Fossil fuels doomed in New York as regulator blocks new gas power plants

 New York took an aggressive stance toward fossil fuels this week, effectively killing the development of new fossil fuel power plants in the state. The Department of Environmental Conservation denied permits for two proposed natural gas power plants, saying they were incompatible with the state’s climate law, which calls for an end to fossil fuel-generated electricity by 2040. 

Though the proposed plants would be more efficient than those currently in operation, the state agency said the plants would generate “significant” amounts of pollution and that their construction now, less than 20 years from the targeted net-zero emissions date, would be “inconsistent” with what is required by the climate law.

New York’s climate law requires polluters to account for two sources of emissions: from the plants themselves and from the natural gas supply chain. Once the latter was included—figures which in the past were nearly always ignored when determining a power plant’s pollution—the emissions quickly exceeded the DEC’s thresholds, the decisions say.

“Speculative” arguments

Danskammer Energy had proposed adding a new gas turbine to its 532 MW Newburgh peaker plant, which runs in times of high demand, so that the plant could run more routinely. NRG had proposed replacing the 50-year-old turbines at its 647 MW peaker plant in Astoria, Queens.

The two companies both argued that the gas power plants would help keep the electric grid stable as more intermittent solar and wind power came online and claimed that the new turbines would displace older, dirtier sources from the grid.

Both companies also said that by the 2040 net-zero date, they would transition away from natural gas to hydrogen or renewable natural gas, an industry term that refers to methane drawn from sources like landfills and animal manure.

But the DEC didn’t find any of those arguments compelling. The agency pointed out that hydrogen isn’t currently used as a fuel for large combustion power plants and that renewable natural gas, while available on small scales, isn’t significant enough to consider today. “Overall, the Applicant’s plan for compliance with the Climate Act’s emission-free by 2040 generation requirement is uncertain and speculative in nature,” it said in one decision.

The DEC also faulted the logic both companies used to suggest that the new plants would displace emissions elsewhere on the grid. The problem, the agency said, was that their modeling relied on too many assumptions—particularly “projected reductions that could occur at other GHG emission sources across the State” (emphasis in the original). In other words, since neither company can control the actions of other polluters, they don’t get to count speculative reductions elsewhere as their own.

“Denying projects like Astoria is simply short-sighted and bad public policy,” Tom Atkins, vice president of development at NRG Energy, said in a statement to Ars. “NRG’s Astoria Replacement Project would have provided immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and would have been fully convertible to green hydrogen in the future.”

While both companies have the option to appeal the decision, neither has said whether it will. Astoria is scheduled to shut down in 2023 under current emissions regulations.

Overburdened communities

Both Danskammer and NRG were proposing to upgrade some of New York State’s dirtiest power plants. They’re older, producing many times more NOx emissions than newer gas-fired power plants. NOx drives ozone formation in summer months and is responsible for asthma and other cardiovascular illnesses. Newburgh, where the Danskammer plant is sited, and Astoria, the site of the NRG plant, are both considered by the state to be disadvantaged communities that have shouldered significant pollution burdens over the years. “The Department is required to prioritize reductions of GHG emissions and co-pollutants in such disadvantaged communities,” one decision said. Though the upgrades would have reduced pollution from previous levels, they still imposed a burden.

When the permits were filed, the operator of New York’s electrical grid had some concerns about whether the grid could provide reliable service to its customers. Both Danskammer and NRG argued that their plants would help fill a gap. But since then, other proposals, including more and better power lines serving New York City, have addressed the operator’s concerns. “At least through 2030, there is no demonstrated reliability need or justification for the Project,” both decisions said.

Changing narrative

The proposed upgrades at Astoria provide an interesting case study in how the narrative around natural gas has changed in the last decade. The turbine replacements were first proposed in 2010 and were approved. At the time, natural gas was heralded as a bridge fuel that would reduce carbon emissions in the short term while renewable capacity was built for the long term.But NRG let the 2010 plan lie fallow for nearly a decade. In that time, scientists and regulators became increasingly aware of the lifetime carbon footprint of natural gas, particularly along its supply chain. While natural gas burns cleaner and produces less carbon pollution than other fossil fuels like coal, leaks from wellhead to turbine tip the scales. Methane, a major component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, with one ton warming the atmosphere 84 times more than one ton of carbon dioxide over 20 years. The potency means that leaks along the supply chain represent a significant fraction of natural gas users’ carbon pollution.

The Astoria upgrade project was resurrected in 2019 and began the years-long process of permitting and public hearings. But on January 1, 2020, four months before NRG submitted its plan to the DEC, New York passed its climate law. While the plan was sufficient to get a permit under the Clean Air Act, under the new regulations, the DEC found that it didn’t do enough to reduce greenhouse gases.

Fossil fuels doomed in New York as regulator blocks new gas power plants Fossil fuels doomed in New York as regulator blocks new gas power plants Reviewed by Your Destination on November 01, 2021 Rating: 5

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