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By Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY

May 22 5:00am EDT

The utility is seeking a rate hike as it plans to pipe more gas into homes made from some of the organic material New Yorkers are putting curbside.

The utility National Grid wants to expand its efforts to heat its customers’ homes and businesses with gas generated from the digestion of human and food waste — and wants you to pay for it as part of a proposed rate hike.


National Grid says its proposal to use the gas produced from organics and sewage as fuel for customers — which it has already been testing at the city’s Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant — is part of its efforts to go green: it would avoid carbon emissions and replace fracked gas.

But some environmental advocates warn against National Grid’s proposed projects. They point to persistent breakdowns at the company’s existing project at Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Greenpoint, where much of the methane created has ended up being burned off into the air instead of sent to gas customers. 

The state Public Service Commission must approve the proposal, or an amended version of it, for National Grid to move forward with more waste-to-energy plants and increase customer bills to pay for it. 

If greenlit by regulators, National Grid could charge its customers in New York City about $13.2 million to subsidize capital costs (Long Island customers would be on the hook for about $9.9 million). The company expects the four systems could be in service by mid-2027.

Much like a stomach, the Newtown Creek plant digests sewage and a smoothie of food scraps the Department of Sanitation collects from orange street corner bins, public schools and curbside from household brown bins. That digestion process creates biogas, which helps power the plant. The excess gas is supposed to pipe into the homes and businesses of National Grid customers. 

When the equipment that purifies the biogas to a higher quality and injects into the grid is down — whether for maintenance, malfunctions or testing — the excess gas is “flared” off, which releases carbon dioxide, instead of being used to heat homes. Between April 2023 and March 2024, the system was offline for nearly as much time as it was online, records show.

“Why are we bringing more industrial pollution into these communities?” said Meagan Burton, senior attorney with Earthjustice, who also represents WE ACT for Environmental Justice in the National Grid rate case proceedings.

She said that between the financial costs to customers and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of new facilities, the proposed projects would constitute “double harm to ratepayers” — and the company hasn’t demonstrated it can properly run the project it’s already got.

In an email to THE CITY, National Grid spokesperson Karen Young said the conversion of organic waste into usable gas can play a “significant role” in achieving state climate goals.

“The Newtown Creek facility is an innovative new project that has already had a meaningful impact on reducing emissions from our network,” she wrote. “As with many pilot projects, we encountered some challenges when we first commenced operations.”

Meanwhile, mayoral budget cuts are shutting down dozens of community composting and collection sites that transform food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. As the city ratchets up its program to collect household organics waste curbside, wastewater treatment plants are poised to play a bigger role in processing that material.

According to the city Department of Environmental Protection, Newtown Creek flared 80% less often during the first four months of 2024 compared to the same period in 2022, before National Grid’s project began operating. 

“While we are pleased at the massive reduction in flaring year over year, we are working hard to further drive that number down,” DEP spokesperson Ted Timbers wrote in an email.

Will it Work?

Under the proposal, National Grid wants to set up its gas-to-grid system in two existing wastewater treatment plants: a city-owned plant in South Ozone Park, Queens, and one in Nassau County. The company also proposes to set up its interconnection system in two plants that have yet to be built, one in Staten Island and another in Suffolk County.

The idea of bringing projects to other neighborhoods gave pause to some local watchdogs, who have for years watched flares coming out of the Newtown Creek plant.

The Jamaica Wastewater Treatment Plant sits near JFK Airport, May 21, 2024.

“We have been very concerned about National Grid looking to expand RNG [renewable natural gas] projects given the massive delays and the ongoing issues with the Newtown Creek project being offline,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, which neighbors the wastewater treatment facility. “We don’t think there’s solid proof of concept.”

The Newtown Creek plant has the potential to produce enough biogas to heat about 5,200 homes in New York City, but it has underperformed: National Grid injected enough gas from the project into the distribution system to meet the needs of about 1,000 homes during the April 2023 to March 2024 period, the company reported in documents filed with the state.

When the conversion works, the gas can be put to use.

“Capturing and combustion of certain sources of biomethane can be climate-beneficial,” said Erin Murphy, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Murphy cautioned against treating projects like these as a silver bullet to address the climate crisis, which is caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels.

“Any assertion about the scalability of these projects to meet the energy demand that’s met by natural gas needs to be carefully, critically evaluated because there’s just not that much climate-beneficial biomethane,” she said.

Better Than the Toilet

The outcomes of National Grid’s project may improve in the future, with higher gas production, when New York City increases the amount of food waste that can be digested at the Newtown Creek plant — and as the company continues to work out the kinks in its system.

In comments filed with the state, representatives for the City of New York said National Grid’s investments “support a critical plan to address the disposal of waste within the City.”

The Department of Sanitation collected about 105,500 tons of organics in the 2023 fiscal year, before its mandatory organics collection program began to roll out. Meanwhile, the DEP is looking to handle more of that material to digest at its wastewater treatment plants. 

The Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant can receive up to 500 wet tons of food waste for processing daily, but future upgrades at that location — among others — would set DEP up to accept more organics for processing, too, according to an August 2023 solicitation from DEP to expand its organics digestion program at wastewater treatment plants.

The same document calls digestion of organics a “space-effective, cost-effective and sustainable” approach that can complement composting. 

The Department of Sanitation is also working on procurements to “diversify where the material goes,” said spokesperson Vincent Gragnani in an email. Currently, organic material gets processed at Newtown Creek’s wastewater plant, composted in New Jersey or sent to become biogas in Massachusetts. Organics DSNY collects in Staten Island are composted there.

Samantha MacBride, a sustainability professor at Baruch College who formerly worked for Sanitation and serves as an adviser for composting organization Earth Matter, said transforming food scraps and yard trimmings into nutrient-rich compost is the “best trajectory” for that material. But, she added, putting food scraps in the wastewater plants can make sense.

“Adding some food scraps to a wastewater anaerobic digester can help it run more efficiently because it’s a source of carbon. That injection of carbon is essentially going to feed the microbes that need to be doing stages of metabolism,” MacBride said. “I think it’s important to point out that putting the food scraps into an anaerobic digester isn’t the same as flushing them down the toilet.”

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