State Abandons Fossil-Fuel Microgrid for the Empire State Plaza

A major SHARE goal is achieved but more work needs to be done 

On September 18, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and Office of General Services (OGS) announced that they had abandoned plans for two massive, gas-fired turbines and a microgrid in Sheridan Hollow to power the Empire State Plaza. With this change, one of the major goals of the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE) has been achieved. The state also announced it would replace the obsolete, polluting, and noisy emergency backup generators that have plagued the Sheridan Hollow neighborhood for years, another step SHARE has strongly advocated. However, while the state further announced some steps toward reducing gas-combustion in Sheridan Hollow and meeting the energy needs of the Plaza with renewables instead, there is still work to be done.

From the beginning, SHARE has pointed out how the state’s plans for powering its center of government could be symbolically important in leading the way toward meeting state-wide goals for transitioning to renewable energy—goals now enshrined in law by the climate legislation passed by the legislature and signed by the governor in June. Achieving 100 percent emission-free energy will require massive conversion of buildings to geothermal sources of heating and cooling. And electricity feeding the grid must increasingly be generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

The new plans for the Plaza announced by the state do include a limited form of geothermal cooling, with the replacement of one of the five steam-driven air conditioning units in the Plaza with a larger, electrically-powered one, thereby reducing the amount of gas the Sheridan Hollow steam plant needs to burn. Unfortunately, the plans announced do not include geothermal heating. And while the state now proposes to contract for a remote solar array that will offset 50 percent of the Plaza’s electricity use, the other 50 percent remains to be addressed.

More state plan details are revealed in a technical meeting

In a September 24 meeting between SHARE, NYPA, and OGS, we learned more details about the state’s plans, particularly about the air conditioning electrification and the remote solar array. The work to be done on the air conditioning system is not just replacing one steam-driven “chiller” with an electric one; it also lays groundwork for future replacement of the other four (and it’s possible that fewer than five electrically-driven chillers will be needed). Even replacing just one chiller will cut the need to burn gas in Sheridan Hollow during the summer by 50 percent, and complete elimination of the steam-driven chillers will mean no gas needs to burned at all during the summer.

To completely eliminate fossil fuel combustion in Sheridan Hollow (other than for emergency situations, which will still require diesel generators), it is essential to move to geothermal heating. NYPA argues that drilling bore holes for ground-sourced geothermal would require too much land and that the Hudson River is too cold in the winter for water-sourced geothermal heating. (In the summer, the Plaza already uses river water as a heat sink for its chillers.) But it does not appear that NYPA has consulted closely enough with experts to consider all possible means of geothermal heating. SHARE will continue to push the state on this issue, with the help of geothermal consultant Jay Egg, who participated in the September 24 meeting via phone. We continue to maintain that geothermal companies that have experience with projects of similar size and constraints should be given a chance through a Request for Information (RFI), or similar process, to propose detailed solutions for the Plaza’s heating and cooling needs.

NYPA and OGS revealed in the meeting that they will not own or finance the remote solar array they announced as part of their plans. Instead, they will contract with a private company to build the array and will buy the electricity it produces through a Power Purchase Agreement (similar to one of the standard ways that apartment dwellers as well as homeowners can contract for electricity from a community solar array). The land on which the solar array is to be built, at the site of the old Oneida County Airport, is state owned. Only about 125 acres are expected to be needed for the proposed solar array, out of a total of 1,100 acres OGS owns at the site. It seems possible that a larger solar array could be sited there, perhaps able to generate electricity that would offset more of the Plaza’s energy needs. OGS may also have other land that could be used, but for that matter, other land could be acquired by the state and similarly used, or the private company building the array could acquire land for it. Either way, the state could contract for remote solar arrays to offset the electricity used by many more state buildings and operations than just the Empire State Plaza. In doing so, the state could truly become a leader in supporting the transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy.

What’s next?

As stated in SHARE’s science committee report, we understand “that a project of this size and complexity may need to occur in phases. However, it is critical that steps be in a forward direction, reduce the combustion of fracked gas in Sheridan Hollow, and contribute to a foreseeable future in which normal daily energy needs of the Plaza can be met without fossil fuels. Moreover, progress must occur at a timely pace, responsive to the climate crisis. . . . By earnestly pursuing renewable energy solutions to heat, cool, and power the state’s center of government, New York can establish itself as a model of true innovation for the nation and the world.

We were encouraged by the spirit of cooperation exhibited by all participants in the September 24 meeting. SHARE members are following up with the state participants on some of the issues with geothermal heating and cooling and remote solar arrays mentioned above. If there will be ongoing, engaged dialogue between the state, SHARE, and affected communities, we are hopeful there will be timely, meaningful progress toward environmental justice and renewable energy.