Smokestacks Loom over New York’s Clean Energy Plan

New York Focus, January 18, 2022

New York is building renewables — but it doesn’t have a plan to shut down the plants they’re supposed to replace.

Published in partnership with City & State.

Look across the East River from midtown Manhattan, and you can’t miss them: the four towering, candy-cane smokestacks of the Ravenswood Generating Station, New York City’s largest power plant. For more than fifty years, the plant has been a cornerstone of the city’s electric grid and a landmark of the Queens waterfront. Its southern end also sits just opposite the largest public housing development in the country: Queensbridge Houses, home to more than 6,000 people, the majority of them Black and Latino. 

“I knew I was home when I would see those,” longtime resident Kaseem Cushnie, 44, said of the smokestacks. Cushnie grew up in the shadow of the power plant, and he expects its smokestacks will be around at least as long as he is. 

But a coalition of local public housing residents, environmental justice groups, and elected officials hope Ravenswood’s fossil fuel–burning days will soon be over. The plant, powered almost entirely by fossil gas, is one of the single biggest polluters in the state. In 2019, according to EPA data, it pumped out more than 1.2 million tons of CO2, roughly 5% of all emissions from the electricity sector statewide. It also released some 360 tons of nitrogen oxides or NOx, a major contributor to unhealthy air. 

Ravenswood is only one of several power plants concentrated along the Queens waterfront—one factor driving air pollution levels in Long Island City and Astoria above the city average, according to a survey by the city’s Department of Health. Organizers see the cluster of fossil-fueled plants as a textbook case of environmental injustice…

The drawn-out fight over Ravenswood illustrates the thorny path to achieving one of the key targets of New York’s landmark climate law. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), passed in 2019, requires the state to supply 70 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. That will mean retiring and replacing most of the state’s generating capacity—more than two-thirds of which relies on gas and oil—in less than 20 years, even as overall electricity demand is projected to increase due to electrification of home heating, transportation, and other sectors.

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