Replacing peakers with storage to achieve the greatest health benefit


Peaker generating units causing the greatest health burdens can be retired and replaced with storage. That’s the idea behind a new data visualization resource from Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE).

The U.S. has more than 1,000 peaker units, which operate only at times of peak load, and often have high hourly emissions. Many are located in areas with high proportions of minority and low-income residents.

PSE aims to speed the replacement of peakers with storage, starting in nine states with favorable policy environments. The group says on its website that renewable energy and storage “are beginning to emerge as competitive replacements” for existing peakers.

“This is a screening tool,” said PSE Director of Research Elena Krieger, “and we hope it will catalyze deeper analytical dives into specific regions or power plants.”

Seeing the data

PSE provides a data visualization tool and a report for each of nine states with storage-friendly policies or a good pace of storage deployment. The states are, from west to east, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts map, for example, uses varying sizes of circles to show the locations and sizes of 23 peaker units. Clicking on a circle brings up 20 data elements on the unit’s status, age, operations and emissions.

The user can filter the data to select which peakers to show, both on the state map and on a chart showing the proportion of low-income and minority residents living nearby. Filtering options include a peaker unit’s operating status, emissions level, age, and capacity factor.

The chart varies the size of the circles according to the number of people living nearby, as in the chart for Massachusetts shown at right. Here, gray circles indicate oil-fired peakers, and orange represents gas-fired peakers.

An accompanying report for each state describes the state’s clean energy policies, and shows the data for all peaker units in a single table. The report for Arizona, for example, notes that a peaker unit’s age, efficiency, and utilization rate could be factors considered when evaluating retirement. Each state report also has state-specific images, such as the California ranking of peaker units shown above.

Who might use it

“Regulators and policymakers can use our findings to inform decisions related to energy storage and clean energy targets, greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emission reductions, and investments to improve clean energy access for under-served and vulnerable communities,” said Krieger. “Hopefully, our analysis will highlight the need to break down the barriers between these historically siloed efforts.”

Krieger also noted the potential for community groups to use the tool to support their clean energy, equity and pollution-related efforts. “Plants serving load pockets near vulnerable and disadvantaged communities could potentially be replaced with distributed clean energy technologies that improve clean energy access and resilience,” she said.

Storage developers could use the tool to screen “for states and regions where peaker plants may be vulnerable to retirement, and where energy storage and other alternatives align well with peak demand needs,” Krieger noted. “Aging plants with short run times, poor efficiency, and low capacity factors may be more likely to be economically vulnerable to retirement and more easily replaced with battery systems,” she said.

On the other hand, peaker units “with low emission rates and located far from population centers are likely to be less of a priority” for early retirement, “from a health and equity standpoint.”

Overall, Krieger said that PSE’s approach “can help set a precedent for broader grid-wide clean energy transitions to incorporate health, environment and equity co-benefits.”

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