Approximately 32 million Americans live within three miles of a peaker power plant, which puts them at an elevated risk for various health problems — from asthma to heart disease — as well as increased rates of death. A recent study from Clean Energy Group found that emissions from peaker power plants were significantly higher when they are located near low-income neighborhoods where 65 percent or more of the residents are people of color. While environmental injustice is nothing new to vulnerable communities, reports like this one give ammo to activists in the fight for equity and provide an impetus to move towards clean, sustainable energy.
Peaker power plants are supplemental energy-producing systems that can be turned on and off quickly to help meet demands for electricity when usage peaks, such as during a snowstorm or heatwave. But this convenience comes with a price — they produce more pollution than the baseload plants that supply day-to-day energy needs, and those extra pollutants end up in surrounding communities.
According to the report, the authors of which studied peaker plants in Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit, two-thirds of these power plants are located in low-income neighborhoods (defined as 29 percent or more of households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line). However, pollution rates vary greatly due to how old the systems are and what sort of maintenance or upgrades are done. Who owns the plants can affect how efficient, and therefore how polluting, they are: The owners of such power plants are generally municipalities, “merchants” (private investors without shareholders, thereby assuming all risks) or investor-owned utilities (which are accountable to shareholders).
Where the percentage of residents is less than 65 percent people of color, these plants average 14.6 to 16.4 lbs. of nitrogen oxide per kilowatt hour produced. But where that percentage is 65 percent or higher, the plants average 23.8 lbs. per kilowatt hour. It isn’t just nitrogen oxide that is being pumped into these communities either — sulfur dioxide along with fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) are also emitted. The health repercussions for those living in communities polluted by these compounds include lower fertility rates — including miscarriages — as well as higher percentages of residents suffering from heart disease, chronic kidney disease, asthma and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found a 15 percent increase in deaths from the virus with previous long-term exposure to elevated levels of PM 2.5 — so it is fair to assume that at least some of the disproportionate mortality experienced by people of color is due to the discriminatory nature behind what is driving the placement of peaker power plants in the first place.
Fine particulate matter has also been linked to cardiac arrest, even with short exposures at low levels. Considering the data concluding that Blacks across the U.S. have a much higher rate of cardiac arrest than whites regardless of age, the location of peaker power plants can be considered as among the contributing factors to higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy.
Ultimately, environmental justice is a matter of equity in health and quality of life. The use of peaker power plants as a stop-gap measure for periods of high energy consumption creates injustice by increasing rates of preventable disease in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The information in the Clean Energy Group’s report is useful to community members and activists who are seeking to stop new peaker plants from being built and maybe even decommission old ones.
Doing away with peaker plants also presents the opportunity to explore alternatives that could benefit communities instead of hurting them. Switching to sustainable energy sources for supplemental production could jumpstart a move towards more sustainable baseload production as well. After all, renewables are cheaper in the long run after the initial investment is out of the way.
Image credit: Thijs Stoop via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.