Improving Air Quality by Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage

Highly polluting peaker power plants are predominately located in low-income communities. Replacing these plants with energy storage plus renewables is an important environmental justice opportunity.

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Today’s electric power system is built on a foundation of baseload power, largely coal, nuclear and natural gas, supported by more flexible, predominantly natural gas-powered peaker plants deployed to meet infrequent peak electricity demand needs. But renewable generation and battery storage have begun to disrupt and upend this legacy fossil-fuel system. For the first time ever, traditional power plants are at risk from replacement by these new, non-polluting energy technologies.

Over the last few years, market analysis from industry experts and the national laboratories has suggested that fossil-fueled peaker plants may be at near-term risk of replacement by battery storage and renewable energy technologies. Through modeling and market trend analysis, experts have found that battery storage and renewable generation may be less expensive to develop and operate than these little used but heavily polluting power plants, while also meeting or exceeding the same performance standards these often thirty- to forty-year-old peakers.

This clean energy transition is not just theoretical. It has been proven by rapidly advancing market forces. Several recent utility procurements for peaking capacity favor batteries and renewable generation over traditional peakers on both cost and operational ability. (For more on this evolving market transition, see the power plant replacement section of our Energy Storage Trends project.) Moreover, replacement is not just an economic or emissions reduction opportunity. Retiring or reducing reliance on these plants could be a major win for environmental justice because of where many of these plants are located.

The more than 1,000 peaker plants in operation across the United States are predominantly located in disadvantaged communities, sited in or near mostly minority and low-income areas. (See our interactive peaker plant map to view more details about where these plants are located.) Peaker plants disproportionately emit health-damaging air pollutants – mainly ozone forming chemicals and harmful particulates – that contribute to poor local air quality and harm public health in these vulnerable frontline communities.

Replacing peaker plants in disadvantaged communities represents one of the most important environmental justice opportunities in the country. It can serve as a model for how new energy technologies can be used now – not years from now – to help communities take charge of their energy future to end our reliance on these outdated and dirty plants and to stop the construction of new ones. There is no reason that peaker replacement technologies, like batteries and solar, cannot be distributed broadly throughout  these communities, where they can benefit local businesses and residents through savings, revenue generation, and improved resilience.

In turn, this peaker strategy can demonstrate how longer-term efforts involving energy storage and renewable technologies can begin to incrementally replace, longer duration baseload fossil-fuel plants. Replacement of peaker plants could create the foundation for this necessary struggle to end use of fossil fuels to make electricity.

The Energy Storage Peaker Replacement (ESPR) initiative is a collaborative effort, co-led by Clean Energy Group and Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE), to help local community and environmental justice groups win peaker plant replacement fights. ESRP will develop the analytical basis and strategies to support policy and local advocacy efforts to replace new and existing fossil-fuel peaker power plants with battery storage and other clean energy technologies nationwide. It is the first effort in the country to systematically analyze and target traditional peaker plants at scale.

The ESPR initiative will consist of two phases over the next few years.

Phase I: Conduct the needed analytical research to close information and data gaps that stand in the way of efforts to replace peaker power plants. This will consist of state- and peaker plant-level screening and analysis of multiple factors, including economics, emissions, air quality, environmental and human health hazards and impacts, equity and legal and regulatory considerations. This work will be conducted in consultation with a broad stakeholder group composed of industry experts, academics and scientists, and local community and environmental justice leaders.

Phase II: Building upon the robust technical analyses developed during Phase I, engage in a multi-year process in collaboration with social, environmental, and economic advocates to deploy community strategies to successfully replace peaker plants with battery storage and renewable energy technologies.

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