Hunters Point Community Middle School Faculty “Power Paddle”

Hunters Point Community Middle School science teacher Bart Piscitello and colleagues enjoy the open East River.

Hunters Point Community Middle School science teacher Bart Piscitello and colleagues enjoy the open East River.

HarborLAB was delighted to take faculty from Hunters Point Community Middle School on a paddling tour of NYC’s energy system. The East River and Newtown Creek have been central to NYC’s energy needs since colonial times. Today we can see cautionary tales and inspiring innovations alike within the same panorama. We hope the this “Power Paddle” helps educators to ground (pun intended) their lessons in vivid local examples. We also recognize that our actions on the East River speak to the world because it all happens before the eyes of the United Nations, which towers over the strait. We’re grateful to the UN Federal Credit Union for sponsoring HarborLAB. 

HarborLAB is located toward the mouth of the Newtown Creek. That allows us to escape the worst of the pollution, but we maintain a policy of not having children paddle on the creek. The creek has other forms of heavy industrial contamination (especially its inland reaches), episodic sewer overflows, and very large barges passing through, so the risk to children far outweighs the rewarding insights they might glean from paddling here. Instead we offer paddling in Gantry Plaza State Park and field trips to cleaner and more vibrant ecosystems in the region. We also find that children need exposure to these fully functioning ecosystems before they can understand discussions of environmental restoration. HarborLAB also delivers talks and demonstrations about water quality, cordgrass, beach plums, and other topics to schools and libraries. 

Hunters Point Community Middle School Principal Sarah Goodman brought a group of teachers to singly paddle our tandem kayaks to Gantry Plaza State Park to pick up the rest of the Power Paddle participants. HarborLAB’s volunteers have lobbied for paddling at Gantry Plaza State Park since 2003. Thanks to TF Cornerstone‘s founding sponsorship, it was aboard HarborLAB’s boats that the public enjoyed the park’s first official paddling day this summer! We’re grateful to the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance for welcoming kayaking and canoeing to this neighborhood gem. We’re also grateful to Hunters Point Parks Conservancy for its care, outreach, and advocacy.

We introduced the teachers to our GreenLaunch vision of restoring an indigenous habitat to our 125′ waterfront, owned by the kind and generous Schuman Properties. Students might help us grow beach plums and spartina! Another possibility that greatly excites us is growing ribbed mussels as an affiliate program to the Billion Oyster Project (for which we’ve delivered oyster cages to schools by kayak from Governors Island). These mussels might anchor to an installation of solar-energized BioRock. a technology adopted locally first by Coastal Preservation Network. We also plan to install a Field Station railed deck for students to sample water, photograph, lower traps, and otherwise observe the living estuary. 

HarborLAB hopes to partner with older students to experiment with algae farming for biodiesel. We might use the NASA OMEGA Project‘s floating system, or the vertical system integrated into a building by our sponsor, Arup. Across the way, Metro Fuels is constructing North America’s largest biodiesel production and blending facility. But as shown in this Riverkeeper map, the creek is blighted by America’s largest urban oil spill. Because of underground spill, which leaches into the creek, is a primary cause for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s designation of the waterway as a Superfund cleanup site. HarborLAB looks forward to deepening partnerships with the Newtown Creek Alliance for environmental progress.

From the creek one can see Stuyvesant Cove, home to Solar One. This is NYC’s best place to learn about and celebrate alternative energy with concerts, arts events, and lectures. At the south end of the cove we see a Con Ed plant that produces power and steam. Recently installed finer screens on cooling water intake pipes there do a far better job of preserving fish larvae and other estuary life. On the LIC shore you’ll find the Con Ed Learning Center, which teaches energy efficiency and system maintenance. We’re proud to call Con Ed a sponsor.

As we rounded the green mound of Hunters Point we saw the Queensboro Bridge, where it’s been proposed that wind turbines should rise from the towers’ crowns. That might never happen, but a towering turbine was installed across the harbor, in Bayonne, NJ. It takes a sharper eye to discern the wind power of LIC from the seat of a kayak. One example is the vertical spiral wind turbines atop the roof of a new LIC development. We’re excited that HarborLAB sponsor NRG Energy acquired and is growing Green Mountain Energy, which is bringing wind power to mainstream American energy consumers.

That’s not to say we lack for giant energy infrastructure! The Ravenswood Generating Station’s red and white smoke stacks were LIC’s waterfront skyline before the current construction boom, and are still distinctive. “Big Allis,” unit #3 at the plant, was the world’s first million kilowatt generator, and when it was built 50 years ago, was the world’s largest steam generator. Today it supplies 20% of the city’s electricity, mostly from natural gas. While natural gas burns much more cleanly than oil or coal (you can see old coal lifts in front of the plant, where barges dock) and reduces dependence on imports, its extraction is controversial because it can damage drinking water supplies. 

Nearly in the shadow of “Big Allis” are the white buoys marking Verdant Power’s Tidal Turbine installation, powering a Gristedes supermarket on Roosevelt Island. You could call this lunar power, given that the East River strait’s currents are purely driven by the moon’s pull on our world’s oceans. What might surprise you is that this power was already harnessed by Dutch colonists, albeit by mechanical rather than electrical engineering. On Queens Plaza, a few blocks inland where marshes once reached, you can find grain-grinding millstones that were turned by high tides that were trapped behind dykes and released through narrow channels.
If your school or community group would like a themed educational paddle with HarborLAB, email
The “Power Paddle” was developed by HarborLAB Founder and LIC Community Boathouse Founder Erik Baard, who was an energy reporter for Dow Jones and has written about energy, science, the environment, and the harbor for the New Yorker, NY Times, Village Voice, Wired, NPR, and other media.