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.
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.