This insight was a finalist in our fall blog competition.
Currently, the opportunities and harms of the U.S. energy system are not equally distributed across class and racial lines. Vulnerable communities have little say in their local energy system, yet experience the brunt of its impacts. These disparities are evident in New York City. Deferred infrastructure maintenance and a slow transition to a carbon-free energy system burden low-income and marginalized communities through several distinct modes, including the dispersal of harmful local pollutants, escalating grid unreliability, and reduced accessibility to energy resources. Contextualizing social justice within the New York City energy industry is urgent. The Energy Justice movement aims to build upon the grassroots environmental justice and climate justice movements by supporting a transition to a cleaner economy that will remedy the injustices of the fossil-fuel energy system.
Perhaps the most recognizable disparity in New York City’s energy grid is the harmful impact of fossil fuel plants on local communities. The city is predominantly powered by fossil fuel plants, which release hazardous pollutants into the environment including greenhouse gases, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM), and heavy metals. There are 18 plants in New York City that remain on standby. These “peaker” plants are designed to only fire up during times of peak demand—like hot summer days when air quality is already compromised. Most of these peaker plants are notably old and run on especially dirty fuels that release even more greenhouse gases and other pollutants. They are also often located in vulnerable communities who are not equipped to cope with this disproportionate exposure to toxins due to a lack of resources and the compounding effects of other health disparities. Environmental justice groups in New York City are targeting dirty power plants starting with the peaker plants, and some local legislation is already beginning to follow their lead.
In addition to the direct risk of toxicity presented by energy generation facilities, current energy infrastructure is at growing risk of failure due to deferred maintenance and the compounding impacts of climate change. The city’s aging energy infrastructure is in the path of sea level rise, severe storms, and extreme temperatures. Notably, heat waves are a growing threat to urban residents, as power failures are becoming more common during dangerous temperature spikes. As the effects of climate change accelerate the deterioration of the already aging energy infrastructure, utility service disruptions are inevitable. The increasing unreliability of the grid may lead wealthier residents to utilize personal generators or invest in distributed microgrids, leaving more vulnerable communities in the dark—literally.
Despite being in close physical proximity to power plants, low-income communities and communities of color often struggle to access energy resources due to prohibitive financial costs. Frequently, these communities are stuck with higher-cost fuels and less efficient homes and appliances. According to a 2018 analysis of energy insecurity in a New York City neighborhood, people are more likely to be unable to meet household energy needs if they are racial/ethnic minorities, have children, are long-term neighborhood residents, or have poor housing conditions. In the study, energy insecurity was significantly associated with poor respiratory, mental, and sleep health. Thus, the impacts of the fossil-fueled energy grid magnify both health and financial inequalities.
The current energy system reinforces disparities through these avenues of toxicity, unreliability, and inaccessibility. Fortunately, momentum is growing in New York City’s Energy Justice movement. As renewable energy policies and initiatives accelerate, environmental justice groups across the city are generating advocacy for a just and democratic transition to clean, low-carbon energy. As the city’s energy landscape changes, public and private stakeholders have an ethical responsibility to shape a grid that more equitably distributes the costs and benefits of the energy system.