Comments of the Green Education and Legal Fund
to the Power Generation Advisory Panel to the
New York Climate Action Council
February 12, 2021
My name is Mark Dunlea and I am Chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund. GELF urges the Power Generation Advisory Panel and the Climate Action Council to view the CLCPA’s timelines for the transition to renewable energy and zero emissions as the worst-case scenarios rather than the goals. The Council must adopt faster goals that reflect the science on how fast we need to eliminate emissions to ensure that our civilization does not collapse due to global warming.
While the IPCC has urged nations to move much faster within the next decade to halt fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy, it is an institution constrained by polluter nations like the US, Russia, Brazil and Saudi Araba that has always underestimated the speed and severity of climate change. Other more independent scientists have concluded that we have a decade or less to eliminate emissions.
President Biden for instance recently issued an Executive Order to move the nation to 100% renewable energy for electricity by 2035, five years faster than the CLCPA. GELF has long advocated for 100% renewable energy for all sectors by 2030, with a similar timeline for zero emissions.
The Panel and Council should advocate for a swift halt to greenhouse gas emissions, starting with a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructures and use, and a timeline for each existing fossil fuel facility (including power plants) in the state to phase out. The Council should also look at how to reduce the demand for electricity and energy. Our present overconsumption of resources and excessive energy use is not sustainable.
The Council should support efforts to use geothermal as a way to power the State Capitol complex in Albany, finally ending more than a century of pollution in the low-income Sheridan Avenue neighborhood to heat and cool those buildings. While the legislature directed NYPIRG to halt the addition of new fracked gas turbines for the project, they still plan to operate six gas boilers and install diesel emergency generators.
We agree with the comment by NY Communities for Change and Food and Water Watch: The grid is still stuck at about 5% wind and solar capacity. Recent changes in Article 10 permitting are welcome, but insufficient to move at the scale and speed urgently needed. New York State needs to rapidly change direction. New York State should not ignore the supply side in setting in place a plan to exceed the CLCPA’s targets. We urge the state to adopt a binding schedule that sets yearly closures of facilities starting in 2022 and which concludes with conversion of the entire electrical grid to 100% renewable energy by 2035 at the latest Such a binding schedule should act in concert with a vastly accelerated deployment of renewable energy, grid modernization and energy efficiency, including unleashing the New York Power Authority’s capacity to help achieve this rapid growth. In these comments, we focus on utility-scale generation.
They added: Peaker Regulations are a Potential Model. New York State has set limits of air pollution from peaker plants, which is leading to closures of the oldest, worst polluters. However, the vast bulk of pollution is emitted by base-load power plants, which are also often located in or near environmental justice communities. These plants must be closed. Implementing regulations modelled on the peaker plant rule that set yearly, declining upper limits on air pollutants could be a method for closing facilities one by one, starting with the worst polluters.
GELF Still Waiting for Study on How Fast NY Could Move to 100% Renewable Energy
Seven years ago, the Green Education and Legal Fund and other climate groups requested that the state do its own study on how fast New York could move to 100% renewable energy for all sectors, not just electricity. A number of Stanford and Cornell scientists (Jacobson, Howarth, Ingraffea et al) had released a study in 2013 detailing how New York could meet 100% of its energy needs by 2030 through development of off-shore wind (40%), on shore wind (10%) and solar (37%). The Jacobson study received some criticism in that it was not a detailed blueprint but rather plugged various federal energy databases into a spreadsheet to show the state could meet its energy needs without relying on fracked gas and other fossil fuels.
In 2015 GELF and others (e.g., Cornell) convinced the State Assembly to include support for such a study in their budget resolution. The Governor in January 2016 as part of his State of the State directed NYSERDA to complete a feasibility study by the end of 2016 about how fast the state could move to 100% renewable energy (without pre-determining the timeline)
The recently released report by NYSERDA (Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in New York State – see link) on how New York State can meet 100% of its energy needs through renewable, carbon-free energy is disappointingly short of details, cost-analysis, timelines, and action steps. Like most energy policy documents issued during the Cuomo administration, it tends to post questions and identify challenges rather than provide answers. It is largely a power-point outline of how NY could meet the climate goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act adopted last year.
