Inside Ravenswood Generating Station, New York City’s largest power plant, the air trembles from the inferno swirling in its giant boiler. It’s early August, and a large digital display in the control room — resembling an alarm clock — reads off how many megawatts of energy are flowing into the boroughs. The red digits move from 299 to 311 in an instant. The facility is almost at maximum capacity, as the city sweats through a string of heat waves.
“We've been running at near full output for the last couple of weeks while we've been in this recent hot spell,” said Ravenswood CEO Clint Plummer.
Most New Yorkers recognize the Ravenswood Generating Station from its four red-and-white smoke stacks rising from Long Island City. They’re an iconic part of the East River waterfront — its pillars jutting from Long Island City like an industrial parthenon.
The facility has long supplied at least 20% of the city’s energy needs — primarily by burning natural gas and fuel oil. But these energy sources now run afoul of the city and state’s goals of going green to prevent the worst consequences of climate changes — problems that could devastate the waterfront where Ravenswood sits.
So last month, Rise, Light & Power — the current owner of the facility — announced a proposal to transition the 2,480-megawatt energy center to 100% renewable energy. Their plan calls for a combination of wind, geothermal energy and battery storage that would be funded through their own capital along with state and local grants. If approved, the project could have a massive impact on reducing local carbon emissions and air pollution — a boon for people’s short-term and long-term health.
Weaning the area off pollution-ridden energy sources has an added benefit that it would alleviate the health toll on residents living within the vicinity. For nearly 70 years, Claudia Coger has been living in Astoria Houses, one of three New York City Housing Authority campuses that surrounds the facility. The pollution in the immediate area is significantly elevated, according to city health department surveys. Child asthma occurs 145 times per every 10,000 residents in Astoria and Long Island City, higher rates than the rest of Queens. Much of Coger’s own family and neighbors have asthma or care for asthmatic children.
“They actually named this area 'asthma alley' because of so many asthmatic children and people that are suffering from asthma,” Coger said.
The site is also well positioned geographically for the state’s overhaul of the energy grid, which is pivoting toward wind, solar and geothermal power. Part of the renovation plan is to connect the plant to renewable power sources upstate and offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. The plant is tied directly into the grid, which makes it an ideal spot for running transmission lines like an extension cord that plugs into Ravenswood like an outlet. From there, the energy can be delivered directly to homes and businesses. Plummer believes this could be a model for the transition for other fossil fuel-powered generation stations.
“It's a green transition and both of those words matter,” Plummer said. “It has to be a transition because you can't flip a switch and make it happen. It also has to be green because we recognize the reality of climate change and more broadly the challenges of energy security.”
The clean energy could also come from offshore. For more than two years, Rise, Light & Power has been developing a project called the Queensboro Renewable Express. The company just completed more than 250 miles of geophysical surveys in New York Harbor to figure out the best way to run underwater transmission lines from 3,900 megawatts of offshore wind power in the Atlantic Ocean via Verrazano Narrows through the Upper New York Bay and in the East River to Ravenswood. That would be enough to power well over 1 million homes.
Rise, Light & Power has no estimate for how much the complete transition will cost. Much will depend on market forces and how much governmental funding Ravenswood will receive for going renewable. Plummer said they are applying for grants available through New York State Energy Research and Development Authority as well as federal monies through the Inflation Reduction Act.
If approved by regulators, a zero-emissions Ravenswood could provide power to more than 2 million homes without causing the greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to global warming and the negative health impacts on the public housing communities that surround its 27-acre site. Plummer is hopeful that this permitting process could finish by the end of this decade, allowing construction to begin.
Rise, Light & Power will have to go through permitting on many levels – federal, state and city. The biggest hurdle revolves around getting transmission lines to Ravenswood for offshore wind, which would bring in most of its renewable power, according to their plan.
That will require a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need from the Public Service Commission. The proposal will also go through a review from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Plummer said Ravenswood is submitting the first of its permit applications by the end of this year and hoping for a speedy approval.
One of the biggest self-proclaimed skeptics of the transition is the president of the Utility Workers of America in New York City, James Shillitto. He said he understands the transition is necessary and inevitable, but plant workers fear change because it means their jobs will be eliminated in the future.
