, but politically incorrect solution, is to have a natural gas fired turbine generate the power needed by the micro-grid.

Another benefit claimed is reduced air pollution and resulting health improvements.  The report states “Using renewable energy to charge batteries eliminates greenhouse gas emissions. Statewide, it is estimated that adding 1,500 MW of energy storage would avoid one million tons of CO2 emissions”.  In order to get the one million ton reduction the addition of 1,500 MW would have to displace the large steam boilers PSE includes in their peaker category.  Those are not candidates for battery storage replacement.   The report claims: “With over 1.2 million New Yorkers living within a one-mile radius of a fossil fuel peaker plant, the reduction of air pollutants from peaker plants would have a significant impact on the health and quality of life of people living in the five boroughs of New York City”.  As previously explained in this post, that claim is very unlikely to be true.

Another benefit claimed would address the energy burden on under-resourced communities.  The report explains that energy poverty is a serious issue in New York City and goes on to claim that a significant portion of utility bills is directly related to payments for the “outdated fossil fuel peaker plants”.  I do not understand how environmental and social justice organizations can support the idea that the renewable and energy storage transition will lead to lower costs when every jurisdiction that has tried to implement those resources has seen marked increases in prices.  I am convinced that New York’s climate aspirations will result in much higher prices and the communities that these organizations purport to serve will be impacted the most.

The final benefit claimed is that the proposed transition will mean that “Instead of capacity payments going to private hedge funds or equity firms that own fossil fuel peaker plants, billions of dollars in ratepayer funds could instead be used to invest locally in publicly-owned and community-owned, distributed renewable and battery storage alternatives in New York City.”  The numbers shown in this report suggest that the transition will be far more expensive that investing in a natural-gas fired combined cycle power plant.  According to EIA the power plant that could provide the energy produced by three old peaking power facilities on June 18, 2018 would cost $674 million and would last at least 30 years.  If in-city solar were built it would cost $1,606 million and could also last 30 years.  The fatal flaw in the economic argument is the need for energy storage.  I estimate that, based on NREL estimates, energy storage would cost $3,651 but would only last ten years.  It is very unlikely that energy storage can come down significantly from the $10.953 million 30-year cost.

Policies to Advance the Transition

I only have one comment on this section.  The report notes that “New York City, strict fire safety rules make it very challenging to install energy storage batteries in most buildings, though there are clear guidelines for siting these batteries outdoors.”  There is a reason for those strict fire safety rules, namely that if the batteries are operated improperly, they can catch fire.  The health impacts of the toxic pollutants emitted during a battery fire are a real concern that cannot be overlooked.

 Conclusion

I will conclude this post by addressing one paragraph:

“Fossil peaker plants in New York City are perhaps the most egregious energy-related example of what environmental injustice means today. Throughout one of the most diverse and technologically developed cities in the world, numerous polluting oil and gas peaker plants in the City are sited in low income communities and communities of color. These environmental justice communities continue to bear the brunt of the harmful impacts from dirty energy and industrial infrastructure that pose significant public health and environmental hazards. At the same time, private companies receive billions of dollars to keep this polluting infrastructure in place.”

As shown here, the evidence presented for the egregious environmental injustice claim is more rhetoric than fact.  There is no benign way to make electricity but affordable and reliable electricity is a necessity for public safety, health and welfare.  Today’s question is whether New York City can risk reliability on unproven technology at the scale needed for its needs and can afford the costs needed to make intermittent and diffuse renewable energy available when and where it is needed.  I do not dispute that there is a problem with peaker power plants in New York City but this study over-estimates the effects of the existing plants and under-estimates the difficulty replacing them with anything other than fossil fuels.

 

 

PEAK Coalition Dirty Energy, Big Money: Background on the Issues

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.

State Response

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.

PEAK Coalition

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”.

Report Acknowledgements

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 report was made possible through the generous support of the Scherman Foundation’s Rosin Fund. The views reflected in the report are entirely those of the authors.

Environmental Justice

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:

    1. scope, magnitude, frequency, and duration of the impacts on the environment, public health, and quality of life in the Impact Study Area;
    2. nature of the impacts on sensitive populations including children and the elderly;
    3. degree of increased risk in the event of natural or man-made disasters; and
    4. 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

PM2.5 Health Impacts in New York City

In the last several days I have been drafting a review of  the PEAK Coalition report entitled: “Dirty Energy, Big Money” and today I was working on the air quality health impacts section.  I also noticed today that the usual suspects are claiming links between air pollution and Covid-19 susceptibility. In this post I will explain how I could be convinced that the reports underlying presumption that inhalable particulates have dire health impacts is correct.

