Despite the Green New Deal being stalled in the United States Congress, climate legislation is powering up at the local level in an effort to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Among other places, New York City and State governments are energised to pick up the slack as the Republican president and a gridlocked congress fail to move national proposals forward.
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While city and state initiatives are not explicitly part of federal Green New Deal legislation co-sponsored by Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, her liberal-leaning district in the New York City borough of Queens is fertile ground for local efforts to roll back pollution and force electricity producers to use more renewables like hydropower, wind and solar.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has even branded the Climate Mobilization Act, approved by the city council just before Earth Day on April 22, as his city’s own “Green New Deal”.
One of the key architects of that plan is New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides, who represents the Astoria area of northwestern Queens that overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s district.
“The technology is there, and passage of this bill shows the willpower is as well,” Constantinides told Al Jazeera.
He engineered a key provision committing to an energy plan for transitioning from fossil fuels that would assess the “feasibility of replacing  in-city gas fired power plants with battery storage systems where appropriate powered by renewable sources”.
Within Constantinides’s neighbourhood are two massive generation facilities that produce more than 5,500 megawatts of power, a combined two-thirds of New York City’s output. Called Ravenswood and the Astoria complex, they both rely on natural gas, in addition to fuel oil.
The Astoria facility became infamous in December, when an electrical equipment malfunction lit up the sky and turned it neon blue – an incident nicknamed “Astoria Borealis”. Although the fire was contained, it directed public attention to negative environmental impacts.
Breathing problems near those polluters are worse than in the rest of the borough, so Constantinides seeks to improve his constituents’ health while tackling climate change.
This would force government at all levels to grapple with difficult policy questions: Who will pay for the transformation, and how quickly could energy innovation occur?
Many advocates for a speedy switch to renewables have no doubt change can happen.
“We need a Green New Deal for [us] to transition off of fossil fuels as soon as possible, to fight against climate change and fight against inequality,” said Peter Sikora, director at local environmental and social activist group New York Communities for Change.
“Is the technology feasible for replacing natural gas plants with renewables? Of course it is,” Sikora said. “But is the political will there? And are the benefits and costs distributed?”
In New York City, pollution from electricity generation causes health damages estimated to total around $3m per tonne. Every year, 3,200 premature deaths in the city are attributed to elevated levels of PM2.5, the fine particulate matter emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. And the city’s health department says 350 of those fatalities could be avoided if levels were reduced by just 10 percent.
For its part, the federal Green New Deal resolution states that “climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices”.
Referring to the plants around Astoria, Sikora said, “That area of New York City is the centre of fracked-gas power generation. It’s especially deadly for the climate and the environment where it’s drilled. And that huge cluster has caused elevated asthma in the neighbourhood.”
New York City consumes about 60 percent of the state’s energy, but produces only 40 percent. The difference comes from power plants upstate, where power stations operate further from population centers, and rivers gush with water, which some believe is the fuel of the future.
Although New York State’s energy sources are constantly in flux due to weather and demand, in 2018 an average of 41 percent of total power came from natural gas and other fossil fuels, while 32 percent of power was nuclear, 22 percent was hydroelectric, and five percent came from wind and other renewables.
All told, the total fraction from renewables remains at less than one-third, according to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the non-profit energy grid manager. But because the vast majority of hydro and wind power generation is upstate, renewables account for only 10 percent of the electricity produced downstate (the part of New York State closest to New York City). Two-thirds of power is produced from fossil fuels and most of the rest is from nuclear sources.
Regardless, the state’s Clean Energy Standard mandates that one-half the contribution to in-state electricity come from renewable sources by 2030 – a target New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed increasing to 70 percent.
The state has 11 years to carry out such ambitious but achievable changes – made even more challenging because nuclear power stations such as Indian Point are being closed for a variety of environmental reasons mostly independent of global warming.
But while natural gas is undoubtedly cheap, plentiful, and cleaner than other fossil fuels, it contributes significantly to climate change.
To be sure, New York State already has the lowest per capita consumption of petroleum in the nation, the second-lowest energy consumption overall, and the lowest energy expenditures per capita, according to the US Energy Information Administration. But the state pledges to do much better still.
Regulating energy producers
At the state level, several competing bills aim to forge ahead with climate policies. Cuomo’s plan, the Climate Leadership Act, is branded as a “Green New Deal” and would compel the state to produce 100 percent clean electricity by 2040.