“We're fearful that it won't have the same level of wages or benefits,” Shillitto said. “The move to renewables does not have the same amount of jobs.”
Ravenswood hopes to make this pivot without cutting jobs or wages. The plant’s owners have committed to training their more than 100 union employees to work in the power plant of the future.
Big Allis and how Ravenswood was almost nuclear
Ravenswood Generating Station is massive. The nearly 60-year-old facility spans more than three long avenue blocks along Vernon Boulevard, and sits behind a high brick wall topped with razor wire.
Initially, its original owner ConEd had planned to build a nuclear reactor in 1962. It would have been the world’s largest, but local opposition put pressure on ConEd to withdraw their application for atomic energy.
Instead, ConEd opted for natural gas power. Its combined power mostly comes from four generators, half of which comes from Unit 3, nicknamed “Big Allis” for its mammoth size and its manufacturer, Allis-Chalmers. Built in 1965, Big Allis has the capacity to energize about a million homes. At the time, it was the largest steam energy generating center in the world.
But it didn’t stop there. The energy center continued to boost its power potential. In 1970, the plant’s capacity was increased even further with a series of additional small gas peaker plants — fired up at times of peak demand — referred to as “peaker row.” Over the last couple of years, 16 of those 17 units were gradually retired to reduce the plant’s carbon footprint. It also frees up a large area to develop onsite clean energy projects. When the last peaker closes in May 2023, capacity will be reduced.
The facility increased more than just natural gas production, as it also expanded its fuel oil infrastructure, which is used during peak demand. There is an oil depot that consists of two large tanks that are supplied by barges through its own maritime port on the East River.
In May 2021, the facility owners made a separate bid to go renewable by tapping into energy sources upstate. Rise, Light & Power submitted a proposal to run 115 miles of underwater cable to connect the Queens power provider to just south of Albany, called the Catskill Renewable Connector. This plan would have provided the city with about 15% of its electrical demand, but it was not approved by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Instead, the state chose two other projects for the upstate connection – Clean Path NY and Champlain Hudson Power Express.
The decade-long transformation to renewable energy at the plant has already begun. Rise, Light & Power has retired nearly all of its gas peaker units. In its place, on the north west corner of the site, will be the largest battery storage on the East Coast, Plummer said, for up to 300 megawatts. The plan calls for taking their three oldest generators offline, including Big Allis. Their stacks will be razed, forever removed from Claudia Coger’s sitting room window at Astoria Houses.
The final generator, about one-quarter of the capacity of Big Allis, will remain in use until the transition is complete. Built in 2004, its newest generator burns natural gas more efficiently than the other three 1960s-era units, up to 30% more power output for its fuel usage. When it’s finally retired, its stack will also be demolished. The oil depot will remain, for emergency use only.
Plummer said there was no silver bullet when it came to figuring out how to wean the facility off fossil fuels. The company will employ a variety of renewable energy options to make sure it can meet demand.
“We’ve committed to put these projects and other programs into place, so Ravenswood can continue to keep the lights on,” Plummer said. “We want to be on the forefront of that transition.”
They also plan to provide thermal energy to the surrounding neighborhood by repurposing the water intake system used to cool the facility for steam power. This would provide heating and cooling for 15,000 homes.
Burning natural gas emits nitrogen oxides, which are related to adverse health outcomes, including respiratory illnesses. When these fumes combine with volatile organic compounds such as benzene from car exhaust, it can create ozone. Along with the particulate matter that the plant releases, these emissions are strongly linked to asthma exacerbation.
More problematic than natural gas is the fuel oil that it’s cut with during peak demand. The oil generators at the facility operate as a peaker plant, when demand on the grid is especially high.
“Right when its already poor environmental quality outside, this plant is turning on, and resulting in additional air pollution,” said Dr. Joan Casey, an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The immediate area surrounding the plant is at the greatest risk, Casey added. Power plants do have emissions controls, but those don’t kick in until the generator is fully operating, which takes a few hours. Before that, there are a lot of emissions spewing out until those controls begin to work.