I am a retired electric utility meteorologist with nearly 40 years-experience analyzing the effects of air quality and meteorology on electric operations.  I have been reviewed health impact claims throughout my career.  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.

Background

Health impacts associated with inhalable particulates, also known as PM2.5 because it refers to airborne particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, turn out to be the primary rationale for all the recent EPA air quality emission reductions cost-benefit analyses.  For example, EPA’s air toxics emission limits were cost effective not because of direct impacts of mercury and other heavy metals but because the control systems for those pollutants would have decreased PM2.5 concentrations and led to alleged health improvements.

Steve Milloy’s Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA explains the problems with those health impact claims.  Milloy points out that no one has proven a biological explanation why the inhaled particles will cause fatal inflammation.  The alleged relationship is based on epidemiological statistical evaluation of air quality and health impact data.  The basic problem is that there are many confounding factors known to cause the observed health impacts and trying to tease air quality impacts out of the mix is difficult to prove.

It gets worse.  The studies that are the basis for the alleged air quality health impacts were at relatively high ambient concentrations.  Make no mistake that air pollution can be a very bad thing but the levels of pollution in the United States that clearly caused health impacts occurred many years ago and included a mix of pollutants not found anywhere in this country today.  It gets worse because the dose-health impact relationship is being extrapolated using the linear no-threshold model which has been used to estimate the dose response for radiation health impacts.  The concept is that there is no threshold below which there is no effect.  However, in my opinion and others, extrapolating measurements and responses at high levels down to levels near the level of detection is an unwarranted presumption.  Nonetheless, advocates for ever lower air quality improvements routinely claim health impacts behave the same way.

Public Health Impacts

The primary public health reference in the PEAK Coalition report I am reviewing was the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Air Pollution and the Health of New Yorkers report.  The PEAK coalition description of air quality public health impacts quotes the conclusion from the DOHMOH report: “Each year, PM2.5 pollution in [New York City] causes more than 3,000 deaths, 2,000 hospital admissions for lung and heart conditions, and approximately 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma in children and adults.”  These conclusions are for average air pollution levels in New York City as a whole over the period 2005-2007.

The DOHMOH report specified four scenarios for comparisons (DOHMOH Figure 4) and calculated health events that it attributed to citywide PM2.5 (DOHMOH Table 5).  Based on their results the report notes that:

Even a feasible, modest reduction (10%) in PM2.5 concentrations could prevent more than 300 premature deaths, 200 hospital admissions and 600 emergency department visits. Achieving the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city” would result in even more substantial public health benefits.

It is important to note how air quality has improved since the time of this analysis.  The NYS DEC air quality monitoring system has operated a PM2.5 monitor at the Botanical Garden in New York city since 1999 so I compared the data from that site for the same period as this analysis relative to the most recent data available (Data from Figure 4. Baseline annual average PM2.5 levels in New York City). The Botanical Garden site had an annual average PM2.5 level of 13 µg/m3 for the same period as the report’s 13.9 µg/m3 “current conditions” city-wide average (my estimate based on their graph).  The important thing to note is that the latest available average (2016-2018) for a comparable three-year average at the Botanical Garden is 8.1 µg/m3 which represents a 38% decrease.  That is substantially lower than the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city” scenario at an estimated city-wide average of 10.9 µg/m3.

Note that in DOHMOH Table 5 the annual health events for the 10% reduction and “cleanest” city scenarios are shown as changes not as the total number of events listed for the current levels scenario.  My modified table (Modified Table 5. Annual health events attributable to citywide PM2 5 level) converts those estimates to totals so that the numbers are directly comparable.  I excluded the confidence interval information because I don’t know how to convert them in this instance.

I confirmed that the DOHMOH analysis used a linear no-threshold health impact analysis and used their relationship to estimate the effect of the observed air quality reduction. I tested the linear hypothesis by scaling the “current level” scenario number of events to the proportion of the PM 2.5 concentrations (the last row in the table) for the “current level” and the other two scenarios.  My estimated health impacts were all within 1% which proves that the DOHMOH analysis relied on a linear no-threshold approach.  As a result, that means that I could estimate the health impact improvements due to the observed reductions in PM2.5 as shown in the last three columns in the modified table.  I estimate that the observed reduction in PM2.5 concentrations prevented nearly 1,300 premature deaths, 800 hospital admissions and 2400 emergency department visits.

Conclusion

In order to convince me that the PM2.5 health impacts claimed by MOHDOH and many others are correct I need to see confirmation with observed data.  The DOHMOH report claims that in 2005-2007 that PM2.5 concentrations led to, for example, 3,200 premature mortality events.  I have no idea how that number compares to observed values for this parameter or the others included.  I estimate that for the observed reductions in measured PM2.5 the number of premature mortality events would be reduced 1,296 events down to 1,904 events.

