Gotham Gazette

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The Lesson Of The Blackout Is NOT More Power Plants


The recent northeast blackout has fueled proponents of building more power plants in the city. We told you so, they say, we need more power to meet rising demand. But even before anyone knows what really caused the blackout, the best guess is that it had more to do with the way power is managed in the northeast than the amount of power available. Author Greg Palast chalks it up to deregulation, which he says “was like a committee of bank robbers figuring out how to make safecracking legal.”

Still, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Trans Gas Energy Systems is pressing ahead with plans to locate a 1,100 megawatt power generator on the East River waterfront, in an area slated for new residential and mixed use development and a park. Trans Gas wants this waterfront site because it’s near gas transmission lines. Both the city administration and local community board have been against siting the power plant there, saying the massive structure will cast a shadow over redevelopment plans and a potential site for the Olympics 2012 games. Williamsburg Watch, a local advocacy group, tells the story and has the latest news on their web site. Also look at the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force site. A city-wide coalition, Communities United for Responsible Energy (CURE) brings together neighborhoods facing similar issues.

No Local Control in Siting

Incredible but true: New York City neighborhoods have no formal role in deciding where public utilities and other major facilities like sewage treatment plants and waste transfer stations are located. At best, community boards can cast a vote that is only advisory. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which have a grossly disproportionate burden of such noxious facilities, have little formal power to close the door and prevent more from coming in. Williamsburg/Greenpoint processes the majority of the city’s solid waste, has the largest underground oil spill in the country, and is host to the city’s only radioactive waste site.

The New York City Charter includes a very weak requirement that in the siting of such facilities the city consider whether a neighborhood has more than its “fair share” of such facilities. Unfortunately, the fair share criteria apply only to selected projects that undergo the city’s land use review procedure and thus come before the community boards, City Planning Commission and City Council.

But City Hall also has no control over the siting of most energy facilities like Trans Gas. These are licensed by the state, which has the power to override all local land use regulations. This power to override damages the ability of every local government and its neighborhoods to plan, because state officials can come in at any time and ignore local plans. Any state agency or authority set up under the state, like the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or a bi-state agency like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, can override local laws whenever it pleases, without regard for the impact of their project on neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, put most of its Manhattan-based bus garages in Harlem, a neighborhood with one of the highest asthma rates in the country.

Every municipality gets its legal authority to regulate land use from the state, which allows municipalities to pass their own zoning laws and do their own plans. The state doesn’t do local plans or set up zoning rules. But the state undercuts the ability of local government to plan by using its powers to override. This power to override has only one possible virtue: it can foil local Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) sentiments that would make it impossible for the state to find a site for needed facilities. But what happens when the state always wants to put its projects in the same overburdened neighborhoods? It’s not that the state has a plan for the location of energy facilities. They pretty much go along with the proposals of the power industry, which always looks for the cheapest land in neighborhoods they think are politically powerless -- in particular, low-income communities and communities of color. In the neighborhoods this is known as environmental racism. (Trans Gas is said to be looking into alternative sites, but they too are in low-income waterfront neighborhoods, Sunset Park and Red Hook).

And what if the facility isn’t needed at all, as the opposition to Trans Gas argues? Even taking Con Edison’s inflated figures on projected peak demand, there are already enough new power plants licensed to operate to meet expected demand over the next five years.

Sustainable Energy Planning

What’s missing here is a long-range plan for energy provision based not only on the stated needs of power companies but concerns for the local and global environment. The U.S. consumes a fourth of the world’s energy and has only five percent of world population. It is the largest contributor to global warming. This is directly related to the U.S. model of urban development, which is based on sprawled suburban growth and dependency on cars. Sprawled, low-density development means more miles of transmission lines and more home-based appliances.

Con Edison gets at least 94 percent of its energy from non-renewable sources of energy like gas, coal and oil which are responsible for emissions that fail to meet federal clean air standards. The prices of these fuels are heavily supported by national government policies, including foreign policy. What consumers pay does not compensate for the costs to individuals and government of damages to the environment and public health. If the same priority were to be given to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power, the air might be cleaner. And if there were more serious attention paid to energy conservation beyond the occasional moralistic appeals to consumers not to consume too much, there might not be the need to continually expand capacity.

Homes, offices and factories in the U.S. rely on heating and air conditioning for climate control, both big energy users. Here at the local level, architects and planners are just beginning to learn how to produce buildings and cities that are more energy efficient, but for the most part these efforts are voluntary and the exception instead of the rule. Local building and zoning codes need to be changed to required maximum exposures to natural sunlight, better insulation, green roofs, and “smart” appliances, for example.

“Anything is Better”

A side effect of the Trans Gas issue is the “anything is better” syndrome. This illness occurs when neighborhoods unite and put all their efforts into stopping such a dreaded project. If they win, they lower their guard and end up accepting the first alternative that comes along. In last month’s Land Use column, I showed how the City Planning Department is proposing zoning changes that would allow for market-rate housing on the waterfront. They are hoping that the community board will forget about its plans for affordable housing and mixed use on the waterfront because anything, even luxury housing, would be better than a power plant. Inoculation against this illness requires a dedication to implementing the Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans which, after all, were approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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