New York’s Recent Renewable Energy Goals a Step Backward in Climate Fight

New York’s Recent Renewable Energy Goals a Step Backward in Climate Fight
By Mark Dunlea, 100% Renewables in NY Now / Green Education and Legal Fund

While Governor Cuomo has positioned New York as a national leader on climate change, his goals are weaker in several ways than those adopted seven years ago by Governor Paterson.

The international climate COP meeting in Paris in December gave the world hope that the fossil fuel era was over and that we could avoid the most catastrophic aspects of climate change.

Yet we all have heard that the vague goals (not concrete plans) announced by individual countries fall far short of what is needed. With Congress perpetually gridlocked in dysfunction and Obama’s modest Clean Power Plan at least temporarily halted by a rogue US Supreme Court, state and local officials need to lead the way on climate change.

The transition to 100% renewables as soon as possible has picked up momentum worldwide, with San Diego and Vancouver recently taking the plunge. Progress has been slower in NYS and NYC.

In Paris, the industrial polluting nations (e.g., US) finally acknowledged that the existing goal of capping global warming at 2 degree centigrade would be catastrophic for many countries, especially those near the equator and poles. With a new target of 1.5 degrees, the world – especially the industrial countries – will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions twice as fast (e.g., 7% annually).

Governor Paterson’s 2009 Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas by 80% by 2050 (based on 1990 levels) reflected the 2 degree target.

Not only has Governor Cuomo failed to adjust those targets to reflect the new goal from Paris, but his call for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 (and 50% of electricity from renewables by then) is unlikely to get us to Paterson’s old targets. The deepest cuts in emissions will occur in the early years as we focus on the so-called low-hanging fruit. The most difficult – and expensive – reductions will be the last 10 to 15%. Thus to get to an 80% reduction by 2050, one should have a goal of 60 to 70% lower emissions by 2030 (and 85 to 90% renewable energy).

In addition, the state’s recently approved $5 billion Clean Energy Fund (over ten years) for renewable energy is a 25% cut in annual consumer funding for such efforts. The previous funding level fall far short of achieving the goal set by Governor Pataki of increasing over a decade the state’s share of its electricity coming from renewables from 19% to 30% by 2015. Instead the state is somewhere between 23 to 25%. Cuomo has proposed extending the target deadline by 5 years, hoping to get to 30% renewables now by 2020.

Cuomo’s energy officials admit that the proposed funding will fall far short of achieving its renewable energy goals. They contend the renewable energy goals will instead be achieved by the redesigned market forces. The private sector renewable energy industry disagrees.

The University of Delaware, the author of the report by the Cuomo administration (NYSERDA) on how to jump start the offshore wind (OSW) industry, has criticized overreliance on “market forces” for the lack of progress over the last decade in the US on OSW. Unlike Europe and China, no OSW farm is presently operating in the US. NYSERDA says the best way to slash the costs of OSW is for the state to make a long term commitment to purchase the power (PPA) from any OSW project. This approach has been resisted by Cuomo and was not included in the recent Fund approval. And on the same day that Cuomo announced he was stopping the fracking of natural gas in NY, the LI Power Authority he controls rejected a major OSW project that had strong local support.

If Cuomo is unwilling to do a PPA, the legislature should enact a Feed in Tariff renewable subsidy program as is used in Europe.

The Cuomo administration has failed to enact the most common sense market reform, a carbon (greenhouse gas) tax or fee to require polluters to pay for the costs they impose on taxpayers and consumers from burning fossil fuels. Such pollution leads to an estimated annual “excess deaths” in NY of at least 3,000 and $30 billion in higher health care costs.

New York does have a limited carbon pricing tool for electric power plants. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a northeast regional compacted started under Governor Pataki, is a cap and trade program GGI). Cap-and-trade programs however were condemned by Pope Francis as ineffective and subject to Wall Street manipulation. The Congressional Research Service concluded that the carbon price under RGGI was far too low to reduce emissions, Cuomo did recently add the state’s name to a paper by the Georgetown Climate Center exploring the idea of a regional “market based solution” to reduce emissions from the transportation sector.

Low oil prices of course make this an opportune moment to enact carbon pricing.

