Phase Out Peakers

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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Clean Energy Group’s Phase Out Peakers initiative is a collaborative effort to support local community and environmental justice groups across the country in their battles to phase out fossil fuel peaker power plants and replace them with clean renewables and battery storage technologies. It is the first national effort to systematically demonstrate with analysis and technology assessments how communities could use clean energy alternatives with battery storage to meet peak electricity demand and to capture local health and wealth benefits.

Current activities

New York City PEAK Coalition

Clean Energy Group is collaborating with New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE, THE POINT CDC, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (collectively known as the PEAK Coalition) to cast a light on the environmental and economic harms that peaker plants inflict on environmental justice communities in New York City and to accelerate the replacement of the city’s fleet of polluting peaker plants with renewables and battery storage technologies.

The PEAK Coalition released a groundbreaking report that, for the first time in the country, details the true cost of these dirty power plants. Top findings from the report, Dirty Energy, Big Money, include:

  • An estimated $4.5 billion in ratepayers funds have gone to support the continued operation of the city’s peaker plants – most of which operate no more than a few hundred hours each year.
  • Most of these payments have flowed to private, out-of-state firms: a Boston hedge fund, a Houston fossil fuel generation company, and a New Jersey private equity firm.
  • New York City’s peakers generate some of the most expensive energy in the country, costing as much as 1,300% more than the average cost of electricity in New York.
  • Even though the power plants don’t run often, they can be significant contributors to local air pollution – accounting for more than 10 percent of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions on high ozone days.

Phase Out Peakers Across the Country

Peakers are not just an issue for New York City; they are a nationwide problem. There are more than 1,000 fossil fuel peaker plants operating across the U.S. today.

Based on a preliminary scan of publicly available data, the ten metropolitan regions most burdened by aging peaker fleets are collectively home to more than 200 peaker plants, representing a combined 60-gigawatt source of urban emissions. On average, the power plants operate less than 4 percent of the time, less than 300 hours each year, but they are likely to account for a significant portion of systemwide energy costs and local air pollution.

Reducing the air pollution burden on environmental justice communities has always been an urgent problem, but it is now a greater public health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent epidemiological studies have shown that increased emissions of particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from power plants such as peakers have contributed to increased deaths from the virus in major urban areas. Reducing peaker emissions in U.S. cities could be a critical strategy to alleviate the adverse health impacts of air pollution on those suffering from respiratory conditions and cardiovascular disease.

Project background

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 and grid flexibility needs. But renewable generation and battery storage are now disrupting and upending this legacy fossil-fuel system. Due to falling costs for renewables and battery storage and technology innovations, traditional power plants are now at risk from replacement by these non-polluting energy technologies.

This clean energy transition is not just theoretical. It has been proven by rapidly advancing market forces, with utilities increasingly choosing to procure peaking capacity from batteries powered by renewable generation over traditional peakers based on both cost and operational ability. Moreover, replacement is not only an economic or emissions reduction opportunity. Retiring or reducing reliance on these plants could be a major win for environmental justice.

The more than 1,000 fossil fuel peaker plants in operation across the United States are predominantly located in disadvantaged communities, sited in or near mostly low-income communities and communities of color. (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 like nitrogen oxides (NOx) 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. Not only can batteries and renewables deliver a cleaner source of peak energy generation, they can also be distributed throughout communities, providing opportunities for increased energy resilience, decreased energy burdens, and the potential for community ownership and wealth creation—benefiting communities instead of causing them harm. This peaker replacement initiative 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 outdated and dirty power plants and to stop the construction of new ones.

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