Eastern Generation scraps plans for Gowanus power plant, turns toward renewables

Photo of the Gowanus gas facility, proposed site of the gowanus repowering project
Eastern Generation’s Gowanus Generating Station, a high-emission “peaker plant” floating on the Gowanus Bay.
Photo: Ken Schles, Food and Water Watch

One of New York City’s most prolific power generating companies is scrapping their plans to open a new fossil fuel-powered generating station in Sunset Park, and will close parts of the facility ahead of schedule as they move ahead with energy storage.

Eastern Generation announced last week that they were withdrawing their application to “repower” the Gowanus Generating Station, a floating gas-and-oil burning facility that sits on four barges in the Gowanus Bay, and plans to close two of the barges as soon as November 2022, six months before they would be mandated to close under state emissions regulations, as they explore energy-storage options for the site.

“PEAK Coalition welcomes Eastern Generation’s decision to not only cease its pursuit for new peaker plants, but also actively explore renewable energy and storage solutions on its properties,” said the PEAK Coalition, comprised of local legal and environmental groups, in a release. “Eastern Generation should go beyond Gowanus and Narrows to close all its peaker plants.”

The now-defunct repowering plan, proposed by the Eastern Generation subsidiary Astoria Generating Company in 2019, would have replaced the existing generating units at Gowanus with a smaller number of new, more efficient units. AGC planned to close the nearby, smaller, Narrows generating station if and when the new Gowanus units were operational.

Though AGC claimed the project would reduce emissions, local elected officials and environmental groups immediately began fighting back. The PEAK Coalition, including the Sunset Park-based UPROSE, advocated for state officials to deny permits for the project and encouraged the company to pursue renewable and clean energy as an alternative.

“In Sunset Park, high levels of local air pollution has caused generations of health problems from asthma, heart disease, diabetes, COVID, and other upper respiratory issues,” said UPROSE, in a release. “For the community, this major victory means cleaner air, less exposure to toxic pollutants that harm our health, and more opportunities to create well-paying local green jobs in clean energy!”

Advocates marched through Sunset Park, an environmental justice community, for climate justice in September. File photo by Paul Frangipane

The Gowanus Generating Station is one of three “peaker plants” Eastern Generation runs in the city, alongside the Narrows station and the Astoria Generating Station beside the East River. Peaker plants usually operate only on the hottest days of the year, when demand for electricity to power air conditioners is at its highest. Despite that, the plants have high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are harmful to the people living around them.

“These are some of the dirtiest emitting smokestacks and power plants in the country,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a PEAK member. “You name it, carbon dioxide, particulate matter.”

Sunset Park bears the brunt of emissions from both the Narrows and the Gowanus plants and a third peaker plant owned by the New York Power Authority at 23rd Street and Third Avenue. An environmental justice community with a minority population of more than 94 percent and at least 41 percent of residents living below the poverty line, residents face higher-than-average exposure to diesel particulate matter from nearby highways and risks of cancer and other serious health issues caused by poor air quality, according to the EPA.

In September, a number of Brooklyn elected officials signed on to a letter urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to deny permits for the project, urging faster action on transitioning to renewables.

Eastern Generation plans to build energy storage units at the Gowanus, Narrows, and Astoria facilities, and has already filed plans for the Astoria units with the state’s Public Service Commission. Those facilities are essentially large-scale rechargeable batteries, which will store energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines until it’s needed. In the past, storing that electricity has been quite difficult, said John Reese, senior vice president at Eastern Generation.

“But there have been huge advancements, a lot of it because of federal investment by the Department of Energy into research in energy storage,” Reese said. “One of the challenges of renewable energy is that the sun shines when it shines, it doesn’t shine at night, the wind traditionally blows more at night, it blows more in the winter than in the summer. So it isn’t a perfect match of when you use energy.”

The new units will gather that electricity when it’s most plentiful and send it back out when demand is high, which should also reduce reliance on existing peaker plants, Reese said, since there will be more stores to burn through before it becomes necessary to turn them on.

The storage units do not create any on-site emissions, he said.

Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes marches for climate justice in Sunset Park.File photo by Paul Frangipane

Both the Gowanus and the Narrows plants are currently required to stop burning oil during the summer months by 2023, and to stop burning gas by 2025. It is possible that they will remain operational past that time, depending on other energy projects.

“One of the challenges in that area is that these units are still needed for reliability at some level, some of the units,” Reese said. “ConEd has an approved proposal to fix that reliability problem by [2025], so it’s hard to say, if they don’t get done on time with the project, there will probably be a requirement to keep some portion of those units operational.”

In addition to beginning the process of retiring the Gowanus barges ahead of schedule, Eastern Generation has also decided they will not run the units during the winter, even if it was technically allowed.

The repowering project had already proved to be “extremely difficult,” Reese said, and seemed like it was only going to get moreso. If and when more obstacles arose, the projected lifespan of the new plant got shorter — and it became clear that the company should start to focus on renewables.

Rogers-Wright said he was surprised to see the company make the choice to set aside the repowering plan willingly – but hopes that other companies will follow suit after the state’s recent decision to deny permits to fracked-gas plants in Astoria and Newburgh, and recently-updated guidelines the Department of Environmental Conservation issued outlining how they intend to enforce the Climate Leadership and Protection Act going forward.

“The winds are at the face of the fossil fuel cartel,” he said. “It’s clear, you’re going to have a hell of a hard time going against the mandate of the CLCPA. It’s not goals, they have a mandate now.”