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  • Writer's pictureFernando Ortiz

Clean Energy/Dirty Circuit

High Voltage, Transmission Lines, and Equity- NYC's Plug to Electrification

We turn on the light in our homes and we more than likely don't wonder where that electricity is coming from, how it's made and how it's getting to us. Most of us see power as a God given right- after paying our ConEdison bill of course! As society comes to terms with the climate crisis, we begin to understand the need to move away from fossil fuels- especially in urban cities like New York City (NYC) were so much energy is consumed. The electrification process our great City has embarked on requires us to electrify our transportation and building sectors as well as adapt renewable energy sources for powering up our grids. NYC is looking to electrify its fleet system, install EV charging stations to promote the use of electric cars, and our population and its energy demands only continues to increase. The closing of the Indian Point Energy Center (1) in April 2021 with the permanent closure of Unit 3- the last of three nuclear plants, located 25 miles north of Midtown and which generated 1,040 megawatts of nuclear energy is being offset by three natural-gas power plants and greatly puts pressure towards moving towards more sustainable energy. The passage in 2019 of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (2) requires New York State (NYS) to reduce by 40% greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and then by 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels.

Adding to these pressures is Local Law 97 (3)- passed in 2019 under the Climate Mobilization Act which requires carbon caps on building pollution and energy efficiency upgrades with a goal to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 beginning in 2024 and the recently passed Gas Free NYC (4) Bill that seeks to eliminate natural gas and move to electricity by 2027 for all new building construction. All this creates a high demand for electricity and renewable power sources to keep our City up and lighted. With land being so valuable in NYC, where this energy will come from and how it will get here is highly being discussed- and the circuit to electrify NYC has certainly raised some red flags along the way.

Historically, as has much been the case in regards to everything in NYC and all big urban cities- a tale of two cities has greatly prevailed when it comes to our energy sector- with the rich and middle classes enjoying abundant electricity while those who struggle to keep the power on must live adjacent to polluting infrastructure that powers our cities. Energy Equity is defined by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (5) (PNNL) as the "recognition that disadvantaged communities have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution, underinvestment in clean energy infrastructure, and lack of access to energy-efficient housing and transportation."

The South Bronx is one of the hottest areas in NYC and has for decades been plagued by the asthma epidemic among some of the highest cardiovascular and other public health concerns such as obesity. It is no surprise that the South Bronx also has some of the least green spaces in our City, lacks affordable green transit options and has some of the least energy-efficient housing stock all this while it's residents struggle to maintain the power on financially. To add to the picture, the South Bronx is home to four natural-gas peaker plants; two at the Harlem River Rail Yards and two at the Hell Gate Power Station- both in Port Morris run by the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Although NYPA has worked with the PEAK Coalition (6) and recently committed to transitioning these two facilities into renewable energy sources- the damage has been largely done. Communities in the South Bronx have largely been marginalized by these polluting infrastructure and are the same communities that struggle the most with being able to afford their electricity bills, especially during the summer when AC demands are high (many unable to afford AC's) and are the same communities who have to deal with the extreme heat and pollution that is transmitted by these peaker plants when summer electricity demands require these power plants to flare up.

NYC has ambitious goals to electrify our transportation and building sector and move our City to renewable energy sources- which clearly I greatly support. But the electrification of NYC should not be on the backs of those most marginalized by our current energy infrastructure like is the case of the South Bronx. Two projects that exemplify this issue are the Champlain Hudson Power Express (7) project proposed by Hydro-Quebec and the Clean Path NY project proposed by NYPA in partnership with other energy partners. The Champlain Hudson Power Express project will bring hydro-electric power from Upstate New York and Canada through transmission lines below the Hudson River to bring 1,250 megawatts of electricity- enough to power 1 million homes.

This project has raised red flags in that it will require transmission lines to be built below the Hudson River which is a Superfund site in many places but also because the hydro-electric power produced in Canada does not properly describe the consequences to First Nation (8) indigenous groups in Quebec; the effects of energy production on these peoples and their lands and water sources and disruption to their food systems. Many of the transmission lines and territories used in the project and currently by Hydro-Quebec are within indigenous territory such as the Anishinaabe community who despite having a hydro-reservoir at the town's shoreline, lack sewage, running water, must use generators for electricity and have often been displaced to make way for the needed hydro-infrastructure such as dams.

The Clean Path NY (9) project has been equally controversial in that is seeks to bring 1,800 megawatts of solar power and 2,000 megawatts of wind power produced Upstate into NYC with a DC to AC high voltage converter station proposed at a one-acre site at the Bronx Terminal Market . The South Bronx is already home to peaker plants and so the idea of hosting a convertor station that would transmit strong electro-magnetic fields associated with childhood leukemia cancers across the street from where the new Bronx Children's Museum is located- was not well received. In a new Bronx waterfront renaissance, in which local Bronxites have been fighting to access their waterfronts and transform once unsafe and dark spaces into vibrant, new public spaces- the siting of another polluting infrastructure in their backyards is not something they are letting to go by easily. Thankfully, the local Congress Member Ritchie Torres was able to negotiate with NYPA and guarantee that this site and no residential community in the South Bronx would host these needed convertor stations.

The electrification of NYC should not be on the backs of the communities that have already carried the burden of polluting infrastructure such as power plants (among waste transfer stations, wastewater treatment plants, highways, airports, etc). The South Bronx has largely been marginalized and disadvantaged by these infrastructures in order to supply the large demands required by our City. We should discourage the siting of these polluting infrastructures- which are very much needed to electrify and bring renewable energy into NYC in underserved communities. Ideas like Renewable Rikers (10)- to transform Riker's Island into a sustainable, renewable energy hub should be more greatly explored. We should not only call for clean energy, we should call for equity in our energy.

Krasdale (11), one of the tenants in the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the South Bronx is installing one of the largest community solar projects in New York- which will produce enough energy to offset the utility bills of 300 families. Krasdale is committed to ensuring that these 300 families are local families that have historically struggled with energy bills and access to energy. Residents who live adjacent to energy infrastructure should have reduced rates in their utility bills and should not be at risk of public health concerns because of their location.

Energy- the production and consumption of it will be vital to ensuring the sustainable and resilient future of our City and for society as a whole. In order for us to have a Just Transition away from fossil fuels, producing energy from renewable sources is not enough- we need to ensure that these infrastructure projects do not continue the pattern of marginalizing and harming underserved communities. Everyone deserves the same access to energy and those who have historically been overburdened by the polluting infrastructure must truly be at the heart of the Just Transition and be involved and listened to as we move to renewable energy and new infrastructure- this will guarantee true equity. Clean energy should not be powering our communities, while harming others through a dirty circuit.


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