As the conversations for racial equity have intensified worldwide, so have conversations surrounding environmental justice. No matter the topic, work needs to be done across all fields of environmental studies. In the energy space, advocates for environmental justice have identified several issues where underrepresented groups have historically been excluded from critical conversations. These issues include equitable access to clean energy and the disproportionate negative effects of climate change on vulnerable communities.
The Problem with Peaker Plants
One example that demonstrates these problems is the use of fossil fuel peaker plants. Peaker plants are power plants that are used during times when energy demand is high. These plants usually run on natural gas and can be used for a few or several hours at a time, depending on the state of the grid. Excessive pollution from peaker plants results from fast ramp times and single-cycle operation. As of 2020, the US has over 1,000 peaker plants in operation. These plants are located disproportionately near low income communities, which can lead to long-term health problems when those residents are exposed to the plants’ harmful pollutants.
In addition to public health problems, peaker plants can result in costly fees for electricity customers, especially in large cities. According to a report from the PEAK Coalition, an estimated $4.5 billion in capacity payments have been paid by New York City residents to the public and private peaker plant owners from 2010-2020. Many of these New York plants operate less than 1% of the year. Addressing peak energy demand is a pressing challenge, and special care should be taken when already vulnerable communities face excessive negative impacts.