The first question for the health experts is whether the change from 2005-2007 to 2016-2018 of 1,296 events could be observed against natural variations or is that number within the normally expected variation.  If not then my hope for verification is not possible but more importantly it also means that the gloom and doom stories of significant health impacts are base on nothing more than insignificant statistical noise that is not really observable.  If those data are greater than expected natural variation, then it would be possible to document improvements in these alleged health impacts due to the 38% decrease in PM2.5.  If that is the case, then I stand corrected.

Here is the thing though.  The percentage of people with asthma in the United States from 2001 to 2018 is not showing a decrease at the same time ambient levels of all air pollutants are going down substantially.  While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, no correlation with a purported cause indicates a bet on a dead horse.  Therefore, I am not holding my breath that the data will show the purported benefits.

Encouraging COVID-19 Information for New York

Doctors have warned that air pollution increases the risks of dying from COVID-19.  This post compares air pollution levels in Italy with the highest European COV-19 mortality with New York State where the largest number of COVID-19 cases have occurred in the US.  I am sure the general impression is that New York City air quality is so bad that, if this relationship is true, that similar mortality rates are inevitable but I will show that is not the case.

Background

In an interview Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, a German microbiology specialist, explains that the reason for the apparent global different mortality rates for COVID-19 may be because of different local situations.  He points out Northern Italy and China both have air pollution problems as well as high mortality rates.  Consistent with others he suggests that the lungs of individuals in those areas have been chronically injured over decades and this influences the mortality rates.

I compared Italian data with New York data that I had on hand.  Italian air quality data are available at the European Environment Agency Italy air pollution country fact sheet website.  Air quality data from New York’s monitoring network are available at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation air quality monitoring website, in their annual reports, and there is an Environmental Protection Agency website that also has the data.  Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5 measures particles that are generally 2.5 micrometers or smaller), Particulate 10 (PM10 measures particles that are generally 10 micrometers or smaller), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone are measured in both jurisdictions.  Unfortunately. the readily available summary data for PM10 and ozone data are not directly comparable because the air quality standards are different.  New York has only a few monitors for NO2.   The pollutant of most concern for health impacts is PM 2.5 because these particles are small enough to get inhaled into the lung.  There are seven monitoring sites within New York State with directly comparable PM2.5 data and that have reported data since 1999.  The only issue is that those data are not readily available so I have manually extracted these data from annual reports over the years.

Comparison

The Comparison of Italian Average and Selected New York State Air Monitors Annual Average Air Quality Data table includes Italian and New York PM2.5 annual average measurements that are encouraging.  Italian data are downloadable in three categories: Traffic which represents the highest expected levels, suburban/urban background which I assume represents ambient conditions for most people, and rural background which should represent atmospheric concentrations without Italian impacts.  The New York data are listed for the Botanical Garden station in New York City, three Upstate cities, a monitoring location on Long Island that is downwind of New York City and two rural background stations.

The Italian traffic impacts site had a PM2.5 annual average of 18.3 µg/m3, the suburban/urban background was 17.2 µg/m3and the rural background was 16.1 µg/m3.  The good news is that the monitoring location with the highest observed annual PM2.5 concentrations was at the Botanical Garden monitor in New York City was 8.0 µg/m3 which was less than half the rural Italian average background.  Note that in the most recent year there were a total of 23 PM2.5 air monitors operating in New York City.  In 2018 the Botanical Garden monitor had an annual average greater than or equal to all but four of the monitors.  The highest annual average was 10.4 µg/m3 still well under the Italian rural background.  The important thing to note is that all of New York PM2.5 annual averages are smaller than the lowest Italian traffic and suburban/urban background sites since 1999 and the rural background site averages since 2002.  There is no question that New York State air quality is substantively better than Italy for PM2.5.

I also list the nitrogen dioxide data.  New York NO2 air quality levels are only marginally better than Italy.   It is instructive to compare the two pollutants.  NO2 primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel. NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.  Most small particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.  I suspect the difference between New York and Italian air quality reflects the success of the EPA and New York State air pollution control efforts since 1990.  Since 1999 New York power plant sulfur dioxide emissions are down 99% and nitrogen oxides emissions are down 92%.  Coupled with concurrent reductions from industrial sources this has been a primary factor for the PM2.5 reductions.  I guess that Italian sources have not reduced their emissions as much.  On the other hand, New York continues to struggle with the ozone ambient air quality standards in part because nitrogen oxides emissions from the transportation sector have not come down nearly as much.  This would explain why the Italian and New York NO2 data don’t differ as much.

