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Hochul Pulls Plug On Queens Gas-Fueled Electrical Power Plant Overhaul

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a Climate Week event on the roof of the Javits Center, Sept. 21, 2021
Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a Climate Week event on the roof of the Javits Center, Sept. 21, 2021
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office

The Hochul administration on Wednesday killed a proposed fracked-gas-fueled power plant in Queens — offering environmentalists hope they’re dealing with a greener governor.

The decision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation came a week after Gov. Kathy Hochul signaled to activists protesting the Astoria electrical plant replacement project that she was on their side.

“I am telling you, on this project, I am with the people here today,” she said at the time.

In a statement on Wednesday, Hochul applauded the DEC’s move, saying, “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, and we owe it to future generations to meet our nation-leading climate and emissions reduction goals.”

The decision effectively put an end to energy company NRG’s plans to replace the half-century-old electrical “peaker” plant in Astoria with a newer type of gas-powered facility, arguing it would be necessary to gird against blackouts.

Peakers run when electricity demand is high, such as during heat waves or cold weather — but they emit more nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than typical power facilities. Such toxins can cause and exacerbate respiratory illness, as well as advance climate change.

In denying NRG’s air permit application, the DEC upheld its previous position that the proposed project did not comply with the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates greenhouse gas emissions cuts and increased electrification.

“We must shift to a renewable future,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in a tweet.

‘An Enormous Blow’

The proposed replacement plant had garnered opposition from several elected officials — including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — as well as local city residents who had protested the project for many months.

According to NRG, the replacement project would have resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions, cheaper electric rates and better air quality compared to the current 50-year-old unit.

But that argument didn’t fly with the state, which indicated the company didn’t prove the need or justification for the proposed project. Nor did NRG propose a plan to meet the Climate Act’s mandate for electricity generation to be emission-free by 2040.

The proposed project would have operated more frequently than the current facility, resulting in “a new source of an increased amount of [greenhouse gas] emissions,” even when accounting for greater efficiency, according to a memo by Daniel Whitehead, director of the division of environmental permits at the DEC.

A rendering of a proposed peaker plant in Astoria.
A rendering of the peaker plant proposed for Astoria
Courtesy of NRG

Whitehead also cited Con Ed’s three transmission projects — slated to be operational between 2023 and 2025 — which would help meet electricity needs and allow the peaker to retire. The plant is expected to close in May 2023 when the state’s new limits on nitrogen oxide emissions go into effect.

In a statement, Tom Atkins, NRG’s vice president of development, said the company was disappointed by the DEC’s decision.

“It’s unfortunate that New York is turning down an opportunity to dramatically reduce pollution and strengthen reliable power for millions of New Yorkers at such a critical time,” he said.

The DEC on Wednesday also denied a permit for another new proposed fracked-gas-fired power plant proposed by Danskammer Energy Center in Newburgh, citing similar reasons.

“Hochul doing this strikes an enormous blow to the fossil fuel industry and provides an enormous victory for New York’s climate movement,” said Alex Beauchamp, Food and Water Watch’s Northeast region director. “We’re really hopeful this is the first domino.”

‘Protect Our Air’

Hochul’s shout out to environmentalists suggesting she was opposed to the plant came Oct. 18 as they demonstrated outside an event she was attending in Williamsburg, chanting of, “Governor Hochul, show you care: Stop NRG, protect our air!”

She had previously stated her goal was to shut down “dirty polluting plants” when she threw her support behind new transmission lines to bring clean energy to the city.

“We are excited for this pivotal moment to signal the end of the long-standing pollution burden from peaker power plants on the city’s most climate vulnerable communities,” said Annel Hernandez, associate director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Now, environmental advocates want Hochul to continue the pattern for other fossil fuel projects around the city.

Local opposition to Astoria Generating Company’s plan to replace its gas-fired peaker plants located on barges off the shore of Gowanus and Sunset Park to provide “more efficient and cleaner electric generation” is heating up.

The company has not yet officially submitted permit applications for its proposal, which is similar to NRG’s.

A National Grid Depot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, March 1, 2021.
The National Grid depot in Greenpoint
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Environmentalists planned to rally on Wednesday evening outside an event in Manhattan at which Hochul will be speaking to thank her for rejecting the Queens peaker proposal — and ask her to do the same for National Grid’s plan to expand its Greenpoint facility.

The company plans to add two new vaporizers to gassify low-temperature combustible liquefied natural gas, or LNG. National Grid also plans to extend to that facility the in-progress, nearly seven-mile-long North Brooklyn pipeline.

As THE CITY reported Tuesday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to launch a civil rights probe in the National Grid’s fossil fuels push following complaints that the projects amount to environmental racism.

Several elected officials had asked the Hochul administration to revisit a rate hike approved for National Grid customers in August that would in part pay for some of the pipeline.

“The DEC is sending a clear message today: Fracked gas does not comply with New York law,” said Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator for the Sane Energy Project. “We look forward to the DEC and Gov. Hochul applying the same standard to National Grid’s proposed fracked gas vaporizers.”

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