It fails to break new ground or provide new research.
As NY Renews has noted “Commissioned by the state without approval of the CAC, this has become the defacto framework in which discussions take place. The report’s espousal of solutions that are likely not permitted under the CLCPA (e.g. renewable natural gas) and technologies that have failed at scale (e.g. carbon capture & storage) makes reliance on it particularly troubling. Work done by independent experts on decarbonization pathways have not been but should be considered.”
The report does not address why the state’s progress on developing renewable energy (e.g., solar and wind) has been so meager (less than 5%) since Governor Pataki announced relatively ambitious goals in 2002. The Governor and state lawmakers did agree to a new expedited siting review process last year, which should help. However, the state needs to now add as much new renewable energy annually as it has over 18 years. The report does not address how this will occur.
Under Governor Cuomo, the state has failed to develop wind and solar power at utility scale. Instead, the state has permitted large new fracked gas-fired power plants. In particular, from 2012-2020, New York added 3,645 megawatts of fracked gas-fired utility scale power to the grid, while only 224 megawatts of wind or solar capacity was added (aggregated yearly projects as listed in the NYISO Gold Books). And even more fracked gas power plant projects – in Brooklyn, Queens, and Newburgh – are under consideration.
Oppose Carbon Capture, Renewable Gas and BioEnergy
The study relies heavily on the development of carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that many scientists and prior Gubernatorial administrations have expressed concerns about with respect to its financial and technological feasibility. Food and Water Watch have outlined the myriad problems with carbon capture. Last year Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg in her address to the United Nations chided the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) for relying so heavily on the development of a miracle technology as a way to save future life on the planet. Many view CCS as potentially the largest corporate boondoggle in history.
The study also promotes other troubling approaches such as biofuels (not included in the CLCPA), “renewable natural gas” (both are promoted to meet new winter peak demands from heat pumps), and the importation of hydroelectric energy from HydroQuebec. Hydropower that depends on the use of reservoirs has a significant negative climate impact due to the methane emissions from such reservoirs. Others point out that the billions of dollars needed to provide for transmission lines for the project would be better invested in the development of local renewable energy sources.
Say No to Nukes
Nuclear is not a climate solution. Even in the best-case scenario, it would take far too long to bring new nuclear on line to have any meaningful impact on climate change.
I first began call to stop nuclear power as a student at RPI when I co-founded the New York Public Interest Research Group. One of the points I made was while one could debate the environmental and public health concerns with nuclear – and there were many – there was no debate that nuclear was far too expensive. That is still true today. I was the national coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Energy, when we asked the presidential candidates and political parties to stop nuclear (especially after Three Mile Island) and develop wind and solar. It is very sad to have to make the same points half-a-century later.
We urge you to recommend that the Public Service Commission and other relevant state entities to halt the mandate that consumers provide $7.6 billion in subsidies to keep old, unsafe, uncompetitive nuclear power plants open in upstate New York. Energy efficiency measures and newer, cleaner, renewable sources of power are more cost-effective, better for human and environmental health and create more jobs.
The Nine Mile Point, FitzPatrick and Ginna nuclear plants — like the Indian Point power plant slated to shut down this year — are inefficient and dangerous power sources and should be decommissioned. Most of these plants were built in the Vietnam era. New York’s overburdened ratepayers simply should not have to fork over billions of dollars in higher utility bills to subsidize such aging, economically uncompetitive nuclear plants. As these plants operate beyond their anticipated lifespan, the possibility if not probability of a serious accident is significantly increased.
The report is largely based on maintaining the “status quo”, including existing energy use and consumption patterns, though of course attention is paid to energy conservation and efficiency (including appliances). A few words are said about smart growth initiatives (e.g., less suburban development).
The report does not address the need for a carbon tax to make fossil fuel polluters reflect their actual cost of operations, which would make renewables even cheaper comparatively and help speed up their development.
