A cautionary tale about the importance of reliability in our electric grid is playing out in all corners of the country, from California to Texas to New Orleans. Confronting the reality of a rapidly changing climate while keeping the lights on is now a matter of life-or-death.
Earlier this year in Texas, freezing temperatures plunged millions into darkness and resulted in the deaths of over 100 people. In California, state regulators were forced to deploy emergency gas-fired generators to bolster supply amid an energy crisis caused by extreme heat, drought and wildfires.
The state’s governor is allowing fossil plants to exceed environmental limits to ensure an adequate power supply. Meanwhile, in New Orleans residents were still in the dark days Hurricane Ida knocked out power citywide in late August.
It is clear that we must take action to combat the growing impacts of climate change. It is equally clear that efforts to reduce emissions from the electric grid must be balanced with careful planning to preserve reliability to support health and safety – as well as the economy.
Here in New York, there’s a mounting call for the closure of fossil fuel power plants and a moratorium on new gas infrastructure. While these are laudable goals, the reality is that abrupt changes ignore current state efforts to carefully transition the system to an emissions-free grid.
While that work is underway, advocates are focused on the future of fossil fuel infrastructure – including generation plants known as “peakers” – often older plants thrust into duty to support grid reliability during times of high demand.
New York City’s five boroughs have a network of 16 peakers, with a dozen more scattered throughout the Hudson Valley and on Long Island.
Peakers are often the subject of local objections because they disproportionately impact economically disadvantaged communities. These plants have emitted pollutants for decades, negatively impacting the health of nearby residents and leaving them more susceptible to a range of ailments and diseases, including asthma and, most recently, COVID-19.
Opponents are correct to decry the damage these plants have inflicted on the climate and vulnerable communities alike, and also to press for an expedited transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewables in the face of a clear climate crisis.
The conundrum is that right now, peakers play a key role in maintaining reliability, which is especially critical to members of the very vulnerable communities advocates are seeking to protect.
What’s more, advocates have so far not offered any viable alternatives to heat the millions of homes and businesses that rely on peakers for in high-demand periods.
There are opportunities to make peakers operate more efficiently and with reduced emissions as we progress towards the goal of a net-zero grid. Unlike California, New York doesn’t have to choose between forcing older, higher-emitting units to stay online or keeping our lights on.
We can trade in the old, polluting turbines for cutting-edge technology that measurably reduces pollution while investing in the renewables that will meet the state’s ambitious climate goals.
The proposed upgraded peaking units are far more efficient and release less greenhouse gas emissions than the outdated models they would replace – a clear benefit for both public health and the environment.
It will also allow for a reliable transition to a cleaner energy future, where advancements in clean hydrogen fuel can replace fossil fuels.
Soon we will have offshore wind, energy storage and other non-emitting resources powering the grid, with new transmission connecting communities now served by fossil fuel plants to clean energy resources statewide. But we’re not there yet.
New York’s looming energy gap between available supply and growing demand is real and has been highlighted by multiple regulators and market participants.
A May 2020 report from the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), for example, found that even if we reach 100 percent emissions-free power through renewables, their intermittent nature will require the ongoing use of flexible options like gas-fired generators to ensure reliability. These generators can be used less as short-and long-term storage technologies come online.
Thoughtfully addressing peaker plant emissions and retirements can help New York avoid unintended outcomes like those in Texas and California. The good news is that our state is well-positioned to avoid this dangerous path while maintaining its momentum toward realizing the nation-leading mandates of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
Under the CLCPA and regulatory requirements from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New York is on the path to systematically phase out traditional fossil-fuel peakers, but we must not lose sight of reliability during this transition. To do so would undercut the progress we have made to date and send the state in the wrong direction.
Thomas J. Grech is president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.