“Because this unit is operating as a peaker and turning off and on, this kind of off-and-on cycling results in greater emissions than if it was operating all the time,” Casey said. “Fuel oil does not burn as cleanly as natural gas.”
Burning fuel oil releases black carbon and particulate matter (PM2.5), which have a wide range of negative health impacts including respiratory, cardiovascular and adverse birth outcomes. It’s also linked to dementia and mental health.
More than 6,400 NYCHA apartments surround Ravenswood Generating — Queensbridge Houses to the Southeast, Astoria Houses to the North and Ravenswood Houses a few blocks East. More than 1.2 million people live within three miles of the facility, nearly half are people of color.
Coger, the longtime Astoria Houses resident, said three of her four grandchildren and both of her great grandchildren all have severe asthma that requires breathing machines and medications. All three generations grew up in Astoria Houses.
“As far as I'm concerned, it [Ravenswood smoke stacks] is a poisonous skyscraper,” Coger said.
A zero-emissions Ravenswood could have an immediate and profound effect on the thousands of low-income residents living around the facility. In a 2018 study, Casey analyzed the impacts of oil and coal plants going offline, and found improvements in preterm birth rates among pregnant people living nearby compared to those living a bit farther out. Harvard researchers found that with each additional microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter pollution, COVID deaths increased by 8% nationwide.
“This is huge,” Casey said. “We have the highest population density of any U.S. city, we shouldn’t have a fossil fuel-generating station in New York City. It’s crazy from a public health perspective.”
The Queens power plant also releases about 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from its site, 0.56% of the state’s total carbon emissions in 2019. That’s an improvement from when the facility emitted nearly three times as much in 2016.
Transitioning Ravenswood’s Workforce
While natural gas dominates the electrical generation sector, it doesn’t have more jobs than the renewable sector, according to the National Association of State Energy Officials. Its 2019 U.S. Energy and Employment Report says that natural gas employs about 112,000 workers nationwide. Wind power has nearly the same number of jobs as natural gas, and solar energy has more than double.
The pay is not bad either, especially when it nixes the adverse health outcomes of full-time exposure inside a facility burning natural gas. Fossil fuel plant workers do earn around 2% more than those working the same positions in the wind sector, but about 13% less than employees in solar power generation.
“We've committed to training programs to ensure that there are opportunities for the folks who are working here today, to be able to work on these new renewable projects in the future,” Plummer said.
Shillitto from the Utility Workers of America said training workers for new jobs in renewable power generation is not as simple as it sounds. Employees can’t take on the burden of the time and the money required to acquire these new skills, he said, and some workers are entering the twilight of their careers with a few years left until they retire. Preparing for a different line of work doesn’t make sense for older employees.
“It's not like you flip a switch, and then we move from one thing to the next,” Shillitto said.
Yet in other power plants where Shillitto’s union is represented, the situation is dire. Some plant owners have told him flat out that they plan to close in the coming years while others continue to operate as if the renewables transition will never come. But according to state climate laws, every fossil fuel-burning energy provider will have to cut emissions by 70% by the end of the decade, and the only viable way to do that is to cease burning fossil fuels.
“Looking into the future for renewables is actually quite exciting for what I happen to do here,” said Nerson Rodriguez, an operation shift supervisor, who has been working at Ravenswood for 17 years and leads a crew of 10 workers. “It's just a matter of getting ready for the future, and we just have to get ourselves equipped to do so.”
The transition will be arduous, according to Plummer, who has worked on previous renewable projects, including the country’s first wind farm at Block Island, Rhode Island. He said the governmental approval process can be lengthy and costly, resulting in years just to get permits and funding.
But if support falls into place, Ravenswood could go from more than one million metric tons of carbon every year to zero within a decade.
“I saw [Ravenswood's transition] as a true blessing and an answer to my prayers,” Coger said. “The very air that we breathe determines our lifetime.”
Editor's note: After this story was published, Rise, Light & Power emailed to clarify an earlier statement it made about building wind farms on the East River. It now says that's not part of the proposal.