Related to this is the need to increase incentives for renewable energy production, including for individuals. This include geothermal, air heat pumps, wind, solar, etc.
Public Ownership and Democratic Control of the Energy System
The report does not acknowledge that the climate crisis has been driven by the overreliance upon market forces and the drive for maximization of profits within the energy system rather than a focus on the public good. No discussion takes place in the report on the benefits of an increased role of public ownership and democratic control of the state’s energy system. Even Pope Francies in his climate encyclical noted that we need system change not climate change.
GELF continues to support the proposal made several years ago by Governor Cuomo to have NYPA build, own and operate new renewable energy facilities. NY should also provide funding to local municipalities to build and own renewable energy systems, which would reduce the siting problems. And if Solar City has a business plan to put solar on homes for free in exchange for part of the savings in reduced energy costs, state and local governments should implement a similar program.
More than 50 communities in NYS already have public power, offering significantly lower electric rates than the investor-owned utilities. Local public power systems would enable governments to build and/or purchase its own clean, renewable energy sources for electricity, heating, and cooling and the smart grid infrastructure needed to accommodate distributed nature of renewable energy sources. It could oversee the development of community-owned solar and wind, including enabling the participation by low- and moderate-income consumers who often find themselves gentrified out of such initiatives.
Local public power systems could finance the construction of many forms of community energy projects. Rooftop solar and/or small-scale wind shared by a group of households with different solar and wind exposures could be built with the public power system financing the upfront costs and the households paying them off over time out of savings from lower cost renewables,
Democratic community control must go hand and hand with public ownership, starting with the need to democratize NYPA and LIPA.
We agree with the general thrust of a number of issues that NY Renews has recommended (though details are always important):
- Implementation of equitable and inclusive community solar and distributed energy resources (DER) incentives and programming.
- Ensuring that energy burden is adequately addressed and that information on low-income ratepayer support is readily accessible and streamlined.
- Implementation of commercial and residential Demand Response to manage peak loads as has been successfully done in Fort Collins, CO and Illinois. A 2009 FERC study on DR estimates that New York could have upwards of 10% of load met by DR.
- Prioritizing peaker plant closures in disadvantaged communities, coupled with the local siting of renewables and battery storage as prioritized by members of the Peak Coalition.
- Prioritizing local workforce development as part of renewable energy expansion, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
NY Renews also identified problems with the recommendations:
- Proposals related to alternative fuels whether Clean Hydrogen, Renewable Natural Gas, or BioFuels which have up until now moved forward with no recognition that many of these are facially unacceptable under the CLCPA or with no regards to the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry in maintaining reliance on these sources, as outlined in this Clean Energy Group article on hydrogen. None of these proposed alternatives are good substitutes for widespread electrification and wholesale adoption of renewable energy resources, as outlined in this Earth Justice report in regards to Renewable Natural Gas specifically.
- Proposals for carbon capture and storage technologies that are being prioritized instead of an investment in wholesale emissions reductions.
I strongly encourage this panel to prioritize advancing policies that help the state achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and co-pollutant in the fastest actionable timeline. Additionally, it is critical that disadvantaged and frontline communities receive a minimum of 35% of the funding (President Biden just signed an Executive Order for 40%) and are centered in the policy strategies as they are most harmed by the impacts of pollution and climate change.
Power the Empire State Complex and Sheridan Avenue neighborhood with 100% Clean Renewable Energy – Make Sheridan Hollow a Model Climate Justice Community
GELF was pleased that two years ago the state legislature amended the budget to require that the $88 million previously appropriated for the Sheridan Ave. complex in Albany to power the state capitol complex (ESP) use 100% renewable energy to the extent practical, rather than adding two new fracked gas turbines. NYPA has agreed to scrap the turbines and will obtain electricity from a solar power complex outside of Utica. It also started the process to replace the chillers in the Plaza with ones that use electricity.
