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Now that Rikers is set to close, we have an opportunity to build a solar panel project on the island. Let’s not miss our chance: solar for Rikers Island.

It’s a rare, transformative moment for Rikers Island. Now that the corrections center is closing on the island, a 400-acre plot of land is opening up and with that, a new opportunity to empower low-to-moderate income communities. These are the people who are disproportionately affected by the dysfunction and violence at the heart of the corrections center.  

We cannot undo the past, but we can give the immediate surrounding communities the power to make choices that will directly impact their standard of living and the health of their families. One choice we can offer is clean energy from a solar panel project on Rikers and energy storage on the island itself. We can transform Rikers from a place that breeds violence to a source of clean energy.

Why is Rikers Correctional Center Closing?

Ongoing, endemic violence was a significant contributing factor to the City Council’s decision in October 2019 to close Rikers and to construct the borough jails. The sense of urgency behind the Council’s decision was underscored by one of the more recent casualties. In late 2019, an adolescent hanged himself as guards watched for seven minutes before taking him down. Left with severe injuries, he sunk into a coma and later died. 

His tragic case leaves one wondering if he had immediate access to services, perhaps his death could have been prevented. The borough jails offer the promise of better access to services and family support by removing the barrier of traveling to an island. 

  • 10,000 inmates held in Rikers daily 
  • 77,000 cycle through 
  • 85% are pretrial detainees and 15% have been convicted 
  • 40% have a mental illness

Rikers island can support a large-scale solar project that produces 70 MW – enough to power approximately 9,000 households in the surrounding neighborhoods. Think of the island as powering the entire low-income neighborhood of Hunt’s Point, north of the island. It may just be one neighborhood in a city of millions, but the impact on that particular community will be significant.

Community Solar Serves Low-Income Households

The most effective way to serve a neighborhood like Hunts point is through creating a community solar program on Rikers and giving those low-income communities nearby the first priority. Under the community solar model, anyone can sign up for a solar project and receive discounted electricity through bill credits. Through this subscription model, the communities will be empowered to choose solar energy if that’s what they want and receive lower-cost energy to boot.  

Battery Storage to Close Peaker Stations

That’s not all. The island could also support battery storage of as much as 1.85 GWh which will cover energy needs during peak-use periods and allow peaker stations in a 2.5-mile radius around the island to close.   

What does solar for Rikers look like?

Solar project size: 70 MW
Power generated: 9,000 households (Enough for Hunt’s Point neighborhood)
Battery storage: 1.85 GWh

The battery storage will allow New York City to close the peaker stations within a 2.5 mile radius around the island.

The immediate impact of closing peaker stations on the neighboring residents cannot be underestimated. Known as heavy air polluters, the stations are located in neighborhoods which are predominately low-income, making air pollution a class and justice issue. Impacted most, these communities are also the least equipped to mobilize politicians to close the plants and clean their air. For those reasons, closing the peaker plants through battery storage on Rikers is a key part of the puzzle.  It means cleaner air for those people most affected by Rikers in the first place and environmental and class justice.  

With the focus often on greenhouse gas emissions, it’s easy to forget that the switch to solar energy has an immediate impact on the levels of pollution. Reducing the reliance on coal plants and closing peaker stations in the case of New York City prevents harmful chemicals from being released into the air and waterways. People can breathe easier and be rest assured that they’re drinking clean water. 

Join the Solar Movement on Rikers

Our solution to Rikers is by no means original but was first outlined in an independent study in 2017 – two years before the council made the final decision to close the Island jail in Fall 2019. The study, A More Just New York, proposed two options that included solar panels alongside airway runways, waste treatment plants, and other renewable energy options. Like the authors of the study and a growing community of organizations, we see a great opportunity in Rikers island for solving some of the infrastructure issues faced by the city. We would like to take that one step further to a fully solar solution that will transform and empower the communities affected most by the violence in the jail. 

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