Conclusion

I think there is a general perception that New York City air quality is poor.  The fact is that while there are still some overall New York issues, the pollution levels have improved significantly.  The good news is that if the hypothesis that the COVID-19 mortality rate is related to chronic air pollution levels and that PM2.5 is a good surrogate for that pollution, then these data suggest that factor will not have as much of an effect in New York State in general and New York City either.  The PM2.5 concentrations are significantly lower than either Italy and, I would presume, China too.

Abuse of Air Quality Trends Data

When I first saw a graph from a New York Times article entitled “America’s air quality worsens, ending years of gains, study says” my first thought was that the reporter must have mis-read the analysis report. However, National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 26381 “Recent Increases in Air Pollution: Evidence and Implications for Mortality” by Karen Clay and Nicholas Z. Muller (hereinafter “Clay and Muller”) from Carnegie Mellon University apparently does claim that air quality is getting worse. I am spurred to check this claim out because the last time I checked all the air quality trends were down.

Although the emphasis of my work before retirement was environmental regulatory analysis coupled with emissions reporting I have always been primarily an air quality meteorologist. My experience includes managing an ambient air quality monitoring network, modeling air quality and interpreting the monitoring and modeling results for regulatory applications. Frankly, this claim struck a nerve with me and I felt I had to respond. 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.

Background
The abstract for the Clay and Muller paper states:

After declining by 24.2% from 2009 to 2016, annual average fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the United States in counties with monitors increased by 5.5% between 2016 and 2018. Increases occurred in multiple census regions and in counties that were in and out of attainment with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). We explore channels through which the increase may have occurred including increases in economic activity, increases in wildfires, and decreases in Clean Air Act enforcement actions. The health implications of this increase in PM2.5 between 2016 and 2018 are significant. The increase was associated with 9,700 additional premature deaths in 2018. At conventional valuations, these deaths represent damages of $89 billion.

The National Trend of PM2.5 graph attributed to the paper in the New York Times article shows an “alarming” reversal of the air quality trend. I am only going to respond to this trend claim and the discussion of possible causes. The discussion of health implications deserves a response too but that will have to wait.

PM2.5

The EPA PM basics page describes this pollutant.  PM2.5 is particulate matter with a diameter 2.5 micrometers and smaller.  It is also called fine inhalable particles and the key point is that these particles are so small that they can be inhaled deeply into the lungs.  Although this can clearly cause health problems there are controversies about threshold effects.  The EPA reference describes the sources of PM:

These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals.  Some are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.  Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.

Measuring particles this small is difficult and a representative national network for monitoring PM2.5 has only been available since 2000.  However, because most of these fine particles are created from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, we can use trends from those pollutants as a surrogate for expected levels of PM2.5.

EPA has trend data readily available for all the national ambient air quality standard pollutants.  Also included at the website is an interactive trend report.  Importantly for this post, the EPA website provides links for easy data downloads.

Clay and Muller Analysis

Clay and Muller used daily data from the EPA Air Quality Data System for all observations in the contiguous United States from 2009 to 2018.  They considered not only the total PM2.5 concentration but also the three major species: ammonium nitrate, sulfate and elemental carbon.  The dataset of 1.8 million daily readings was statistically processed to calculate trends not only nation-wide but also in different regions of the country.

Once they found their worrisome trend they examined three possible channels through which the recent increase may have occurred: economic activity, wild fires, and enforcement.  Economic activity was studied by looking at the speciated PM2.5 data to attribute the source of pollution.  Wildfire effects were determined by looking at the West, Midwest, and California regions by omitting June through September data.  To estimate the effect of enforcement they used an EPA database of “actions resulting in a penalty for violations of section 113d of the Act”.

The New York Times article claims that this work shows a reversal of a decades-long trend toward cleaner air and quotes study co-author Nick Muller, a professor of economics, engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon as saying “After a decade or so of reductions this increase is a real about-face.”

My Analysis

In order to do this kind of analysis correctly is a big deal.  Ambient air quality refers to the make-up of the air we breathe.  It is affected by air pollution emissions and the meteorological conditions that affect the transport and diffusion of the material between the time it is emitted and the time we breathe it.  For regulatory assessments whether the ambient concentrations comply with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards you need to consider both of those components.  As you can imagine setting up an inventory of all the pollutants that affect PM2.5, developing a meteorological database to model transport and diffusion and finally running a model that not only incorporates those factors but also includes the chemistry that changes the emissions to the chemicals we breathe is a massive undertaking.  Nonetheless, I think we can do something simpler to test the conclusions of the Clay and Muller paper.

