N.Y. utility floats plan to trade gas plants for batteries

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2020

One of the nation’s largest public power utilities said this week it would partner with environmental justice groups to study how it could replace its New York City fleet of “peaker” fossil fuel plants with low-carbon battery storage.

The collaboration between the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the five-group Peak Coalition will zero in on 11 gas-fired units at seven sites in and around New York City that run 10% of the day or less. An action plan to implement the findings — and possibly retool the plants, which are used to meet electricity demand during a small number of peak hours — is expected to follow.

The prospect of battery storage stepping in for gas- and oil-fired peakers has excited some energy researchers, who see the idea as an effective way to slash CO2 emissions and improve local air quality. And the transition is already unfolding in a handful of cities, mostly in California.

Replacing peakers has also become a priority for environmental justice groups, which object to the abundance of high-polluting plants sited in low-income areas where more residents are people of color.

That’s the case in New York City and its suburbs, where all but three of the state’s peakers are located. Last spring, the Peak Coalition released a report calling the longtime practice of siting peakers in marginalized areas “a prime example of environmental racism” and took aim at three private companies that own many of them (Energywire, May 11).

NYPA’s plants were rushed into service in the 2000s during a capacity crisis, triggering lawsuits from community groups that accused authorities of illegally foisting the facilities onto disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Utility officials say the partnership with the coalition shows that the state is turning the page, particularly after the enactment of a landmark climate law that gave community groups more say in energy policy and set the state on the path to 100% carbon-free power by 2040.

“What’s really novel and unique is, we’re doing this in partnership with the environmental justice groups,” said NYPA President Gil Quiniones.

Dariella Rodriguez, director of community development at the Point CDC, one of the Peak Coalition’s members, described the partnership as “one necessary step in the right direction.”

Several coalition members also pointed to evidence that air pollution has contributed to COVID-19 deaths in environmental justice areas.

“This collaboration is a model of the innovative and timely work that is necessary” to address fossil fuel generation in those communities, said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director at Uprose, a grassroots advocacy group. “There is no better time to address pollution and inequities of NYC’s energy system.”

But the economics and grid reliability aspects of shifting from gas to battery storage remain a hard sell for many utilities, making the NYPA-Peak Coalition collaboration a test case.

The study will explore options like “hybridizing” the plants with a mix of battery storage and gas turbines, along with piloting next-generation technologies that could displace fossil fuels, like long-duration batteries, hydrogen or synthetic gas, said Quiniones.

The collaboration will also scrutinize those technologies’ performance in unusual situations. Several of NYPA’s peakers also have “black-start” capabilities, meaning they can jump-start electricity production during a blackout without drawing power from the grid.

“Reliability here [in New York City] is so important. Can battery storage do all the things that the plant can provide today?” said Quiniones.

Being a state-owned utility may give NYPA an advantage in trying out unproven tech, he noted.

“We’re not going to do a pilot demonstration if it’s completely a money loser,” he said. “But what’s different with NYPA is, we’d do it on a break-even basis, or close to break-even. … A private entity will always require return on their investment.”

NYPA also hopes the demonstrations will convince grid authorities to encourage deployment. “If we do it, then we know exactly what kind of regulatory rules are needed to make these kinds of technologies possible,” said Quiniones.

Decarbonizing New York City, including its 16 peakers, is one of the major challenges facing the state as it seeks to make headway on its climate goals. While most of the state derives the bulk of its power from low-carbon sources, the “downstate” area comprising the city and its suburbs gets 69% from fossil fuels, according to the grid operator.

The state’s wider steps to build out its renewable capacity might offer a needed boost to NYPA’s battery storage projects. The peaker sites can’t physically host enough solar generation to replace fossil fuels. That means batteries would need to be charged with renewable energy produced elsewhere, barring the emergence of a successful “moonshot” technology, Quiniones said.

“A lot of breakthrough technologies are not close to being ready,” he said. “But once they’re ready to be demonstrated or piloted, we’ll be the first ones to do so.”