New York City officials want to explore exactly how soon renewables and battery storage could displace natural gas as the Big Apple’s core source of backup power.
A bill under consideration by the City Council’s environmental committee calls for sustainability authorities to study the storage potential of six battery types and whether they could allow renewable power to supplant all fossil fuel power plants – including 21 gas-fired ones – located in the city.
Sponsored by the environmental committee’s chairman, the legislation got its first hearing yesterday, where representatives from the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio and investor-owned utilities voiced support.
The study, due by the end of 2019, would need to recommend an “expedited” timeline for the transition to storage-backed renewables if such a transition can happen, said committee Chairman Costa Constantinides (D).
“And we know it can,” he added.
The city’s power plants, nearly all of which are fired by natural gas or oil, can generate enough electricity to meet about 80 percent of demand on the most power-intensive days. They only operate during those peak times.
But when they do run, they pollute at unusually high levels, partly due to their obsolescent technologies. Most of the plants have existed for 40 years, and many are located in low-income and minority areas in western Queens.
“We in the city have historically consistently shunted these uses to poor communities and communities of color, and those communities bear the burden of power generation that all of us need and use. And that’s wrong,” Rebecca Bratspies, a law professor and director of the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform, said during panel testimony.
‘Flowing upstate to downstate’?
Constantinides and the other five co-sponsors of the bill want officials to figure out how soon the plants could be closed, and what the effect would be on reliability and cost of service.
The city and state already have some of the country’s most ambitious goals for energy storage development, and utilities are carrying out analyses of how to best deploy it within city limits.
But it’s not clear how much storage would be necessary, where it would be sited and where the renewable power would come from – particularly in the near term, before the state’s offshore wind industry is expected to hit its stride.
One possibility is to source more of the power from upstate, where most of the power generation is carbon-free and where there’s more land available to site new resources.
Officials in the mayor’s office backed that idea, saying the state needed to invest in new transmission capacity to carry that upstate power into the city.
“It’s clear that New York City will require significant amounts of renewables flowing upstate to downstate,” said Susanne DesRoches, deputy director for infrastructure and energy for the mayor.
Another solution floated by Constantinides was the construction of a large-scale solar farm on Rikers Island, where authorities are planning to close a notorious jail. A study on that is forthcoming, he said.
The effect of gas plant closures on greenhouse gas emissions may not be entirely clear, either. At some of the plants, Consolidated Edison Inc. also produces steam that serves as a heating and hot water system for 3 million customers in Manhattan.
“Right now, we use natural gas to produce the steam,” said Kyle Kimball, Con Edison’s vice president of government relations. An alternative technology, he added, “doesn’t currently exist to create the amount of steam we need.”
The hearing yesterday also included questioning of Con Edison officials over a December transmission line accident that threw off a strange blue glare late one evening, spooking residents across much of the city and exciting fevered imaginations on social media.
One council member, Donovan Richards (D), joked that he regretted the absence of police representatives at the hearing.
“I just want the NYPD to know I’m concerned about their preparation for an alien invasion,” he said.