Contrary to popular opinion calculating environmental trends is not as simple as you might first imagine.  For example, if the number and location of monitoring stations changes over time then the trends may change because of those changes and not because of some underlying difference in emissions, economic activity or enforcement actions.  As noted previously EPA analyzes and reports on air quality trends.  Importantly their primary consideration is to make sure the data they report represents what is actually happening and does not include data artifacts.  Another point is that because meteorological conditions affect pollution concentrations, we should expect variations in monitored values solely due to weather.  In order to minimize that effect the longer the period of record for the data the better because it averages the weather impacts out.

EPA PM2.5 trend data from a representative network of stations is available from the EPA website starting in 2000 so the obvious first thing to do is to look at all the data available.  The EPA Air Quality Data Summary table lists the annual nation-wide average, the year-to-year differences and the difference over the entire period of record and the difference between 2016 and 2018.  These numbers corroborate the claim that PM2.5 air quality did get worse the last two years.  However, the period of record air quality data in my table show that there has been a marked improvement since 2000:  PM2.5 is down nearly 40%, SO2 is down 82% and NOx is down 33%.  Even though there was a concentration increase the last two years, note that there were three other years when the PM2.5 concentrations failed to go down and two of them had higher increases than the last two years. Similar results are shown in the SO2 and NOx data.

Remember that ambient concentrations are a function of weather and emissions.  Rather than trying to estimate the effect of emissions on concentrations by looking at the observed content it is simpler, and much more likely to be accurate, to simply look at the emissions.  EPA also provides emissions trend data.  The EPA Emissions Data Summary table lists annual PM2.5, SO2 and NOx emissions data in the same format as the air quality data summary table.  These data include emissions from electric utilities, industry, storage, transportation, and a miscellaneous category that includes wildfires.  Estimating emissions from the wide variety of sources means that there is a wide range of data quality but I assume that these values are appropriate for the purpose at hand.  Note that according to these data PM2.5, SO2 and NOx emissions all went down not only over the period of record but also between 2016 and 2018.

Clay and Muller examined three possible channels through which the recent increase may have occurred: economic activity, wild fires, and enforcement.  In their analysis of economic activity, they conclude that “The chemical composition of particulates point to increased use of natural gas and to vehicle miles traveled as likely contributors to the increase in PM2.5”.  Because their analysis did not consider the potential effect of weather on transport and diffusion and because the emissions trend was down even while the ambient concentrations went up, I disagree with that conclusion.  With regards to wildfires, Clay and Muller conclude that wild fires “may account for some of the observed increase in PM2.5 from 2016 to 2018, but not for the general pattern of decline and then reversal.  I think that their methodology is too coarse to pick up a wildfire signal.  Even though the paper doesn’t find a link between enforcement actions and the PM2.5 trend they conclude “The decline in enforcement actions, however, is concerning in light of the increases in air pollution in both attainment and nonattainment counties after 2016.”  In the first place in my experience the majority of enforcement actions have little to do with emissions levels and mostly to do with reporting inconsistencies but I believe it is much more likely that enforcement actions are going down because the regulatory agencies are doing a good job.  That is to be applauded not to be a matter of concern.

Conclusion

I am not impressed with the methodology used in this paper.  Number crunching over a million records to determine a trend has risks that professors of economics apparently did not recognize.  Ambient levels of pollution are affected not only be emissions and the factors that they examined but also by meteorology and monitoring system issues.  The inter-annual changes noted were more likely simply due to meteorology as any change in emissions and precursor emissions that the Clay and Muller paper claimed.

I am trying to give the authors the benefit of the doubt that they did not know any better but I am frustrated that they apparently did not bother to seek the advice of any air quality meteorologist or air pollution monitoring scientist.  I am confident that anyone of those experts would have said the longer the trend the better and don’t expect a perfectly decreasing ambient air quality trend even when the emissions are decreasing over time.  Trying to tease out a rationale for an air quality trend change likely less than the variability of the measurements due to weather is an abuse of air quality trends.  Now that these results have shown up in the New York Times many people have been mislead.

New York State Air Pollution Concentration Trends to 2017

I do not think that the general public understands how much improvement there has been to New York State’s air quality and how big the emissions reductions have been.   This is a summary of the trend of observed levels of SO2, NO2 and ozone since 1980 in New York State and it shows significant improvements. This is a companion to an earlier post showing emissions trends.

