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Why we must win the race to close New York’s dirty power plants

By James Whelan and Kyle Bragg

Even as we continue to grapple with Covid-19, we cannot forget the ongoing environmental crisis caused by climate change that threatens the lives of people in our city—and on our planet.

Tackling carbon emissions created by our energy sources is not just crucial, it’s urgent. The air pollution caused by these emissions exacerbates the same kinds of respiratory issues associated with Covid-19 and, like the disease, they disproportionately harm low-income communities of color.


Every day that passes without making significant changes to how we get our power is another day we sacrifice the future health of our fellow New Yorkers. Thankfully, our state has recently taken important steps to plan for a future with cleaner air and greener energy. Our industry and labor strongly support these priorities—for our workers and all New Yorkers.

The state’s ambitious proposal would enable New York City, the largest consumer of power in the state, to get greater access to renewable sources of energy. It will help put us on a realistic path to meet our goals to get 70% of electricity from carbon-free sources in another decade, and go 100% carbon-free by 2040.

This would be an energy sea-change. Currently, less than one-third of our region’s electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, because at the moment we don’t have the ability to either produce renewable energy locally or the transmission and distribution get it into our buildings where it is consumed.

The state’s plan tackles these issues head-on by encouraging the production of offshore wind and Upstate renewables that will come into New York City. It also smartly addresses the financial challenges of meeting our climate goals at a time that public dollars are harder to find by making it much easier for the state government to leverage private investments in these projects. That change alone could free up significant resources to further speed renewable energy production.


The reality is that most renewable power sources—such as offshore wind—will have to be built outside the city. So, upgraded transmission infrastructure is also essential. Thanks to a law we were proud to support, New York is studying where and how new and improved transmission lines should be built. That report must be completed as soon as possible so we can strengthen the transmission system.

These reforms are needed to close New York City’s dirtiest power plants, which burn oil and natural gas on the hottest days of the year, spewing dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide into largely lower-income areas. They must continue to be prioritized.

And, as the state speeds up its work, the city can do more too. Last year, the mayor and the Council punted a feasibility assessment on closing the city’s dirty plants to the next mayor. With this new state policy moving forward, that study should be expedited.

We in the real estate industry and labor are also committed to doing our part. Collectively, our members are already proud to build, operate, and work in many of the highest-efficiency buildings in the world. Knowing that energy efficiency has a critical role to play to reach our shared environmental goals, the industry is investing in green building infrastructure so that less power is used overall.

New York’s real estate companies have already invested substantially in energy efficiency, earning LEED Platinum and Gold status on millions of square feet of property and pledging to do more.

Turning off dirty fossil fuel-burning plants in the city permanently will greatly improve the quality of life and long-term health outcomes for many of the city’s communities of color and low-income residents. The climate crisis grows more and more dire, and the challenge ahead is daunting.

But there is a clear path to a sustainable energy future in New York. These next few months are critical to the next few decades as the state resets its energy standards. We must get it right.

James Whelan is president of the Real Estate Board of New York. Kyle Bragg is president of 32BJ.

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