As we enter into the winter season, many Americans are paying extra close attention to their energy usage and electricity and utility bills, and for good reason. Cooler temperatures and shorter days mean increased use of heat and lights, and hundreds of millions of Americans will feel the impact.
However, looking at our energy bills can also be confusing and daunting. For so much talk about fossil fuels and renewable energy, it can feel very unclear what type of energy we are actually deriving our power from.
The reality is that most Americans have no idea what type of energy they use or where their electricity comes from – they simply know the name of the company or companies that send them expensive utility bills each month. This lack of knowledge is not necessarily the fault of individual consumers, though. The energy market is very complicated, and many companies get their energy from a mix of sources, making it hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on with our energy costs or the suppliers themselves.
Unfortunately, the same is true for many of the millions of residents living in New York City limits. Here, we’ve put together a helpful guide to understanding energy and power in NYC.
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Given the sheer density of NYC – a megacity, by global standards – the Big Apple requires a lot of energy. New York City alone uses about the same amount of electricity as the entire state of Massachusetts! New Yorkers spend just under $20 billion per year on the energy that is required to keep the city heated up, cooled off, and/or powered up.
There are currently 24 power plants that operate within the five boroughs of New York City. Together, these plants produce roughly half of NYC’s electricity, and the rest has to be brought in from outside the city. Unfortunately, the majority of these facilities are at least half a century old, and as a result, they exclusively run on either natural gas, oil, or a combination of both. This is, in part, the product of them being built a long time ago before there was an emphasis on/understanding of the need for green energy. However, it is also in part the result of a lack of space in NYC to dedicate to green energy, such as wind turbines or hydropower, which tend to be more spread out. The city’s aging infrastructure contributes to a slew of local environmental problems for neighboring communities, and some local advocates have pushed for a number of these plants to be shut down for good.
As mentioned earlier, the main source of electricity generation in New York City is the combustion of fossil fuels, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the city's total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). In recent years, it is estimated that about 85% of the local electric grid was powered by fossil fuels. This is, crucially, very different from other parts of New York. Upstate, for example, clean energy sources contribute to the majority of the energy supply – making the energy landscape wildly different than that in the metro area. However, for many reasons, it is difficult to transport the cleaner power from upstate down to NYC.
In New York City, most residents receive their electricity from the local utility company, Consolidated Edison (Con Edison). The electricity provided by Con Edison is sourced from a mix of generation sources, including natural gas, oil, and some renewable energy. The specific mix can vary, and the utility may procure electricity from various generators within the region. The one exception is the Rockaways, which are served instead by Long Island Power Authority, a public authority overseen by the state of New York.
Part of the difficulty in transitioning to more sustainable energy sources in New York City is that because it is so dense and crowded – generally a good thing for overall sustainability – there is not a lot of room for renewable energy generation. This means that the transmission and transportation of clean energy into NYC from other parts of the state and country need to be strengthened. Ideally, this would allow solar, wind, and hydropower to be produced in places with more space and then brought into the city.
In 2019, the state of New York approved one of the most ambitious climate plans in the world, and New York City, on its own, has committed to various green energy goals. By 2040, the city aims to transition its entire electricity grid to be powered by zero-emissions sources, with the longer-term goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Clearly, the climate is warming, and dirty energy sources like fossil fuels are massive contributors to that. Understanding not only how much energy we use but also where our energy comes from is a key piece of the climate puzzle. Without this basic understanding, it is hard for consumers to make informed choices or advocate for policy changes that they would like to see introduced.