The Cuomo administration has pushed a number of reforms, The Public Service’s Commission “REV” proceedings seeks to redesign the state’s energy “highway” to better incorporate a large number of localized power sources rather than a few power plants. The administration has promoted renewables, especially solar. It has approved projects to increase local control of energy (e.g., Community Shared Renewables, Choice Aggregation, microgrids). It will mandate renewable energy goals for individual electric utilities rather than the present system-wide approach.

NYC is seeking to get 100% of its own electricity from new renewable energy sources. NYC also wants to address equity concerns, as the poor and communities of color who usually feel the most negative impacts from climate change. Cuomo and state legislators have highlighted the need to assist workers and local communities as fossil fuel plants are closed. The Governor’s proposed budget includes funding to train solar workers.

Yet both the state and city’s climate agendas falls far short of the system-wide mobilization needed to solve the problem. We need an effort comparable to how the US converted its economy to build armaments after Pearl Harbor, not modest goals. We need a comprehensive plan with enforceable timelines and benchmarks to transition to net zero carbon emissions, 100% renewable energy as soon as possible (e.g., 2030).

The Governor recently announced a goal to solarize 150,000 buildings by 2020, Why not solarize every building – private and public – where it is feasible? Solar is so cheap that it pays for itself in a few years. The private sector already has business models where it installs solar with no upfront costs for the homeowner; why can’t there be a similar public model?    California is already well underway to meeting its goal to solarize a million homes.

The Cuomo administration has also made a number of incorrect decisions. While it recently announced that it will phase out the state’s remaining coal plants over the next four years, it has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to bail out coal and now nuclear.

Both the state and city embrace the overdevelopment of natural gas as a cheap alternative to other fossil fuels, overlooking that methane emissions are 80 times more potent short term as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The state’s water supplies are threatened by dozen of pipelines and other related infrastructure that will transport fracked gas across the state. The state’s heavy promotion of natural gas also undercuts the likelihood that it will achieve the goal of getting 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

Most of the Governor’s climate change initiatives has focused on electricity, which accounts for only about 30% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Much more attention needs to be paid to transportation, buildings and agriculture.

During the anti-fracking fight, a group of scientists from Stanford and Cornell Universities authored a report (e.g., Jacobson) that showed based on existing technology it was possible to meet all of the state’s energy needs (not just existing electrical production) by 2030. Prof. Jacobson and his supporter have moved the target date backwards to 2050 to give politicians an extra 20 years to deal with political and economic barriers.

After Paris and the lowering of the target cap for global warming, more scientists have come out pushing back towards the 2030 target, especially for industrial nations like the US. Even a recent federal study by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) concluded that the US could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years without price increases.

Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings highlights the problems with the market approach to climate. In NYC, buildings account for about 75% of the city’s carbon footprint. Much of this comes from larger buildings. Billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed that if his fellow wealthy owners saw the savings from energy retrofits they would seize the opportunity, so he mandated energy audits for buildings above 50,000 square feet. The owners failed to voluntary follow through.

At the other end of the wealth spectrum, community and labor groups got the state legislature to enact the Green Jobs Green NY plan to put tens of thousands to work by energy retrofitting a million homes in five years. If an energy audit showed an energy retrofit was economically feasible, the utility companies would finance it and recover the investment though utility bills from the reduction in energy costs. But the program has largely flopped, as the Cuomo administration and the utility companies balked at providing access to credit to low-income consumers, nor were residents excited about incurring more “debt”.

Both of the above problems could be solved if the state and city were more willing to step outside the box and prioritized reducing climate change by means other than reliance on market forces (e.g., mandatory energy retrofits).

Elected officials should also seize the transition to renewable energy as an opportunity to inject democracy and public / community ownership into our energy system.

Climate activists must strike a balance between highlighting the urgent need for action while avoiding creating a sense of despair and futility. The worst case scenario includes the end of the human species; climate change is already causing the sixth great wave of species extinction in our planet’s history; California Gov. Brown raised this scenario in remarks at the Vatican before Paris. More modest warnings include hundreds of millions of climate refugees and wars over access to water and food. Americans seem most concerned about climate when the floodwaters are at their doors or their taps no longer provide water.

Pollsters argue to stress the benefits of climate change: a healthier environment; job creation; and, lower energy costs.

The United States has long led the planet in climate denial. As with many other issues, the public is far more supportive of climate action than elected officials financed by campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. For adequate progress to occur, climate activists can no longer just applaud politicians for announcing modest steps but must demand robust plans that give us a realistic chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.