Ready for Renewables

Peter Rugh Dec 17, 2015

It’s like the Yankees are coming to Buffalo.” That’s how Alain Kaloyeros, an advisor to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and president of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, described the magnitude of a $750 million state investment in a solar panel factory for the economically-depressed upstate city. The plan, which promises to create approximately 5,000 jobs, might appear to herald a transition toward a greener energy future, but coinciding as it does with continuing state bailouts for coal and nuclear plants, New York appears to be following the advice of one late Yankee in particular: Yogi Berra, who once quipped, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Environmentalists in New York State have won two major advocacy battles within the last year and, together with an announcement from the Cuomo administration of reforms that would put New York on track to rival California in carbon reduction targets, the future of fossil fuels in the state has begun to look a bit more precarious. But despite continued optimism, activists say the fight isn’t over. 

When, in December 2014, Cuomo announced a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, it brought to fruition a years-long grassroots campaign involving tens of thousands of people who rallied against the natural gas extraction process and the well-funded lobbying effort behind it. Then, last month, Cuomo vetoed the proposed Port Ambrose liquified natural gas (LNG) import facility off Long Island’s south shore. It emerged as a major flashpoint for activists who, since the fracking ban, shifted their energy to oppose the outgrowth of gas infrastructure in New York. 

“The local community in Long Island stood up and made their feelings clear that they weren’t going to let this be built,” said Patrick Robbins of Sane Energy Project, which helped coordinate opposition to the import facility. “We communicated with the coastal communities along the South Shore up and down the shore, fisherman, unions, small businesses, a couple of large businesses — a wide range of actors. That’s why we did eventually see the governor come down the way he did on that issue.”

Now, Sane Energy and other environmental groups are looking to take the lessons they learned opposing fossil fuel development toward building environmentally sound energy alternatives. 

“We know how to stop bad projects,” said Mark Dunlea of the Green Education and Legal Fund. “You just do nothing else with your life for the next five or six years. If you keep up that level of fanaticism you win. But if you don’t put anything good in its place than you are just playing whack-a-mole.” 

In the case of Port Ambrose, activists killed two birds with one stone. By defeating the LNG terminal, they were able to free up space for a proposed wind farm slated to be built in the same area, 19 miles offshore. The 350-megawatt facility could generate enough electricity to power 250,000 homes, according to a 2009 feasibility study conducted by Consolidated Edison and the Long Island Power Authority, and would displace 400,000 tons of carbon annually, the equivalent of removing 68,000 cars from local roads. The plant could generate twice as much electricity with upgraded transmission lines. 

A separate 2014 study from the Energy Policy Institute at Stony Brook University notes that New York has the potential to generate 38,971-megawatts of electricity offshore. For each megawatt generated, offshore wind creates between seven and 42 jobs along with it. 

Yet, despite activist gains toward realizing the existing potential of renewable energy, fossil fuels remain an entrenched part of New York’s energy system. 

“We need to make [renewable] pathways emerge,” said Kim Fraczek, who is also with Sane Energy. “Our system isn’t designed right now to start building a just transition to renewable energy. We need everyone to start getting involved. Because if we don’t, they’re just going to tell us with glossy brochures and a fancy website that they care about the environment while they are making concessions for nuclear, gas and coal.”

Last year the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), under Cuomo’s direction, launched an initiative titled “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV), to reduce the state’s carbon output by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and to transition to a 50 percent renewable energy diet. Whether or not REV’s targets are reasonable in the face of the threat posed by climate change is a matter of debate among environmentalists. But activists hoping to influence the REV process face the challenge of confronting high-level state bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists on the less-than-accessible terrain where key planning decisions are made. 

“There’s a force field of boredom surrounding the utilities” that wards off public engagement, said Robbins. “They’ve been able to operate without scrutiny for some time simply because utility issues can be really wonky, really technical.”

In a December 2 letter to Audrey Zibelman, who leads the New York Department of Public Service, Cuomo directed her to present new clean energy standards to the PSC by the end of June 2016. However, in doing so, Cuomo told Zibelman to “ensure emissions-free sources of electricity remain operational,” in particular, upstate nuclear power plants. 

Nuclear power is emission-free only insofar as the carbon intensive uranium extraction and enrichment processes are not taken into account. It is also a far cry from renewable energy sources like wind and solar, since the byproduct of nuclear fission, spent fuel, lingers for tens of thousands of years, is highly toxic and  safe, long-term storage methods for housing the waste have yet to be widely implemented.

Cuomo has fought hard to keep two nuclear plants on the shores of Lake Ontario running as continued sources of jobs for the economically struggling region, even as operators of the facilities have sought to shut them down for lack of profit. In a deal struck in October between the Cuomo administration and Exelon, electric customers in Rochester will pay $15.4 million per month to keep Exelon’s R.E. Ginna nuclear facility operating through March 2017, preserving about 700 jobs. Given Cuomo’s letter to Zibelman, subsidies to Exelon could continue well into the next decade with terms perpetually up for renegotiation. 