I have to apologize for my inability to incorporate tables and graphs in the body of a WordPress blog post. If I had that ability then this post would be a heck of a lot easier to read. Instead I offer three alternatives. Each of the figures and tables is available by links in the following post. I also have prepared a pdf version of this post and you can view that entire document NYS Air Pollution Concentration Trends. Finally that document and a spreadsheet with the data, tables and graphs are available at the NY Pragmatic Environmentalist dropbox.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has a good air quality trend website, it does not have New York only data available and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation does not provide a summary of air quality trends. In order to assess New York trends I accessed ambient monitoring data from an EPA website. I made no attempt to limit the monitoring sites used. I just calculated values for all reporting stations. As a result this is not an accurate picture of trends because changing stations can skew the results.

According to the EPA air quality Status and Trends document national air quality levels have decreased significantly from 1990 to 2017:

  • Carbon monoxide -77%
  • Lead – 80%
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (annual) – 56%
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (1-hour) – 50%
  • Ozone – 22%
  • Particulate Matter (2.5µ) (annual) – 41%
  • Particulate Matter (2.5µ) (24-hour) – 40%
  • Sulfur Dioxide – 88%

For the New York only data I found the following reduction trends:

  • Nitrogen Dioxide (annual) – 52%
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (1-hour) – 63%
  • Ozone – 23%
  • Sulfur Dioxide – 93%

New York State annual average ambient (SO2, NO2 and Ozone) trends are shown in Figure 1 NYS Ambient Concentration Trends NYS Trend Summary for SO2 NO2 and Ozone.

In order to compare the air quality to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards I need to show the data in the appropriate reporting format. The standards use complicated averages so the following graphs use the appropriate parameters.

The most problematic pollutant is ozone. The Ozone standard is the 0.070 ppm measured as the annual fourth-highest daily maximum 8-hour concentration, averaged over 3 years. Figure 2 NYS Maximum Annual Ambient 8-hr 4th High Ozone shows the trend of the highest observed value of the fourth-highest daily maximum 8-hour concentration. While averaging over 3 years reduces the values somewhat clearly New York is close to the standard. The highest value in 1988 was 0.148 and in 2017 the observed value was 0.079.

EPA recently instituted a one-hour NO2 standard of 100 ppb measured as the 98th percentile of 1-hour daily maximum concentrations averaged over 3 years. I did not include the 3-year averaging component but Figure 3 NYS Maximum Annual Ambient NO2 Max 98th Percentile shows the trend of the maximum observed annual value in the state. There are no observed values greater than the standard.

EPA also has a 1-hour NAAQS for SO2. That limit is 75 ppb measured as the 99th percentile of 1-hour daily maximum concentrations, averaged over 3 years. I did not average these values either so Figure 4 NYS Maximum Annual Ambient NO2 Max 98th Percentile shows the trend of the maximum observed value. There has been a sharp decline in observed values until 2017 when a higher value was observed. That is the result of adding data from a new private monitoring network specifically designed to determine whether there is an issue with this limit for their facility. In 2017 that monitor recorded a 90.5 ppb value for the 99th percentile.

The spreadsheet, NYS EPA Data for SO2 NO2 and Ozone, lists all the monitoring data for those parameters since 1980. Because of the size of that spreadsheet I did not include it. The spreadsheet included at the dropbox has a summary tab with the data and graphs for the information shown in this post.

 

New York State Air Pollution Emissions Status

I do not think that the general public understands how much improvement there has been to New York State’s air quality and how big the emissions reductions have been.   This is a summary of the trend of SO2, NOx and CO2 since 1999 in New York State and it shows extraordinary improvements. Later, I will prepare a summary of the changes to the air quality measurements which also show big improvements.

I have to apologize for my inability to incorporate tables and graphs in the body of a WordPress blog post. If I had that ability then this post would be a heck of a lot easier to read. Instead I offer three alternatives. Each of the figures and tables is available by links in the following post. I also have prepared a version of this post and you can view NYS Air Pollution Emission Status Summary  as a pdf document.  Finally that document, three spreadsheets with the data, tables and graphs, and a detailed documentation summary of the data processing analysis are available at the NY Pragmatic Environmentalist dropbox.

The emissions and operating data used for this summary were downloaded from the EPA Clean Air Markets Division Air Markets Program Data website. The website includes a query tool that I have used for years to extract specific data from national emission monitoring programs. For this analysis I downloaded SO2, NOx and CO2 emissions data, operating time, heat input and load data as well as unit-specific information on fuel use and unit type so that I could show what changes caused the emissions reductions. Because this is a New York-centric blog I primarily focused on New York emissions.

