Independent Researcher and Publisher,
Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York
[Editor’s Note: New York’s Pollution Justice Act is anything but environmental justice, whatever that is. There’s no justice in it for New Yorkers, in fact.]
Just when I think New York politicians cannot do anything more stupid something comes out that proves me wrong. On March 3, 2021 the New York State Senate passed the New York Pollution Justice Act of 2021. According to this law power plants that only run during peak periods are ripping off consumers, causing health impacts, and can be replaced with renewable energy systems. The premise is wrong, the rationale is incorrect, and the solution is risky. Coming so close to the Texas energy debacle any rational politician might think it would be inappropriate to try to dictate energy policy but the New York Senate majority thinks otherwise.
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 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 analyzing this issue. 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.
Overview of the New York Pollution Justice Act of 2021
The law affects a power plant that is located within one mile of an environmental justice community and is a “Replaceable peaker plant” defined as a major electric generating facility as defined in paragraph b of subdivision one of section 19-0312 that burns coal, oil, diesel or natural gas and was operational and generated electricity less than fifteen percent of the year during at least two years between two thousand ten through two thousand nineteen. Such plants must be replaced by the construction and operation of a renewable energy system, battery or energy storage, or transmission and distribution infrastructure that enables the provision of the equivalent maximum annual power output achieved by the replaceable peaker.
The owner or operator of a replaceable peaker plant has to include a mandatory replacement and compliance plan with an application to renew an operating permit. That plan has to include a proposed strategy to “replace the plant with renewable energy systems or battery storage or a combination thereof”. A timetable for implementation of the proposed replacement strategy is required that “shall not exceed five years from the date of renewal of the operating permit and that shall ensure that the renewable energy systems and battery storage are fully operational, and the operations of the peaker plant can be completely replaced, on or before five years from the date of renewal of the operating permit”
The genesis of this law is the Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State. The text for the New York specific report describes the alleged problem:
“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.”
Statement of Findings
In this post I will address the points made in § 19-1301, Statement of findings in the text of the Pollution Justice Law. I will list the text and follow that with italicized and indented comments.
#1: Electric generating units that generally operate during periods of peak electricity demand are known as peaker plants. Many peaker plants in the state are older fossil fuel-fired units that emit greenhouse gases and a variety of other harmful air pollutants including sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates and mercury.
To identify peaking power plants, PSE evaluated data from 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. These units are typically vilified as old, inefficient, and high emitters but the PSE classification includes newer efficient units with low emission rates.
There are simple cycle turbines in New York City that were built specifically to provide peaking power which have been the focus of regulatory efforts that are old, inefficient and high emitters but last year the Department of Environmental Conservation promulgated regulations to phase them out. Large oil-fired units that run little because their fuel costs are so high are also included and the proposed legal remedy is not a cost-effective replacement for those units.
The pollutants listed are misleading. Greenhouse gases are emitted but there is a law specifically designed to address them. No New York power plants burn coal so only natural gas and oil are burned and that means that mercury is not emitted at detectable levels. There are stringent sulfur in fuel limits for oil across the state but particularly in New York City, so sulfur oxides emissions are low. Particulate emissions from oil-firing are also low.
Natural gas emissions of particulates and sulfur oxides are essentially zero. In my opinion then, the emissions of those pollutants are non-issues. The New York metropolitan area is in non-attainment for ozone so the real pollutant of concern is nitrogen oxides because it is a precursor to ozone.
#2: A substantial number of peaker plants are located in or adjacent to environmental justice communities in the city of New York and Long Island that already bear disproportionate pollution burdens due to a history of siting pollution sources in those communities. More than one million New Yorkers live within one mile of a peaker plant.
Potential environmental justice areas, based on DEC Commissioner Policy 29 on Environmental Justice and Permitting (CP-29), are U.S. Census block groups of 250 to 500 households each that, in the Census, had populations that met or exceeded at least one of the following statistical thresholds:
- At least 51.1% of the population in an urban area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; o
- At least 33.8% of the population in a rural area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; or
- At least 23.59% of the population in an urban or rural area had household incomes below the federal poverty level.
