In a major win for climate advocates and supporters of wind and solar energy, New York State environmental regulators refused on Wednesday to allow two companies to upgrade their gas-fueled power plants — signaling a newly aggressive approach to ending fossil-fuel emissions that drive climate change.
With the decision — and a strong, immediate statement of support from Gov. Kathy Hochul — the officials took a clear and potentially influential position on a longstanding question that is at the center of national and global debates on renewable energy.
The regulators’ decision to deny the power plant upgrades in Astoria, Queens, and Newburgh, north of New York City, suggested confidence that the state will be able to build renewable energy — energy like wind and solar that comes from sources that are naturally replenishing — quickly enough and at sufficient scale to reliably supply power needs while meeting climate goals adopted by law in 2019.
Companies that sell gas or run gas-fueled plants have argued that gas is necessary as a so-called bridge fuel until New York has an established renewable infrastructure. But scientists, climate advocates and state officials have argued that continued investment in any fossil fuel, even gas — which is cleaner than oil or coal — would confound the goal of eliminating planet-heating emissions.
The 2019 climate law commits the state to getting 100 percent of its electricity by 2040 from sources that do not release greenhouse gases or pollute the air. By 2030, the state must get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly by increasing wind and solar power.
But because the amount of energy supplied by wind and sun fluctuates with weather, energy analysts, politicians and environmental advocates have debated whether the state will need to continue to invest in building and upgrading gas-fueled facilities to ensure a steady electricity supply.
“I applaud the Department of Environmental Conservation’s decisions” to deny the permits, Ms. Hochul said soon after the announcement, drawing a cascade of praise from climate and environmental groups.
“Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time,” Ms. Hochul added. “We owe it to future generations to meet our nation-leading climate and emissions reduction goals.”
Since her first days in office, Ms. Hochul has signaled that climate change is a top priority, investing heavily in green infrastructure and singling out the Astoria plant in particular for its association with the area of Queens known as “Asthma Alley” because of heightened childhood respiratory disease rates attributed to air pollution.
The issue is personal for Ms. Hochul, who has publicly shared stories of her childhood in Buffalo swimming in polluted Lake Erie, which glowed at night from the chemicals being dumped there by a nearby steel plant.
NRG Energy owns the plant in Astoria and wanted to upgrade, while Danskammer LLC sought to expand its generating capacity at the facility in Newburgh, in Orange County about 75 miles north of New York City, with a new gas-fired plant. Both plants have been operating as stopgaps — running only when the system is nearing peak capacity to back up the power grid.
Though they are not operated regularly, the “peaker plants” are older facilities that emit 30 times more nitrogen oxide than newer gas-burning power plants, earning them the title of New York’s dirtiest.
Both Newburgh and Astoria are considered environmental justice communities: areas with low-income or Black and Latino populations disproportionately affected by historical environmental damage, which the climate law requires the state to address.
The Astoria plant upgrade had been in the works for more than a decade, when the state first approved plans to replace the facility. At the time, the promise of a new upgraded plant with a smaller carbon footprint seemed like an unrivaled good. Over the past decade, NRG Energy suggested the plant could run even cleaner — promising it might one day be converted to run off green hydrogen, a new technology that has become a buzzword in climate circles but is not yet commercially available.
The current plant is set to close in 2023 under new emissions rules.
NRG Energy lamented the regulators’ decision. “Denying projects like Astoria is simply shortsighted and bad public policy,” said Tom Atkins, vice president of development.
Danskammer, jointly owned by Agate Power and Tiger Infrastructure, did not respond to a request for comment.
Current analysis from the independent nonprofit that ensures a reliable energy supply, the New York Independent System Operator, shows that the supply would be expected to remain stable even with the planned closing of the Astoria plant. That is partly because the efficiency of wind and solar power technology has been growing and is expected to grow faster over time.
It remains to be seen if renewable building will grow at a sufficient pace to allow the state to deny all other gas projects in the future. Local opposition to renewable sources like wind farms has often arisen on aesthetic and ecological grounds, even in localities that broadly support action against climate change. But a new state law makes it easier for those projects to win approval.
None of the promised upgrades by NRG and Danskammer of the Astoria and Newburgh plants were sufficient to win Department of Environmental Conservation approval: The department said that both projects were inconsistent with statewide emissions limits. Collectively the agency received more than 11,000 comments on the applications.
Environmental and community groups marshaled their forces in opposition, drawing support from politicians including Senator Chuck Schumer, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, who represents Astoria.
On Wednesday, the activists celebrated their success. Alex Beauchamp of Food and Water Watch posted on Twitter that the movement won “by focusing on organizing and exerting old-fashioned pressure from real people.”