THE SWITCH
Popular Science|Winter 2020
WHEN A NEW YORK CITY POWER PLANT SWAPS ITS DIRTIEST GENERATORS FOR BATTERIES, THE SURROUNDING NEIGHBORHOOD WILL BREATHE EASIER.
ANDREW BLUM

WHEN COVID-19 SWEPT THROUGH NEW YORK CITY IN THE SPRING OF 2020, IT DID SO UNEVENLY. HARDEST HIT BY FAR WERE communities of color, where the death rate was roughly double that of white neighborhoods. Overlapping constellations of reasons drove this—such areas house more essential workers, living in more crowded homes, with less access to health care—but among the more insidious was chronic exposure to air pollution. A nationwide study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that COVID deaths increased by 8 percent with each additional microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, the contaminant most closely linked to highways, truck traffic, and power plants. Given that the dirtiest and cleanest neighborhoods in New York City have an annual difference of about 4 micrograms per cubic meter, areas near heavy industries net a lot more deadly infections.

The residents of the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing project, worry this puts them at greater risk. “I’ve heard the conversation in the park over the last three months more than in the last five years,” says Suga Ray, a neighborhood activist and community builder. “People are talking about the plants over there,” he says of the Ravens wood Generating Station, whose iconic red-and-white-tipped smokestacks create an omnipresent frame for the skyline.

Queensbridge consists of 26 Y-shaped buildings in the shadow of the bridge that connects midtown Manhattan with the borough of Queens. Forty percent of its approximately 7,000 occupants live below the poverty line; 96 percent are nonwhite. Ravens wood, which can supply up to 20 percent of the city’s peak electricity needs, sits kitty-corner to these projects, and started generating power in 1963. The Queensbridge Houses opened in 1939. “That’s how you know it’s systemic,” Ray says. “They could have put it anywhere else. We create these structures in communities dominated by Black people.”

But in an American era defined by divisions and reckonings—both racial and environmental—Ravens wood is trying to clean up. That begins with its worst-offending units, the gas-fired plants known as “peakers,” turned on only to give the electric grid a boost on hot, or “peak,” days. The station can crank out some 2,050 megawatts of power (enough for around a million homes) in two ways. Four giant gas-and-oil-fueled steam turbines—ranging in age from 16 to 57 years—are its tortoises, ramping up slowly and deliberately, but always winning the race when it comes to total annual output. The hares are Ravens wood’s peakers, engines derived from the fuel- gulping jets on airliners, which, like similar systems around the United States, can spin up quickly to meet demand spikes. They don’t run often, but they run dirty. Most notably, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), they emit nitrogen oxide at levels 30 times higher than cleaner turbines (like Ravens wood’s big tortoises). They emit it at the worst time: on hot, high-ozone days. And in the worst place: alongside communities of color, already filled with truck tailpipe emissions and the accompanying health impacts.

At the moments of highest demand, congestion on the grid means that electricity needs to be made near where it’s most needed—in cities. But can that happen more cleanly? In 2019, New York state passed one of the most ambitious climate laws in the country, mandating 100 percent carbon-free power by 2040. On top of that, the state DEC adopted a rule specifically targeting peakers, lowering their emission limits to a point that will force many into early retirement, Ravens wood’s included. Under the new legislation, the station’s three remaining units, all more than 50 years old and the last of an original fleet of 17, will be decommissioned by 2023.

In their place, Ravens wood’s owner—private equity firm LS Power—has received approval from New York state to build 316 megawatts of battery storage on-site, which will be among the largest such installations in the United States. The cells will physically and functionally take the place of the aging peakers, ultimately charging up with renewable energy from the grid and then dispatching it on the highdemand days. “The goal is to be able to maintain the same level of reliability that we have currently but with a lower level of emissions,” says Clint Plummer, Ravens wood’s newly installed CEO. A former offshore wind executive, Plummer came on board in early 2020 with a mandate to redefine the high-profile plant as a paradigm of clean power, a key (and highly visible) node in the Empire State’s bold climate efforts. Legislation may have forced Ravens wood’s hand, but the generating station is leaning into its green transformation. (And LS Power expects the profits to follow.)

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