Figure 1 NYS SO2 Emissions by Fuel Type documents the annual SO2 emissions from 1998 to 2017 by the primary fuel type reported to EPA. In 1998 SO2 emissions totaled 309,775 tons and in 2017 were only 2,561, a 99% reduction. Table 1 EPA CAMD Data New York State Air Pollution Emissions from All Program Units presents the emissions totals and includes the coal-firing totals. It turns out that reductions in coal-firing and residual-oil firing account for the reduction in SO2 mass. New York is unique in that there are five relatively new large residual oil-fired boiler units in the state. Although there were changes in the limit of sulfur in fuel the primary driver for the reductions was the cost of oil relative to natural gas coupled with the fact that there is essentially no SO2 emitted by natural gas firing. At this time these units survive because they can provide 1000s of MW when necessary and their operational costs are low enough that the payments to be able to provide that capacity are sufficient to be viable. Note, however, that they cannot reduce emissions much more because they still have to run a couple of times a year to prove that they can provide capacity. Coal-firing units in New York were older and were required to install extensive controls over this period to continue to operate. The cost differential between natural gas and coal was the final blow to viability and for all intents and purposes only one facility remains operating today. Governor Cuomo has proposed regulations to eliminate coal burning at even that unit by 2020. These data suggest the de minimus level of future SO2 emissions will be around 1,000 tons per year.

Figure 2 NYS NOx Emissions by Fuel Type documents the annual NOx emissions from 1998 to 2017 by the primary fuel type reported to EPA. In the peak year of 2000 NOx emissions totaled 101,635 tons and in 2017 were only 11,253, an 89% reduction. The coal and residual oil units were also the largest sources for NOx so they account for most of the reduction. On the other hand there still are significant NOx emissions from natural gas firing so the reductions are not as large. Eliminating coal firing will drop emissions another 2,770 tons from 2017 levels. Further reductions will come from replacing older, higher emitting units with new cleaner ones. If I had to guess on a future de minimus level it would be around 7,000 tons per year.

Figure 3 NYS Statewide SO2 and NOx Rates documents the changes in annual emission rates (lbs/mmBtu) over the same period. The reason for these changes is the same as the mass changes. Keep in mind that mass emissions are a function of these rates and the operating levels. If there is more demand on fossil-fired units then they will emit more. Of course, if renewable energy reduces the need for fossil-fired units or if demand for electrical energy goes down due to energy efficiency efforts then mass emissions will go down.

CO2 emissions are a bit complicated. There are two CO2 data sets included: one from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program units and the other from all programs. In New York there are some small peaking turbines that are not presently included in RGGI. Unfortunately the annual emissions are not directly comparable because units that are not affected by RGGI do not have to report annual emissions only the ozone season (May through September). Also note that the RGGI CO2 Allowance Tracking System (COATS) data system also provides annual numbers for the RGGI only units and those numbers are the same as the RGGI only units from CAMD. Figure 4 NYS CO2 Emissions by Fuel Type lists the annual CO2 emissions from 1998 to 2017 by the primary fuel type reported to EPA. Table 2 EPA CAMD Data NYS Air Pollution Annual Emissions from RGGI Program Units lists the annual emissions from these units. These data show that CO2 emissions reductions to date have been caused by fuel switching but importantly there isn’t much left to switch. As a result, future CO2 emission reductions will be more difficult.

In addition to annual market trading programs there are trading programs that run from May 1 to September 30 for NOx emissions to reduce ozone.   Figure 5 NYS Ozone Season NOx Emissions shows the Ozone Season NOx emissions from 1999 to 2017 by the primary fuel type reported to EPA. In 1999 NOx emissions totaled 47,314 tons and in 2017 were only 5,533 tons, an 88% reduction. Figure 6 NYS Ozone Season NOx Rate documents the changes in ozone season emission rates (lbs/mmBtu) over the same period. The state-wide NOx rate during the Ozone Season in 1999 was 0.202 lbs per mmBtu and was 0.053 in 2017, a 74% reduction. Similar to the annual numbers these reductions are primarily the result of fuel switching. Finally Table 3 New York State Ozone Season NOx Mass by Unit Type lists the Ozone Season NOx mass, heat input and NOx rate values sorted by major unit types: boilers, combined-cycle turbines and simple cycle turbines.

These trends show that New York State has done a superlative job reducing emissions.  There also are implications for future air pollution control programs in these data.  Any future reductions simply cannot be as effective because the current emissions are so low.  In addition, any program that claims air pollution emission benefits for reducing CO2 must recognize the current low rates and mass emissions or those benefit estimates are higher than appropriate.

