Queens Tribune: Electricity in Queens: Mapping a Shift in Boroughs Power

(October 21, 2010)

By Jessica Ablamsky

Time has largely stood still at many power plants in Queens. Home to most of the electricity generated in the City, the cost of antiquated technology comes in the form of increased pollution and decreased capacity.

With few exceptions, most turbines in the borough came online 40-50 years ago. Inefficient and expensive, the face of power generation in the borough is going to change dramatically over the next few years.

In a heavily guarded site overlooking the East River, five companies in northwest Queens produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity each year. Each megawatt can power up to 1,000 homes, using a range of fuel options, including kerosene, natural gas and oil.

Changing Of The Guard

This year was noteworthy for the loss of an infamous plant that few will miss. Brought online in 1977, the Charles Poletti generating station was the plant every environmentalist loved to hate, and the last outdated remnant among the New York Power Authority’s Queens-based generators.

In anticipation of its retirement, the greenhouse-gas-spewing behemoth was replaced in 2005 with a new facility that is one of the cleanest, most efficient in the City, according to NYPA.

Plants owned by NRG and Astoria Generating Company will be brought into the 21st century through a process known as repowering. When a company repowers, vintage units are replaced with newer, more efficient units, which is nothing but good news for the environment and human health.

NRG, an international energy company, controls 17 percent of the city’s generating capacity.

The billion-dollar repowering will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of a million tons every year, equivalent to removing 185,000 cars from the road. Construction would begin in 2010 and end in 2015.

Astoria Generating Company, owned by American company USPowerGen, supplies about 20 percent of the City’s electricity. Repowering plans include retiring one turbine and capping emissions on others. Construction would begin in 2012 and end by 2014.

New to Queens, but not without controversy, is Astoria Energy, which is owned in part by GDF Suez Energy North America, a Houston-based company that has operations in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

Online since 2006, Astoria Energy’s 500-megawatt plant will soon have company in a facility that is slated to power up in the spring of 2011.

A Tough Location

“They were shoehorned into this neighborhood despite vigorous objection,” said Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Astoria).

Before building the plants, Astoria Energy officials looked in vain for private funding, which they received after locking in contracts to provide Con Edison and NYPA with electricity, Vallone said. Astoria Energy was not the lowest bidder in either case, he said.

“I contend that they were forced by the state to choose Astoria Energy,” he said. “The original approval should have been investigated by the attorney general.”

Vallone contends that Astoria should not bear the cost of the City’s energy needs.

“There’s no excuse for placing them all in one neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not a question of ‘not in my backyard.’ Our backyard is already full. In fact, it’s an ashtray.”

The Big Boy

Rounding out Astoria’s backyard is Ravenswood, operated by TransCanada, whose vintage 1963-1970 turbines will probably not be replaced anytime soon, according to representatives from local regulatory agencies.

In 2009, Ravenswood provided about 42 percent of northwest Queens output and was responsible for about a third of carbon emissions from those plants.

“TransCanada meets or exceeds all permits and authorizations with respect to emissions,” said spokeswoman Kiersten Tucker. “The plant uses advanced technology and controls to minimize impacts on the environment.”

Tucker was quick to point out that several units were retrofitted to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, which contribute to global warming and smog.

Power plant emissions can have a powerful negative effect on human health, a situation improved upon by newer facilities.

A 2010 report by the American Lung Association of New York revealed that Queens is tied with Manhattan as the second dirtiest for short-term particle pollution, said Michael Silback, vice president of public policy and communication for the American Lung Association of New York.

“When communities in Queens continue to get plagued in locally-sourced air pollution, it’s clear that more needs to be done to promote the use of newer, cleaner technologies and clean, renewable energy sources,” he said.