The governor has made overtures of a similar deal to Entergy to keep its James A. FitzPatrick plant near Syracuse running. Despite his pleas, however, the company continues to insist it plans on shutting the facility down by 2017, citing an annual loss of $60 million due to a glut of cheap gas and oil on the market from fracking. 

Meanwhile, four massive coal-fired power plants account for 13 percent of the state’s electrical emissions, and have also benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies. 

The Cuomo administration’s willingness to prop up polluting energy sources stands in marked contrast to its unwillingness to make longterm commitments to growing renewables. The governor appointed Richard Kauffman, an ex-Goldman Sachs partner and advisor to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to chair the state’s Energy and Finance Department. Effectively Cuomo’s energy czar, Kauffman oversees the New York Department of Public Service, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the Long Island Power Authority and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and is charged with meeting the carbon cutting and renewable targets outlined in REV. 

In a November interview with Vox, Kauffman acknowledged that NYPA, the largest state public power organization in the nation, wouldn’t agree to purchase renewable energy in advance. 

“The wind industry … would like to know that we’re going to have a certain amount of dollars dedicated to wind every year — X amount of dollars or X amount of megawatts,” said Kauffman. “[T]hat’s not really the way we want to do it.”

Instead, Kauffman says, he plans to “layer in the renewable resources with the rest of the systems.” 

A bolder approach can be found in a 2013 study led by Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. Jacobson found that New York has the technological capability and the natural resources to power its entire electrical grid on renewable energy by 2030. The plan requires significant capital investment in infrastructure up front, but produces savings of $33 billion annually to New York’s economy (or about 3 percent of the state’s GDP) by removing the social costs of fossil fuel pollution: “mortality, morbidity, lost productivity, and visibility,” as Jacobson puts it. 

His plan also envisions cutting $3.3 billion per year from costs relating to climate change in the United States, such as storm damage and soil erosion. Under the Jacobson plan, transitioning off fossil fuels would result in an estimated 4.5 million jobs, 58,000 of them permanent positions. These figures dwarf the number of people — approximately 2,000 — employed in New York’s bailed-out coal and nuclear plants. 

Bills introduced this year in the State Assembly and Senate would implement the Jacobson plan. 

Having the technological capacity to make a switch to renewable energy is one thing, Patrick Robbins cautions, but we have to be mindful about how it is deployed. 

Under Kauffman’s plan the PSC will create renewable energy markets that will be managed by utility companies. Utilities have traditionally collected profits by purchasing and then selling electricity to consumers. But average usage is down, thanks in part to conservation campaigns like New York City’s One City plan, as well the gradual proliferation of localized renewable power like rooftop solar panels. 

Peak usage has increased on the hottest days of the year and during events like the Super Bowl, but the inconsistency between average and peak usage means that more electricity is being generated on the grid than is typically consumed. As a result utilities are hemorrhaging money and customers are paying inflated rates. Allowing utilities to manage renewable markets gives them skin in the game. 

“You could argue that REV is a bailout of the utility companies,” Dunlea speculated. “In this new world of smaller, decentralized energy sources they are not making money. So it becomes a matter of how do you give utilities more of a slice of the pie so that they are less resistant.”

Widespread community choice aggregation (CCA) would do away with utilities altogether, by allowing municipalities to purchase electricity directly from suppliers. Communities could democratically decide what forms of energy they want powering their homes rather than relying on utility companies to make that decision for them. A CCA pilot program was launched recently in Westchester County.

“We have an opportunity to have a just energy system, one that doesn’t price gouge the most vulnerable residents of New York State,” said Robbins, calling it “an opportunity to generate locally controlled, locally owned energy.”

Sane Energy, together with environmental groups statewide, formed the Energy Democracy Alliance in April. Their purpose, as outlined in their mission statement: to advance “a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in New York State.”

When this reporter spoke with Robbins and Fraczek, they were preparing for an upcoming PSC commissioners meeting in New York City on December 17 that, by coincidence, coincides with the one-year anniversary of Cuomo’s announcement of the fracking ban. The public isn’t permitted to testify at PSC meetings, but as The Indypendent went to press, a large contingent of activists was planning on attending anyway, so that, as Fraczek put it, “they know we are paying attention.” 

In the battle against fracking, the governor’s annual State of the State address in Albany became a focal point for environmentalists across New York demanding a ban on the controversial drilling practice. Over 80 labor, faith, community and environmental organizations, calling for the state go 100 percent carbon free by 2030, once again plan to descend on the capital on January 13, this time calling on Cuomo to take decisive action to revolutionize New York’s power system. 

The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.

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