As the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the country at the end of last winter, notably taking hold initially and most prominently in New York City’s outer boroughs, which include some of the most diverse ZIP codes in the United States, it quickly became apparent that communities of color were being impacted more heavily and more severely by the pandemic. Part of this outsized impact can be traced to the disproportionate rates of underlying health conditions that exist in such communities, which are in turn a factor of decades of energy policy and infrastructure that placed polluting power plants and toxic waste sites at the doorstep (sometimes literally) of residents.
But now such communities are looking to reverse these devastating trends by prioritizing energy efficiency and public power in their neighborhoods and buildings. In the Bronx, non-profit groups like The Point CDC and South Bronx Unite are flipping the script on traditional energy sources, supply, and even ownership, advocating for and organizing alternatives that produce cleaner, more affordable energy and put the control in the hands of the people who use it. And Bronx co-ops and other multifamily communities are going back to their roots in collective ownership and advocacy by converting to green power sources and infrastructure and sharing resources and information.
Hunts Point Community Solar
According to a Gothamist story, The Point CDC is examining the feasibility of using warehouse roofs to install solar panels that can be owned and maintained by South Bronx residents themselves, in a project called Hunts Point Community Solar. As Fernando Ortiz, climate preparedness and resiliency organizer for The Point CDC, explains, “We have all these industrial sites that have historically created issues—environmental and social issues—for the community. And there’s now a potential opportunity to remediate some of those past issues. Give us access to your roof; let’s have a more equitable energy system. Let’s feed back into the community that you are part of.”
There are already plans underway to convert peaker plants—fossil fuel-powered mega-polluters that were intended as temporary fixes at the turn of the millennium for the types of black- and brownouts that states like California were enduring at the time during peak energy usage—into battery storage. Gothamist’s reporting indicates that a July 2019 New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) study identified the Ravenswood peaker plant in neighboring Queens as a candidate for phased conversion into an 8-hour battery storage facility that can power 250,000 homes. The conversion, which was expected to be mostly completed by March 2021 prior to COVID, is considered a new sustainable model for the city to transition other peaker plants, which are by and large located in Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens low-income communities, to zero emissions—in line with the state’s carbon-reduction goals that include 1,500 MW of battery storage by 2025 and 3,000 MW of storage by 2030.
But the Ravenswood battery storage would still be powered partly by polluting fossil fuels and delivered by for-profit utilities like Con Edison, which have been largely responsible for the city’s summer blackouts and rising utility costs. Therefore, projects like Hunts Point Community Solar would not only provide a cleaner energy source, but would also be a model for consumer control. “We want to not just advocate for alternative energy sources,” says Ortiz. “We also want to own it.”