I closed out my career working at the NRG Oswego Harbor Power plant. It turns out the neighborhood surrounding the plant is a potential environmental justice area. This plant has two 850 MW oil-fired boilers and because the cost of oil is usually higher than natural gas the unit does not run much. Therefore, because this is a peaking power plant and in an environmental justice neighborhood, I believe the law applies to the plant.
#3: Pollutants from peaker plants contribute to significant public health problems. According to the New York city department of health and mental hygiene’s air pollution and the health of New Yorkers 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.” According to the report, each year 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.”
The claim that there are significant public health problems is based on the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Air Pollution and the Health of New Yorkers report. 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”. In my analysis of New York City inhalable particulates, I found that between the time of this study and the most recent comparable three-year period the PM2.5 concentrations decreased 38%. In order to convince me that the PM2.5 health impacts claimed by MOHDOH and this law are correct I need to see confirmation with observed data showing health improvements on the order of the claimed health impacts.
#4: Peaker plants often operate during summer months when air pollution levels are highest and their emissions add to existing pollution burdens in environmental justice communities and contribute to adverse health effects in those communities from air pollution.
There is a well-established peaking power plant problem. In the first place, 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.
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 also should be an over-riding requirement to keep the power on when it is needed most.
The argument made here is that these peaking plants are dis-proportionally dis-advantaging the neighboring environmental justice communities. However, the health impacts that they cite are from inhalable particulates and ozone. Both of the these are secondary pollutants not directly emitted by power plants. It takes time for inhalable particulates and ozone to be created by emissions from the plants and in that time the pollution has been transported away from neighboring communities. It is simply incorrect to ascribe health impacts from these pollutants to neighborhood power plants. Finally, claiming neighborhood impacts at Oswego is absurd because the pollutants are emitted from stacks that are 700 feet high. It is virtually impossible for any pollutants to reach the ground in the adjacent neighborhood.
#5: The owners and operators of peaker plants have received billions of dollars in capacity payments from ratepayers over the last decade to subsidize operation of their plants, even though the plants primarily operate during peak load periods.
One of the reasons that there were blackouts in Texas during a period of peak load was that Texas does not pay for capacity. Simply put, the politicians in Texas decided that subsidizing power plants to run when you need them most was not necessary. New York Senators apparently agree that a power plant that makes money by providing blackout protection for consumers is such a bad thing that they are willing to risk it in New York. However, the fact that these units are paid to only operate during peak load periods is an insurance feature not a flaw.
#6: Fossil fuel-burning peaker plants can be replaced with renewable energy systems that will eliminate or significantly reduce air pollution impacts to environmental justice communities from peaker plant operations.
Renewable advocates rarely acknowledge that there are inherent advantages to fossil fuels. At the top of the list is the fact that fossil-fired power plants can be dispatched when needed. The Oswego power plant burns oil that is stored on-site and can operate throughout any peak load period. Many of the other plants targeted by this legislation also store oil on-site for precisely the same reason. In order to replace these units with renewable energy it is not enough to just build wind turbines and solar panels but enough storage has to be provided for at least a couple of days of operation.
The 2030 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) energy storage target is 3000 MW. Conspicuous by its absence is how many hours are associated with that figure but my guess is they are talking about 4 hours so the total is 12,000 MWh. In order to replace just the Oswego power plant’s capability to run for say 36 hours with renewable and storage would take over half the 2030 power storage capacity goal but over five times as much energy would be needed. In order to replace the Oswego’s peaking capability energy storage and renewable power has to be dedicated to that purpose. It does not make economic sense to invest in that much renewable and energy storage only to be used less than 10% of the time.
