Breath of Fresh Air: Upper East Side steam plant converts to natural gas

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By Megan Bungeroth

Officials from Con Edison are paving the way to convert both of their Manhattan steam generating plants into natural gas-fueled facilities. Last week, representatives from the energy company came to Community Board 8 to explain how the conversion would work at their Upper East Side plant on East 74th Street and York Avenue.

"This will give Con Edison the ability to burn gas and support the city's goal to expand the use of natural gas and reduce the use of No. 4 and No. 6 fuel oil," said Jim Shannon, who works for Con Ed and presented the information to the board.

The plant currently produces steam by combusting oil in boilers, which causes air pollution in the form of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter and other harmful elements. The Upper East Side has some of the worst air quality in the city due to the high number of older buildings that burn dirty fuel oil-Con Edison said that eliminating the steam plant, a source of this pollution, will significantly improve the neighborhood's air quality.

"We're going to reduce the emissions coming from that stack," said plant manager Gary Hugo, referring to the large tower that emits dark smoke when the plant is burning oil.

Shannon said that after the plant is converted, there will be a 50 percent reduction in noxious pollutants emitted, the equivalent of removing 16,000 cars from the streets, as well as a 10 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

The plant generates about 2 million steam pounds per hour (that's 26.2 billion pounds annually), Con Edison said, and services about 1,735 customers in Manhattan. Steam is used to power both heating and cooling systems and is a very clean energy source at its point of use.

The project will cost about $83 million, but officials say it will ultimately save many millions of dollars, which will be passed onto steam customers. Aside from its cost efficiency, Hugo said that a big reason Con Edison is moving ahead with the conversion is to meet regulations from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Some board members questioned how disruptive the work will be, especially for a neighborhood already besieged by Second Avenue Subway construction. Shannon said that Con Edison is hoping for permits that allow them to work weekdays after 8 a.m., but the DOT has the final say on permitted times.

The second phase of construction will be mostly inside the plant and is slated for completion in December 2013.

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