As NYC builds out green infrastructure, some brace for unintended consequences

·6 min read

A clean energy project that could reduce New York City’s air pollution emissions by as much as 10% has Bronx residents worried the ambitious plan may also bring unwanted fallout.

Their concern isn’t the clean energy, but how it will be conveyed and what that might mean to neighborhoods that for years have absorbed projects sold as being for the greater good, but have hurt residents.

Two proposals in particular have raised such fears — one that sought to place a high voltage converter station in a residential part of the South Bronx and another which hints at the prospect of taking control of parkland to complete the project.

“We don’t want more Cross Bronx Expressways and more Major Deegans,” said Chauncy Young, a board member with the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, referring to highways that have contributed to the borough’s sky-high asthma rate. “We want the green energy, but we don’t want the Bronx to be negatively impacted.”

Determining whether such impacts could come to pass has been tough, though, said Young, who noted that not all the details from the proposals being considered have been made public.

“There’s not clarity,” he explained.

The goal of the project, which likely would take at least five years to complete, is to replace fossil fuel-generated electricity with power that’s derived from cleaner sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Right now, behind the scenes conversations about how that will proceed highlight a tension likely to persist for years as the city and state attempt to lighten their carbon imprint: How does government strike the right balance between providing clean energy and ensuring the people who use it aren’t adversely impacted?

To bring that energy to the city, several firms have submitted bids to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The proposals submitted are available for public review on NYSERDA’s website, but many have been redacted, which, according to the authority, is permitted to ensure the firms are not “commercially harmed” by having to disclose sensitive details.

Two of the posted proposals have revealed enough to mobilize community leaders, though.

One idea, which has since been scuttled, would have placed a facility near the Bronx Terminal Market to convert high voltage direct current to alternating current. That was floated in a joint proposal from a company called Forward Power and the New York Power Authority, a state-controlled entity.

Forward Power is led by Michael Polsky, the CEO of Invenergy, and Jeff Blau, the CEO of Related Companies, whose owner Stephen Ross is a long-time friend of President Donald Trump and was a donor to his campaign.

The problem residents and community leaders had with the Forward Power-NYPA proposal is that studies have identified higher than average incidences of childhood leukemia clusters near high-voltage AC transmission lines.

An outcry from the community and intervention from elected leaders like Rep. Ritchie Torres led to Forward Power dropping that part of their plan, which would have put the converter station just blocks from a mall in a densely-packed neighborhood. Its honchos also committed in a letter to Torres (D-Bronx) that they would not seek to place it in “other residential areas”.

“We will site the converter station in an industrial area,” Blau, Polsky and NYPA President Gil Quiniones wrote in the missive to Torres.

Cesar Yoc, president of the Bronx Institute for Urban Systems, said that doesn’t leave him feeling very confident, though.

“There’s concern in general as far as where they’re going to put this thing,” he said. “We don’t know what the next location is going to be.”

Another proposal that’s raised hackles among Bronxites is one from Avangrid Networks, which would require “an approval from the NYS Legislature ... for parkland alienation.”

Young and others have specifically pointed to a map released by Avangrid that appears to place a high-voltage converter station in the northern part of the Bronx, possibly in Van Cortlandt Park, as part of its plan.

Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz (D-Bronx) said he would “unalterably” oppose any project that involves taking away parkland and though he couldn’t recall the name of the entity that made the proposal, added it’s “clear” to him that this one refers to alienating greenspace in his northern Bronx district.

“I don’t think anybody’s opposed to clean energy coming to New York City,” he said. “But we cannot let something bad happen under the guise of something else that’s good.”

Dinowitz suggested that the entities bidding for the job look to Rikers Island, where the city intends to eventually shutter jails, as an alternative site.

“There’s been talk about Rikers Island being used as a site for things that are positive for the environment,” he said. “So, why look to the Bronx where there are a lot of people? To me, none of that makes sense.”

Sebastian Libonatti, Avangrid’s Vice President of Business Development, countered that the map his company put out is imprecise and that the parkland alienation the proposal refers to could occur in Westchester and Rockland counties. If it were to happen at all, he said, it would involve running a transmission line underground and improving it once the work is complete.

“We’re nowhere near any park in the Bronx,” he said.

Libonatti acknowledged that Avangrid’s converter station would be in the South Bronx, but said it would be in an industrial area, possibly on the site of an underused parking lot. A final location has not been finalized, he added.

“There’s a couple of industrial players — manufacturers, distributors — and we came up with this idea. Some of them have quite a lot of parking space for their employees, and most of the time that space is not really optimized,” he said. “Why don’t we propose to more optimally use that space, so, still have almost the same parking space, but design the converter station in a way that we can fit it in?”

In return, the owners of those tracts could expect Avangrid to potentially build charging stations for their vehicles.

Clint Plummer, CEO of Rise Light & Power, another company that put in a bid for the job, said its plan would avoid putting a converter station in a residential area because it already has land at its Ravenwood, Queens facility, which is home to the largest power plant in the city and would serve as the new power line’s terminus.

That plan would call for two converter stations, which he described as “non-controversial” because the planned sites are zoned industrial.

“It would be located on a piece of property that up until recently had been used for some fossil-fired peaking generators,” Plummer said, referring to power plants that kick into operation when demand for electricity is at its highest. “We’ve retired those generators and are in the process of redeveloping that site for clean energy.”

Like other proposals submitted, Rise’s plan would also draw energy harvested north of New York City, and in this case, the plan would rely on solar and wind-generated energy.

Another big hurdle for residents in all this is not just the proposals themselves, but the process by which they’re to be approved, according to Carla Precht, executive director of the Bronx Children’s Museum.

Precht, who’s kept careful tabs on the proposals, pointed out that the 60-day public comment period is set to begin after NYSERDA selects a contractor.

“I don’t think that’s adequate,” she said. “We need the input before NYSERDA determines which company it’s going to pick.”

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