Creating a Major Source of Renewable Energy for New York City and Green Jobs for Communities Adversely Impacted by Environmental and Criminal Injustice
February 22, 2021
HARLEM, NY — WE ACT for Environmental Justice has been working to advance the Renewable Rikers Act alongside New York City Councilmembers Costa Constantinides (District 22), Helen Rosenthal (District 6), and Ben Kallos (District 5) other environmental groups and community organizations .
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has already pledged to close the Rikers Island jail complex, the nation’s largest penal colony, by 2026. Today the New York City Council passed two pieces of the Renewable Rikers Act, paving the way to transform the 413-acre island into a solar farm potentially generating as much as 14 megawatts of renewable energy:
Intro 1592: Require the Department of Corrections to hand over control of the island to the Department of Environmental Protection; and
Intro 1593: Conduct a feasibility study on constructing renewable energy facilities and battery storage on the island.
With New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act, both the State and City have set some of the most ambitious decarbonization goals in the nation, which will require shifting away from fossil fuels and dramatically increasing renewable energy generation. The closure of Rikers Island presents a unique opportunity to increase renewable energy capacity within New York City, where space limitations have been one of the challenges of large-scale solar installations.
The energy generated from the solar farm can act as a form of reparative justice by providing electric power to nearby communities that have been most impacted by Rikers, and potentially replace all of the city’s secondary power plants, the high-pollution natural gas “peaker” plants designed to meet the city’s peak power needs. The nearby communities that will directly benefit from the solar energy, as well as those in which the secondary power plants are situated, are predominantly low-income communities and communities of color.
“Research has shown that low-income communities and communities of color not only endure a disproportionate level of the health impacts of climate change as well as pollution in general, but they also face disproportionate rates of incarceration,” said Sonal Jessel, Director of Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “Building a solar farm on Rikers Island would contribute to addressing decades of environmental racism and racial violence by reducing the levels of pollution in the communities most impacted by environmental and criminal injustice. And it will reduce the city’s overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.”
As part of its Solar Uptown Now program, WE ACT and its partners trained more than 100 unemployed and underemployed residents of Northern Manhattan – including some who were incarcerated in facilities like Rikers – to install solar panels on the roofs of affordable housing throughout the community.
“Thank you to all our council members, organizers, and advocates who have brought us to this day,” said Andre Gentles, a certified solar installer and member of Solar Uptown Now Services, a solar cooperative formed by WE ACT trainees. “I am a lifelong Bronx resident and a solar worker, who is part of WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s solar worker group. As a solar worker and a construction worker, I am excited that the Renewable Rikers Act was passed today. Renewable and green energy is what we should be moving towards. Not only for addressing global warming, but for moving to a better way of life that is healthier and cleaner for our communities. I view the Renewable Rikers project as part of a collective of actions that are moving forward to a new way of powering our communities. The other ideas that came forward for Rikers Island once the penal colony closes were not achieving this same goal of long-term benefits for our communities. We are making real a vision of something new and fresh, and for our youth to benefit from in the future. We are setting the example of how to address global warming our way, and I am excited to support these bills and see them become law.”
Once the Renewable Rikers Act has been signed into law, and assuming favorable results from the Intro 1593 feasibility study, the nonprofit hopes to train those adversely impacted by facilities such as Rikers to lead the solar installation and maintenance. This would provide the trained installers with the experience needed to embark on careers in the solar industry, as well as an opportunity for some to join WE ACT’s Solar Uptown Now Services (S.U.N.S.) solar cooperative.
“The solar farm would not only provide electric power for these communities, but also train those adversely impacted by brutal facilities such as Rikers, creating a pathway to good, green jobs that will provide these communities with economic power as well,” added Jessel. “In this way, Renewable Rikers can serve as a model for both climate justice and reparative justice.”