UWUA Local 1-2 in New York City is playing a leading role in an initiative to turn the city’s largest fossil fuel power plant, the Ravenswood Generating Station, into a new renewable energy hub.
If approved by regulators, the project — called Renewable Ravenswood — will help New York achieve climate targets to source 70 percent of power from renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. Jim Shillitto, president of Local 1-2, predicted the new facility could be operational within 10 years.
Built in 1963 by ConEd, the gas-powered plant has gone through a succession of owners, and today it is owned by Rise Light & Power, a unit of LS Power. About 120 employees, most of them members of UWUA Local 1-2, operate the station. The plant has at times provided up to half of New York City’s electricity.
Hub for wind, solar energy makes worker commitments
Ravenswood’s four tall red-and-white smokestacks are visible from many parts of New York City, making it well known. Sitting on 27 acres on the East River in Queens, the facility is directly opposite Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Around the corner from Ravenswood in its Long Island City neighborhood stands the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing complex and home to about 7,000 people.
Those smokestacks will be dismantled under the hub transformation. The project will integrate renewable energy sources, including wind power from offshore and upstate New York as well as solar energy, into New York City’s electric grid. The site will host a large-scale battery installation to store energy. Additionally, Ravenswood’s river water intake system will be repurposed to provide zero-emission thermal energy to nearby communities, including Queensbridge Houses. As the plan goes through levels of review, there may be further changes.
One of the pillars of the Renewable Ravenswood project is a strong commitment from Rise and other stakeholders to the on-site union workforce. Stakeholders have promised to maintain and create family-sustaining jobs, provide training for renewable energy jobs, and offer workforce development opportunities.
Shillitto is part of the working group overseeing the Renewable Ravenswood project. “The workers are my primary focus, but we really have to look at the companies, too. We need the companies to transition to keep our members working. Rise is taking a very proactive approach to a clean energy future. They’ve proposed a few projects that were not accepted, but rather than walking away, they regrouped and put forth new proposals,” he noted.
Model project for climate-driven transition
The number of workers needed to operate Ravenswood has been in decline due to technology modernization and a transition from coal to gas as a fuel source, from as many as 400 workers a decade ago, Shillitto said. The project’s potential to maintain and expand jobs makes it an important model.
“No one can be a climate denier. The trick is to figure out how we do it and keep things going — keep our members working, keep the power flowing,” he explained. “The important thing to know is that these gas-powered plants that will be phased out, they will remain viable because of the infrastructure that is already in place for distribution.”
Shillitto encouraged other union locals to pursue similar opportunities by taking initiative and being persistent. Ravenswood has the backing of political and community leaders in part because the plan aligns with a New York effort to address pollution sources near historically disadvantaged communities and because of the initiative’s commitment to union jobs.
Shillitto contrasted Rise’s approach with that of another New York City fossil fuel power provider that had similar plans. Its proposal was initially denied as Rise’s was. Rather than revising the plan, that company has decided to continue in its current form and bet on the state backing down from its renewable energy targets.
“They’ve taken the attitude that they’ll be the last man standing and will still make money. It’s a completely different viewpoint from that of Rise. I think the ‘last man standing’ viewpoint is insanity,” Shillitto said. “I applaud Rise for being proactive and future-oriented.”