NYISO’s reliability planning process determines if there are sufficient resources when the probability of an unplanned disconnection of firm load (loss of load expectation, or “LOLE”) is equal to or less than the standard of once in every 10 years or 0.1 events per year.” In Texas there were seven cold snaps similar to the one that caused the outages in the last 60 years so the probability is 0.13 events per year. The peaking power plants targeted by this legislation are part of the solution to LOLE reliability planning. It is not clear to me what combination of solar, wind, and energy storages would be required to meet replace the peaking power plants in a multi-day winter wind lull but I am sure that the numbers would be extraordinary. Presumably at some time the CLCPA implementation process will address this but at this time no one knows.
#7: Replacement of fossil fuel-burning peaker plants with renewable energy systems is in the public interest, will save millions of dollars in environmental and human health-related damages, will promote environmental justice and will assist in meeting the greenhouse gas emission reduction and energy storage goals of the climate leadership and community protection act.
The public interest is affordable and reliable electricity. State agencies have not identified the renewable resources necessary to replace all fossil-fired generation by 2040 and meet current reliability standards so it is presumptuous of the New York Senate to presume that their mandated solution is possible in the time frame in this law. The millions of dollars in damages claims is not substantiated and given that the emissions from units that run so little are small it is unlikely. The purported effect on environmental justice communities is based on air quality impacts from inhalable particulates and ozone that are not direct impacts on those communities. It is unclear why another law is needed to assist in meeting the CLCPA and logic suggests that it is likely that a better choice to let the CLCPA play out than to add a complicating factor.
Besides the facts that the premise is wrong, the rationale is incorrect, and the solution is risky, there are a couple of implementation concerns. Peaking power plants are a critical resource during peak load periods. However, definition 8 in § 19-1303 says “’Replace’ or ‘replacement’ means the construction and operation of by the construction and operation of a renewable energy system, battery or energy storage, or transmission and distribution infrastructure that enables the provision of the equivalent maximum annual power output achieved by the replaceable peaker,”
Power output is the capacity in MW and the peak load need is the energy in MWh. The critical parameter for peak load is energy output. This language directly benefits renewable developers who cannot provide dispatchable energy but it puts New York at risk of a blackout similar to Texas because renewables may not be available to provide all the energy needed during peak loads whatever their maximum annual power output is.
I am also concerned about the language requiring a replaceable peaker plant owner or operator to include a proposed strategy to “replace the plant with renewable energy systems or battery storage or a combination thereof” in an operating permit. Developing such a strategy requires a major investment in time and money that could well be beyond the capabilities of an owner or operator. My suspicion is that in such a case the independent power producer will simply surrender the permit and walk away from the state.
The bill authors have not identified the affected units nor has any study been done that shows proposed replacement solutions can keep the system reliable. I could find no list of units to be affected by this bill. It only seems decent that the authors should identify the units, provide notice to the affected generators and host communities. What about the real property tax implications? The existing fossil generating stations pay taxes but replacement renewables won’t by located in the same communities nor will they pay taxes at a rate equivalent to fossil plant.
This is deeply flawed legislation. The premise is wrong because peaking power plants are not inherently bad because they provide critical support to the electric system when needed most. The rationale that these peaking power plants are directly affecting air quality in adjacent environmental justice neighborhoods is incorrect because the health impacts are claimed from secondary pollutants that do not form before they are transported away from the neighborhood. Replacing all the peaking plants covered by this law in the time frame mandated is extremely risky because the technology available today is not up to the task as shown in the Power Generation Advisory Panel emphasis on research and development.
Given that there was a power outage disaster in Texas less than a month ago I am extremely disappointed that the New York Senate as taken it upon themselves to dictate energy policy to the electric sector. Although the complete story of what happened in Texas is unknown at this time, it is clear that extremely cold weather caused a major peak load event. Past New York energy policy has emphasized the need for diverse set of dispatchable resources to prevent reliability problems in these situations. This legislation risks reliability in its mandate for resources that are not diverse and technology that have not been tested at the scale needed.
Reposted, with permission, from the Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York blog by meteorologist Roger Caiazza.
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