The transformation of the ESP Complex to 100% renewable energy should be a model for how New York transforms its energy economy away from fossil fuels and toward meeting the greenhouse reduction goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). The Sheridan Avenue Steam Plant (SASP), which heats and cools the ESP complex, has polluted the low-income Sheridan Hollow neighborhood for more than a century, first burning coal, then oil and now fracked gas. In light of this century of pollution of Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill, the state should also invest in making the neighborhood a pilot program for moving environmental justice communities to 100% clean energy, with quality jobs and job training for members of the impacted community.
However, there are still six gas boilers used to provide the steam to heat and cool the complex. This continues to subject the surrounding Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill neighborhoods, both consisting predominantly of low-income, people of color residents, to pollution. The Sheridan Avenue Steam Plant (SASP) has burdened the community since 1911, and the notorious ANSWERS trash to steam plant released heavy metals and other toxic chemicals into these neighborhoods throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The people who live there have high rates of health problems including asthma and cancer. Continued operation of the SASP is contrary to DEC’s Environmental Justice Policy (DEC Commissioner Policy 29), which provides that:
No group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations.
Second, the SASP continues New York’s dependence on fossil fuels in contradiction to the CLCPA that calls for 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. New York has committed to transition to a renewable energy economy. We must make the Plaza a showcase for the rest of the state and the country. To meet these aggressive climate goals we must, not only stop new fossil fuel infrastructure, we must also begin to shut down existing fossil fuel facilities.
The states of Oklahoma and Colorado heat and cool their state capitol buildings with geothermal energy and so does St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Stanford University recently replaced its co-generation fossil fuel power plant in favor of a heat sharing system with an energy savings of over 60%. A renewable energy solution incorporating geothermal technology for the Plaza would showcase New York as a climate leader and serve as a model for the nation.
Finally, renewable options are available now. If we are to transition our state to renewable energy, we must teach our workforce and state agencies how it is done. NYPA can use the Plaza as a training center for future projects. Nationally known geothermal expert Jay Egg has demonstrated, with a team of experts involved in the design and development of large-scale projects, that geothermal and thermal load sharing are thoroughly viable options for heating and cooling the Plaza. Therefore, the Legislature should require a complete examination of renewable alternatives. A study to convert the Plaza is the next step in transforming the Plaza, the Capitol and our state to a renewable energy future.
- SHARE supports the New York Power Authority’s (NYPA) current projects announced in September 2019 to make the ESP complex more energy efficient and renewably powered. The legislature should ensure that there is adequate funding to fully realize these projects and reappropriate the $88 million slated to fund the Sheridan Hollow Project.
- SHARE requests $600,000 for a study to convert the ESP complex to renewable energy with the goal of eliminating steam production at the SASP. The study should prioritize geothermal and building efficiency measures and involve experts with demonstrated experience in geothermal and thermal load-share technology for large-scale systems. We call on NYPA to rapidly replace all the chillers that are powered by the SASP to chillers that run on electric power provided by renewable sources.
- SHARE also calls for a $250,000 in this year’s budget to provide funding for a study and plan to convert Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill to a 100% renewable energy community. Advocates and community residents are already pursuing a number of initiatives that have the potential to increase access to renewables and energy efficiency measures in the community, and significant funding may become available under the 35% mandate for “disadvantaged communities” in the CLCPA, and from other sources. This study would help position this key environmental justice community for just transition funding as it becomes available and ensure effective utilization of the various funding sources. Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill have endured a century of pollution to heat and power the state government; this environmental justice community should be first in line for public and private funding to make a transformation to a 100% renewable community. This transformation must bring quality jobs and job training to the community.
The states of Oklahoma and Colorado presently heat and cool their state capitol buildings with geothermal energy, as does St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and Skidmore College in Saratoga. NYPA, while having taken admirable steps to modify its original proposal, still has not provided a clear plan to heat and cool the ESP Complex with renewables. We call on the NYS legislature to provide resources necessary to transition the ESP complex and Sheridan Hollow to renewable energy, making them models of how to achieve our new energy future.
 The Case Against Carbon Capture: False Claims and New Pollution | Food & Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org) https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/case-against-carbon-capture-false-claims-and-new-pollution