By Daniel Katzive
The piers along the Hudson River were once existentially critical to life in New York City. Passenger ships brought in visitors and immigrants, and ferries brought barges carrying train cars full of goods to feed and supply the hungry city, and coal to keep it warm. Cargo ships docked from all over the world, bringing merchandise for sale and carrying away products from New York factories.
Now? Not so much.
Most piers along the Hudson have disappeared or been converted into recreational facilities. Hardly a week goes by without a story about a new park planned or opening in what was once an industrial or shipping site along the river. As a result, West Siders can enjoy access to the river now in ways our ancestors could only imagine.
There are two notable exceptions: piers that retain industrial uses similar to their original purposes. Both are at the lower end of the Upper West Side. The first, Pier 99, at the end of 59th Street, is used by the Sanitation Department to ship out paper waste for recycling, as the West Side Rag reported on late last year.
The second pier, Pier 98, at 58th Street is a Con Ed pier, which is the jumping off point for this story. (As a rule, piers along the Hudson are numbered according to their closest cross street plus forty, so Pier 99 is at the end of 59th Street, Pier 98 is at the end of 58th Street, etc.)
Most West Siders who have walked, biked or jogged south on the Hudson River bike path have probably noticed Pier 98 with its tangle of pipes and ducts. Occasionally, a fuel barge can be seen tied up alongside it.
Many may have wondered “what is that and what is it for?” The short answer is, the pier is a small but vital cog in the complex systems that deliver steam and electricity to New Yorkers.
What happens on Pier 98?
Historically, Pier 98 served as a fuel dock for ships supplying a much more familiar Upper West Side landmark—the huge IRT Powerhouse which occupies the full block surrounded by 58th Street, 12th Avenue, 59th Street, and West End Avenue.
The 59th Street IRT Powerhouse was built in 1904 and features a Beaux-Arts Style edifice designed by McKim Mead and White, according to LandmarkWest. The exterior of the plant was granted landmark status in December 2017, as reported by the West Side Rag at the time.
Pier 98 continues to serve as a fuel dock for the plant today—barges tie up there to deliver Number 4 fuel oil. But Con Ed tells us the plant will only occasionally burn fuel oil these days, mainly during preparations for the winter season or during periods of constrained natural gas supply.
The 59th Street plant today mostly burns natural gas, which is delivered via the gas system’s underground pipe network. According to Con Ed, the steam system of which the plant is part relies 97% on natural gas and only 3% on fuel oil.
While its importance as a fuel dock may have waned, Pier 98 also now has a second and perhaps more critical purpose relating to the city’s electrical grid. According to Con Ed, cold water from the river is fed from the pier into a heat exchanger system, which cools the cables at a neighboring electrical substation and thereby allows the substation to handle substantially higher loads. The cooling system accounts for much of the profusion of pipes and conduits visible on the dock.
What is the role of the 59th Street Powerhouse?
The plant originally generated electricity to power the IRT subway system. Con Ed took over the plant in 1959 for use in producing electricity for its customers, and eventually modified it to burn oil instead of coal, and then natural gas.
The 59th Street plant today no longer generates electricity at all, but instead is used solely to produce steam for the utility’s customers who use it. According to an April 2021 report from Con Ed, the utility’s steam system, via a network of 105 miles of piping, serves 1,500 buildings in Manhattan and about 3 million people who live, work, and visit those buildings.
According to the Con Ed spokesperson who answered our queries, the 59th Street plant contributes only about 12% of the system’s total steam on average and does not run all the time. However, as the only steam facility on the West Side, it provides a much-needed pressure boost for customers on the West Side during periods of increasing steam demand.
The high-pressure steam delivered by Con Ed’s system is not the same steam that you might hear clanking in your radiators all night. Rather, Con Ed’s steam might be used to heat water in your building’s boilers, creating hot water for your bath and steam for your radiators. In some buildings, steam is also used to run air conditioning compressors. According to an article by Untapped New York from 2017, steam is used in some cases “to power dry cleaners, sterilization in hospitals, and humidification in museums.
Most of the steam network’s customers are in midtown and downtown, but service is available in limited parts of the West Side up to 96th. Major customers in our neighborhood include the American Museum of Natural History and Lincoln Center according to a 2017 Con Ed presentation. According to a Con Ed 2021 report, the Upper West Side accounts for about 7 percent of peak steam demand vs. 59% for midtown and 21% for downtown customers.
What’s next for steam and Pier 98?
How does steam fit in with New York City’s clean energy plans for the future? Steam service reduces the need for individual buildings in the city to burn oil and gas in their boilers. It also means less need for fuel oil delivery trucks, which in turn reduces diesel emissions and traffic on the streets. According to Con Ed, “our steam system is considered one of the cleanest energy sources available in the market today.”
Con Ed’s long-range plan for steam published earlier this year, indicates that, as part of the utility’s Clean Energy Commitment to move towards the city’s and state’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Con Ed is now focused on decarbonizing the production of steam.
Achieving this, according to the report, could include “building a low-to-zero carbon gaseous fuels portfolio” (i.e., biogas types of fuels) and “electrification of steam boilers with clean energy” as well as assessing “carbon capture” technologies.
Con Ed leases Pier 98 from the Hudson River Park Trust on a 30-year lease most recently renewed in 2009. According to a spokesperson for the Trust, “Pier 98 is subject to ‘Continuing Use Rights’ which were (and are) to extend to any renewals of the Con Edison lease.” The Trust told the WSR “it has not developed any alternative plans for the site for this reason.”
Steam service has existed in New York City for 140 years and seems likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. The old IRT Powerhouse on 59th Street will likely therefore still be needed as we move towards a zero-carbon goal.
As for Pier 98, decarbonization of the steam production process could mean the days of oil delivery by barge are numbered. However, with clean-generated imported electricity expected to become even more critical than ever in New York City, the need to keep those electrical cables cool may mean this pier does not join the growing ranks of recreational piers anytime soon.