Meanwhile, the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), a more aggressive plan that may soon pass the state legislature, would create an official council to monitor the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Having languished for several years before the legislature, the bill mandates that the whole economy become carbon-neutral by 2050 – not just in the realm of electricity generation, but in every sector.
US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently endorsed the plan, saying “passage of the CCPA would position New York to lead the national debate on how we can tackle climate change and would offer an example for other states to follow”.
On Tuesday, 11 members of the US Congress from New York State – led by Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez – announced their support for the CCPA in a letter to state lawmakers.
“Several states have historically been the laboratories of democracy, and the Green New Deal resolutions purport to inspire the greatest ideas of our generation,” said the letter, adding that the CCPA presents “an opportunity to cure the injustices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just transition into the future”.
An even more far-reaching bill than the CCPA before the state senate in Albany would establish a Green New Deal task force to reach a carbon-zero target by 2030. Yet another piece of legislation, the New York Off Fossil Fuels Act, aspires to do the same.
“It’s up to policymakers,” Sikora told Al Jazeera. “The governor is a key figure in this. Right now he needs to make his rhetoric real [by] stepping on the gas to create good union jobs that [address] the climate crisis with a massive deployment of renewable energy and efficiency.”
Sikora said the transmission grid in the city is “maxed out”, preventing optimal use of renewables. While the municipal government plans to start purchasing hydropower from Canada to fulfill all public-energy needs, meeting private-sector demand is a different story entirely.
“The fundamental issue here is storing energy for use during peak periods,” said Sikora. “You can have wind turbines spinning and solar panels going, but you need to be able to save for use when the wind is not blowing and it’s dark out.”
Green technology is being developed locally with money from federal agency Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), highlighting how government funds are needed to modernise the electric grid and maximise sustainability.
One proposal embraced by Councilman Constantinides would see Rikers Island, the notorious city jail, converted into an alternative energy farm – with green jobs for former inmates.
“Using just one-quarter of this roughly 400-acre [161-hectare] island for solar panels and large-scale battery storage could generate enough energy to close every in-city power plant built since 2000,” Constantinides told Al Jazeera.
“These turbines were foisted upon minority and low-income communities with little public input, as power companies promised they’d only operate for three years,” he added. “It’s over 18 years later, and these plants have overstayed their welcome in these neighbourhoods, where residents breathe in some of the worst toxins spewing out of smokestacks.”
A big challenge for Constantinides, long-time chairman of the city council’s environmental committee, is keeping up years of pressure on the state’s Public Service Commission to regulate the plants.
Is the technology feasible for replacing natural gas plants with renewables? Of course it is.
At present, about 30 percent of New York City’s greenhouse-gas emissions are from the electricity sector, and that is dominated by the Astoria plants.
According to the NYISO annual load and capacity report – also known as the “Gold Book” – the plants at the Astoria power complex are operated by four separate companies: NRG, Eastern Generation, Astoria Energy and New York Power Authority.
Abraham Silverman, NRG’s vice president, told Al Jazeera the way to cut emissions and quickly move to renewables is to promote “decarbonization through competition and choice”.
He said consumers should be able to “easily shop for green power options…creating competitive clean energy markets that drive the lowest-cost green outcomes”.
If the carbon pricing proposal by NYISO moves forward, the state will be the first in the country to implement a market solution that affixes the social cost of emissions to the economic price of fossil fuels.
“There is no historical precedent for the ambitious changes to the bulk power system envisioned by policymakers,” said NYISO executive vice president Robert Fernandez. “Complicating these technological and public policy goals is the fact that the NYISO must operate the system to the strictest reliability rules in the nation.”
Improvements in energy efficiency and storage are crucial to the state meeting its targets. New technology continues to boost wind power, including several planned offshore farms near the southern coast of Long Island just east of New York City. But variable air patterns and an old transmission system complicate such developments.
In any event, scientists say the 250 million metric tonnes of CO2 emitted each year by New York City – equivalent to the climate pollution from whole countries such as Egypt and Vietnam – must be decreased to prevent widespread urban flooding, deadly heat waves and other catastrophic events.
“Unless something truly magical happens, our current [US] Senate or President aren’t going to pass big climate policy this year,” said Arielle Swernoff, Communications Coordinator for New York Renews, a statewide climate advocacy coalition.
“New York is one of the biggest economies in the country,” said Swernoff. “We can do this and show that it works.”
This article is the third in a four-part series looking at the economic and political context of Green New Deal policies around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. With local details and global significance, we examine the people and places most affected by climate proposals. Click on the stories below: