NYSERDA Renewable Energy Report Short on Details, Action Steps

By Mark Dunlea, Green Education and Legal Fund

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, timelines, policy recommendations 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. (Note: this analysis responds to what has been publicly released so far).

The Green Education and Legal Fund and other climate groups had requested that the state do its own study on how fast New York could move to 100% renewable energy. A number of Stanford and Cornell scientists (Jacobson, Howarth, Ingraffea et al) had released a study[1] 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. It didn’t address the reality of on-the-ground challenges (e.g., development of solar on Long Island in view of existing land use rules and prices). It provided an overall cost of $460 billion but did not address how much of that was already being spent on the state’s energy system.

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 report released by E3 (Energy and Environmental Economics) unfortunately fails to answer such issues, including cost data (note: hopefully a more detailed report exists somewhere). The long-delayed report is largely a general outline of a possible approach New York could take to meet the timeliness and targets agreed to politically in the 2019 climate law (CLCPA). It fails to break new ground or provide new research.

Instead of releasing any cost data, the Cuomo administration wants to keep such information secret, with its use limited to the “secret” subcommittees that will be set up under the state’s Climate Advisory Council to guide it in the development of a climate scoping plan which will take 3 years to develop. Such secrecy is misguided and troublesome. The state’s prior attempt under its 2009 climate Executive Order to develop a state climate action plan failed[2], with industry representatives being allowed to make many of the critical decisions behind closed doors.

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 earlier this 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.

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. Last year Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg in her address to the United Nations chided the IPCC[3] (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[4] in history.

The study also promotes other troubling approaches such as biofuels[5] (not included in the CLCPA), “renewable natural gas[6]” (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[7] 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[8] in the development of local renewable energy sources.

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 focuses more on the development of electric vehicles compared to a major expansion of mass transit.  Transportation and buildings are by far the two large sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The report does not call for a halt to any new fossil fuel use to heat buildings, adoption of energy building use goals similar to California, or how to mandate the energy retrofit of existing buildings.

A few paragraphs are devoted to transmission issues, which have long been identified in need of a major overhaul. The issue of re-imagining our transmission grid to incorporate more decentralized and distributed energy is not addressed.

The report largely ignores the importance of halting investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Hardly anything is said in the report re agriculture.

It also largely ignores devoting funding to environmental justice communities and just transition issues.

Only a few words are said about nuclear, though existing nuclear is included in the electricity mix for 100% “clean energy.” It does not expressly argue for the extension of existing permits and does not promote new nuclear.

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. At this week’s CAC meeting, the administration pointed out that the CLCPA requires the state to develop the social cost of carbon for use in agency determinations but not necessarily the adoption of any carbon pricing (despite the NY ISO and Transportation and Climate Initiative carbon pricing proposals, and the existing anemic RGGI cap-and-trade program.)

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.

As noted, the report is mainly an outline of the Governor’s current thinking re how to meet the goals of the CLCPA. Hopefully, a more comprehensive document with more details also exists. The Cuomo administration should reverse course and embrace transparency in its climate work. Its penchant for secrecy and micromanagement by the Governor and a small core of staff is not the path to developing and implementing a plan to avoid climate catastrophe.

[1] https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf

[2] https://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/80930.html

[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit

[4] https://cleantechnica.com/2019/10/29/carbon-capture-bright-promise-or-senseless-boondoggle/

[5] https://www.climatecentral.org/news/study-biofuels-worse-for-climate-than-gasoline-20634

[6] https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/2/14/21131109/california-natural-gas-renewable-socalgas

[7] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-hydroelectric-power#

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/20/bill-de-blasio-energy-plan-green