NYC Advances ‘Renewable Rikers’ Energy Plans

Ordering a review of the potential for renewable energy creation and storage on Rikers Island, the New York City Council moved toward planning what will happen after the massive jail shuts down. 

This June 20, 2014 file photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK (CN) — The island that houses the world’s largest correctional facilities may one day be the site of a renewable energy plant. Plans for the transition gained momentum Thursday when New York City Council members voted to conduct a study of the potential for green infrastructure on Rikers Island. 

The Renewable Rikers Act proposes converting the 400 acres of flat land into an energy production and storage facility after it closes down, which is planned to happen by 2026. 

Thursday’s vote requires New York City to conduct a study to determine whether different types of renewable energy sources and battery storage are feasible on the island. It also establishes a process to transfer the land and buildings on Rikers from the Department of Correction to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. 

“The 413 acres of Rikers Island have, for far too long, embodied an unjust and racist criminal justice system,” said Costa Constantinides, a council member from Queens, who introduced the legislation. “These bills will offer the city a pathway to building a hub for sustainability and resiliency that can serve as a model to cities around the world.”

Because Rikers is not big enough to hold enough solar panels to generate sufficient energy, its space could be better used for building battery storage facilities, New York Solar Energy Industries Association President Dan Hendrick said during a 2020 panel on the proposed project, according to the Queens Daily Eagle

“Solar can and should play a role in the future of our sustainable Rikers Island, but it’s really exciting to think about storage in the context of replacing dirtier sources of fuel, creating jobs [and] bolstering grid resiliency,” Hendrick said.

Exploring potential to generate energy on Rikers works in tandem with New York City officials looking at ways to replace the city’s gas-fired power plants with renewable energy, council members said Thursday. 

The evaluation, which will be due in June 2022, is set to examine the would-be project’s costs, value, rate of return and sustainability. 

Rikers was named after a Dutch immigrant who bought it during the early 17th century, and whose family owned the land until selling it to the city in 1884. A descendent of the original owner, Richard Riker, “was infamous in the 1800s for abusing the Fugitive Slave Act to send (or sell) African Americans in New York to slaveowners in the South,” according to reporting in Bloomberg CityLab

Constantinides called out that history in his remarks on the legislation passing. 

“Far too many New Yorkers found themselves caught in a cycle of over-policing and over-incarceration symbolized by an island named for the family of a slave catcher,” Constantinides said. 

In October 2019, the council voted to shutter the notorious jail, and authorized construction of four new borough jails. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has called the Rikers jail complex a symbol of “inhumanity and brutality.” News stories report inmate rapes, beatings and deaths have earned the jail, also the subject of various litigation, a reputation for allowing and representing the most horrific aspects of the criminal justice system.   

Reports coming out of Rikers have been associated with the Bronx, said Kevin Riley, a council member from the borough, during the vote on Thursday. 

While Riley voted yes on the proposals for Rikers, he echoed Bronx Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. — who voted no — in saying the Bronx needs to be represented on the advisory board for plans as the project moves ahead. 

“Here in the Bronx, we feel like we never have a [seat] at the table when it comes to anything good,” Riley said. 

Salamanca said he strongly believes in closing down Rikers and agrees with renewable energy efforts. 

“But when decisions are being made, and communities who have been marginalized for decades are being excluded from those conversations,” Salamanca said, “it’s important for elected officials to speak up.”

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