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Why We Must Close Polluting Urban Power Plants

Author: Seth Mullendore

The link between pollution and coronavirus mortality rates makes it even more clear why we must shut down peaker power plants.

The entrance to the Scattergood power plant in Los Angeles is seen in 2019. Los Angeles has abandoned plans to spend billions of dollars rebuilding three natural gas power plants.Photo by: MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP

THE COVID-19 CRISIS lays bare the environmental injustices facing urban communities. Multiple studies have now drawn a clear link between pollution – both fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide – and coronavirus mortality rates. Urban communities of color are most burdened by these pollutants, which come from industry, transportation and power plants. It's time for governments to recognize this dangerous health disparity and take action to reduce emissions, starting by shutting down the most polluting power plants.

Peaker power plants, typically powered by gas and oil, are among the worst offenders. These inefficient power plants fire up to meet times of high energy demand, spewing nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides and particulates into surrounding communities. They're predominantly located near population centers where energy demands are greatest and typically located in communities of color and under-resourced areas. There are more than 1,000 peakers in operation across the country today, with the highest concentrations centered in and around major metropolitan areas.

Early data from the few cities and states that are including racial and ethnic information in COVID-19 infection and mortality rates has confirmed that black communities are bearing the brunt of virus impacts. In Michigan, African Americans makeup 14% of the overall population, but account for 31% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of deaths. The Detroit metro area, the epicenter for the virus in the state, is also home to one of the greatest concentrations of aging, inefficient peaker plants in the country, with a one-gigawatt fleet of peaker power plants that is approaching the half-century mark in age.

A similar story can be found in data coming from Chicago, where more than 70% of deaths have been among black residents, though they account for less than 30% of the city's population. The Chicago metropolitan area includes 17 peaker plants, totaling over 8 gigawatts of polluting urban power generation.

Along with Chicago and Detroit, the 10 metro areas most burdened by aging peakers are collectively home to nearly 200 plants – major sources of local nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and PM2.5 emissions. The New York City-Long Island-Newark region tops the list with 46 peakers, followed by the Los Angeles metro area with another 29 peaker plants. (Other top offenders include the metro areas of Baltimore-Washington, D.C.; Boston; Dallas; Tampa; Philadelphia; and Hartford-Middletown-New Haven in Connecticut.)

In New York City, communities are now demanding system change. A coalition of environmental justice communities and nonprofit organizations with legal and clean energy expertise has come together to call for an end to all fossil fuel peaker plants in New York City and for their replacement with clean, local renewables and battery storage.

The PEAK Coalition – composed of New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE, The Point, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and Clean Energy Group – recently released a report that details the full economic and environmental costs of the city's peaker plants. The report, Dirty Energy, Big Money, found that some $4.5 billion in ratepayer money has gone to support New York City's dirty, inefficient fleet of peaker plants over the past decade. Those plants are a significant source of urban emissions, accounting for more than 10% of nitrogen oxide emissions on high-ozone days when air pollution is at its worst.

The report also highlights opportunities for clean alternatives, like offshore wind, rooftop solar, and battery storage systems, to replace the city's existing peaker plants, options that are increasingly being used across the country.

Those alternatives could save lives during the pandemic – and beyond. A study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that even a small decrease in exposure to particulate matter emissions could have dramatically reduced COVID-19 related deaths in New York City. The researchers concluded that reducing PM2.5 emission levels by just one unit over the past 20 years would have prevented 248 deaths from COVID-19 in Manhattan through early April. The number of deaths that could have been avoided through the entire course of the virus would be even higher, in addition to the many lives spared due to reductions in other serious health issues linked to power plant emissions, such as chronic respiratory conditions and heart disease.

Along with serving as emission-free alternatives to urban peaker plants, batteries and renewables can be widely distributed throughout cities, strengthening communities through increased energy resilience, lower energy burdens and the potential for local wealth creation. The work to enable this just energy transition, where local generation delivers benefits instead of causing harm, has now begun in New York City. However, much still needs to be done to make a compelling case for peaker replacement to gain broad support among regulators, policy makers and utilities.

In other cities, the harm caused by urban peaker plants is still largely hidden from the public. It is time to shine a light on the economic, environmental and social injustices resulting from today's outdated, inefficient system of fossil fuel power plants for peak electricity demand. There is a better solution, and now, more than ever, it is time to work together to shut down polluting peaker plants for good.

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