Peaker Power Plant Pollution, A National Story with Local Roots

On February 1st, 2022, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, introduced the Justice in Power Plant Permitting Act, legislation to curb deadly air pollution from fossil fuel-fired sources and advance an equitable transition to clean energy alternatives while supporting workers and local communities.

by David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

The Justice in Power Plant Permitting Act gives a voice to people who live near power plants and who have experienced environmental injustice.

“From increased rates of asthma to higher death rates of COVID-19, New Yorkers know firsthand the health effects of living next door to some of the dirtiest power plants. The cruel reality is that​ nationwide, communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution from these toxic plants,” said Chairwoman Maloney.

Ravenswood Power Plant, Astoria, New York City

“The Justice in Power Plant Permitting Act will address these environmental injustices by enforcing permitting requirements that prioritize the health and well-being of frontline communities and providing the necessary funding to support clean energy alternatives and the transition of workers into good-paying, clean energy jobs. It’s time to put people’s health and well-being first, and that is exactly what my bill will do.”

By expanding on Chairwoman Maloney’s efforts at advancing environmental justice, the Justice in Power Plant Permitting Act furthers her mission: 

  • The new Clean Air Act stipulation says that state permitting bodies must follow a set of rules when assessing major air pollutants. This also applies to smaller sources of pollution that are located close to a large emitter.
  • When you apply for a new or renewed permit, the application must include a review of the combined effects of all sources of air pollution in the area. This is called a cumulative impacts analysis. A cumulative impacts review provides a more accurate snapshot of how polluters are impacting public health.
  • If the analysis shows that the source would result in harm to the health of local communities, the state permitting authority must deny the permit.
  • Creating a $10 billion Just Energy Transition Fund to replace existing or planned fossil-fuel power plants with clean energy projects that support workers and environmental justice communities.
  • Establishing a Just Energy Transition Fund Advisory Council that would include representatives from community-based environmental justice, labor, and environmental organizations to ensure the Fund advances progress toward a clean economy while also maximizing benefits for the communities hit hardest by pollution.
  • Ensuring the federal government partners in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants by transitioning to 100% renewable, air pollution-free energy use by 2030.

Original cosponsors of the bill include Committee Members Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Stephen F. Lynch, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Reps. Jamaal Bowman, André Carson, Emanuel Cleaver, Yvette D. Clarke, Mondaire Jones, Barbara Lee, Gwen Moore, Ritchie Torres, Mike Quigley, and Nydia Velázquez.

Prior Action

On July 21, 2021, the Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, a key White House environmental justice policy. One expert testified that 3,000 deaths per year in New York City are attributable to particulate matter and that peaker plant pollution is among the primary culprits. 

On August 26, 2021, Chairwoman Maloney met with environmental justice leaders and “Asthma Alley” residents ahead of the Committee’s field roundtable on peaker power plants in Queens, New York.  Immediately ​following the roundtable, Chairwoman Maloney provided testimony against a peaker plant proposal in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district at a public hearing. In October 2021, New York State denied a Clean Air Act permit needed to go forward with the proposal.

On December 21, 2021, Chairwoman Maloney, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke sent a letter to Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), requesting that GAO examine ​the impact of peaker power plant pollution on frontline communities and evaluate replacement strategies. In January 2022, GAO formally accepted their request.

Local input…

Roosevelt Island, New York City, Rivercross resident Raye Schwartz previously addressed her concerns. Now, she thanked Maloney for listening: “I am thrilled that you are so concerned, as I am, about the pollution that our power plants are creating and causing such serious damage to our health and environment.”

How Do Fossil Fuels Cause Pollution and Illness?

Peaker plants can range from a simple diesel generator hooked to a single air pollution control device to a gas turbine with multiple control devices. The main thing that sets them apart from other power generators is their flexibility, as they are capable of starting up and switching off quickly.

To burn fossil fuels efficiently and profitably, peaker plants typically use an older technology called “open-cycle” turbines. “It’s like trying to get the most out of an old truck,” said one resident who has lived in Asthma Alley for 22 years. “[Open-cycle] turbines are 20% to 30% less efficient than gas combined-cycle or closed-cycle turbines.”

When they are not at-the-ready, open-cycle gas turbines produce an enormous amount of air pollution. “They burn very dirty fuel,” said one doctor who has treated asthma patients in Asthma Alley for 15 years. “It’s no wonder why Asthma Alley is full of children struggling to breathe.”

Standing by to curtail power…  

Another Asthma Alley resident on Roosevelt Island is concerned that the proposal would exacerbate health disparities in Asthma Alley. “It’s very simple,” she said. “The more sources of pollution you have, the more pollutants are being released into our air.”

For this reason, many local groups are advocating for cleaner energy sources

Peaker plants can also be powered by other forms of fossil fuels such as diesel and natural gas. This not only increases health risks but raises costs for consumers, which is why economists argue that renewable energy makes more sense than peakers. “Renewable energy has gotten so cheap to produce and the price keeps falling,” said one expert testifying before Congress.

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