 

Pragmatic Earth Day Success Story

I am an air quality meteorologist and a pragmatic environmentalist. My blog usually addresses topics where I appeared opposed to mainstream environmentalist dogma so it has been asked why I even consider myself an environmentalist. I support evidence based environmental controls. Since I started work in my field in 1976 there has been tremendous air quality improvement that addressed serious health and welfare problems. I want to document some of the improvements I have been a party to as an environmentalist in the electric generating industry on Earth Day 2018.

The two primary pollutants associated with acid rain are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. They are also associated with small particulate matter. United States sulfur dioxide emissions in 1970 31.2 million tons but were only 2.7 million tons in 2016 (91% reduction). United States nitrogen oxide emissions in 1970 26.9 million tons and in 2014 12.4 million tons (54% reduction).

I have been working in New York State most of my career. According to the EPA Clean Air Markets Division, over the twenty year period 1997 to 2016, the sulfur dioxide emission rate dropped 98% from 0.83 to 0.017 lbs per mmBtu. In the same time period, nitrogen oxides emissions dropped 75% from 0.24 to 0.061 lbs per mmBtu.

I am proud of the pollution control improvements at the facilities I worked with before I retired. In particular, I supported the Huntley and Dunkirk coal-fired power plants in Western New York from 1981 to 2010. My job was to report the emissions. The earliest sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides data I have for those two plants is from 1984 when the sulfur dioxide emission rate was 2.04 lbs of SO2 per mmBtu and the nitrogen oxide emission rate was 0.56 lbs of NOx per mmBtu. When I retired in 2010, the sulfur dioxide emission rate was 0.527 lbs of SO2 per mmBtu (81% reduction) and the nitrogen oxide emission rate was 0.159 lbs of NOx per mmBtu (73% reduction).

We worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to implement the control equipment necessary to reduce the emissions. Sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced by changing the sulfur content of the fuel, ultimately using Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming that had a much lower sulfur content that what was used in 1984. It is a testament to the operating staff at those plants that they figured out how to use a much different coal than what the plants were designed to burn when the plants were built before 1960. Nitrogen oxides were controlled by changing the burners a couple of times to more advanced technology and ultimately by adding selective non-catalytic reduction control systems. The addition of a baghouse with activated carbon injection also markedly reduced particulate, opacity and Hg emissions. Sadly despite all these improvements the cost of coal relative to natural gas made both plants uneconomic and they have since shut down.

As a result of these emission reductions, there has been a similar reduction in air pollution concentrations. EPA provides pollutant concentration trend data that documents those reductions. At EPA’s 42 nation-wide SO2 trend monitoring sites the annual average concentration has gone from 154 micrograms of SO2 per cubic meter in 1980 to only 20.2 in 2016 (87% reduction). At EPA’s 23 nitrogen dioxide trend monitoring sites the annual average concentration has gone from 111 micrograms of SO2 per cubic meter in 1980 to only 43.7 in 2016 (61% reduction).

Unfortunately, there has not been a similarly large relative concentration decrease for ozone. At EPA’s 206 nation-wide ozone trend monitoring sites the annual fourth maximum of daily maximum 8-hour average has gone from 0.101 ppm in 1980 to 0.070 in 2016 (31% reduction). Ozone is much more complicated pollutant because it is not directly emitted. Instead it is created in a photo-chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. As a result there are many more categories of sources to control which complicates improvements.

EPA and others tout the importance on human health of reductions in particulate matter, especially with small particulate matter known as PM-2.5 (the size of the particles is 2.5 microns). EPA only provides trends of PM-2.5 since 2000 because the monitoring equipment was not deployed until then. At EPA’s 455 nation-wide PM-2.5 trend monitoring sites the annual average concentration has gone from 13.4 micrograms per cubic meter in 2000 to only 7.7 in 2016. However, there is a strong correlation between ambient concentrations of PM-2.5 with SO2 and NO2. I did a multiple regression with the 2000-2016 PM-2.5 observations with SO2 and NO2 to guess at the ambient level in 1980. I predict that PM-2.5 concentrations have dropped 68% between 1980 and 2016.

The progress the United States has made in air quality improvement gets overlooked too often today when we seem to hear mostly about problems like ozone that still need to be addressed. However, before 1970 New York City was very polluted and that, for the most part, has been cleaned up. One should also keep in mind that there were some spectacularly wrong predictions made around the first earth day in 1970. Those predictions include the following air quality predictions:

  • In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”
  • Paul Ehrlich predicted in 1970 that “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during “smog disasters” in New York and Los Angeles.

Given the demonstrated improvement in air quality as opposed to apocalyptic projections of the past I hope readers keep that in mind when you hear current environmental doom and gloom stories.