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Watch: Environmentalists Confront Cuomo’s ‘Energy Czar’

Peter Rugh Sep 26

When it comes to environmental champions in the United States, you might think of Rachel Carson laboring away at Silent Spring in the early 1960s. Maybe present day climate and environmental justice groups come to mind, like Uprose and 350.org.

You’ve got it all wrong.

Today’s ecological changemakers wear sports coats, have lanyards around their necks and hope to eek greenbacks out of green energy in the years to come.

At least that’s the impression one might get from attending REV Future 2017 at the Marriott in Downtown Brooklyn, where a host of representatives from renewable energy start-ups and New York State regulators gathered on Tuesday to plot the future of New York’s energy grid. “REV” stands for Reforming Energy Vision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s blueprint to reduce the state’s emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

The folks at Rev Future really do have the power to transform New York’s energy supply under the current REV schema, as outlined by Cuomo’s “Energy Csar” Richard Kauffman — Chair of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Kauffman’s plan includes the creation of renewable energy markets and a green bank to finance new clean energy programs.

Greentech Media, a green capital news and market analysis service that hosted REV Future, billed the $1000-a-head event as a summit of “key stakeholders, technology providers, utilities and state policymakers[,]” coming together to “discuss actionable business strategies to operationalize the ongoing initiative for a clean, resilient and affordable system in New York.”

Basically, the event served as a space for entrepreneurs and financiers to prod regulators for ways to earn a buck off the decentralized and increasingly arcane energy landscape REV — now three and half years into implementation — is gradually giving birth to.

“Let’s face it, nobody cares about this,” Greentech Media’s Katherine Tweed conceded to attendees early on. “Nobody sits around at a cocktail party and talks about REV. I ask Richard Kauffman what he talks about at cocktail parties all the time and he’s like, ‘eh?’”

But, at the start of the conference’s afternoon session, the proceedings were interrupted by activists with the New York Energy Democracy Alliance who very much wanted to talk about REV and complained the event was more than a bit lacking in the stakeholder department. To them, REV Future represents everything that is wrong with the transition to renewable energy underway in New York.

“I am a renter and I am struggling with my energy bills along with 800,000 low-income families in New York State,” proclaimed an Energy Democracy protester, who, leaping up from the audience, cut short remarks from Kauffman, the afternoon’s keynote speaker. “I want to know what REV is doing to address all the concerns that low-income communities of color have.”

“Silence!” two women in capes that read “”REV = Not Your Business” shouted in unison. “These people paid thousands of dollars to be here and they should be protected.” The pair professed to be private security for the “all powerful Energy Czar Richard Kauffman.”

Kauffman covered his eyes in apparent embarrassment while the performance was underway.

“The almighty overlord bails out power plants, not tiny ratepayers like you!” the women continued, making reference to the state’s decision to subsidize Upstate nuclear plants hemorrhaging money. They went on to mention Kauffman’s ties to Goldman Sachs and to note his private investments in Energy Transfer Partners — proprietors of the Dakota Access pipeline — and ExxonMobil, as they theatrically dragged the interjector from the room.

It was a lighthearted intervention on behalf of the coalition, which represents some 22 organizations pushing for REV to have a serious impact on the lives of working and poor residents in the state, many of whom not only struggle to pay their electrical bills — some of the highest in the country — but who, as 2012’s Superstorm Sandy illustrated, often live on the front lines of climate change.

Once the three left the conference room, Kauffman told the crowd it is actually a good thing he has a background in finance, since it is a key component of actualizing REV and insisted that “affordability has always been at the heart of everything we do.”

Yet, the problem, according to Adam Flint of Southern Tier Solar Works, an Energy Democracy coalition member, is that NYSERDA is “using the same old neoliberal model,” to implement REV.

“Where there is profit to be made in the private sector it does okay,” said Flint, but, “unlike some of the other players, communities of color and low-income communities don’t have deep pockets to hire people to represent their voices in these highly technical matters … The NY Green Bank is not acting like a public bank, they’re acting like a somewhat liberal private bank. They’re not willing to bring down their interest rates sufficiently or implement financial instruments like credit enhancements or loan loss reserves, where the bank ponies up money to fill gaps or to serve as a reserve if somebody doesn’t pay their bill. They are unwilling to do these things at all or at least on terms that will allow [community solar] projects to advance.”

In effect, what this means is people who can afford to attend a pricey renewable energy conference have a disproportionate ability to benefit from REV right now, not the people who need it most.

“It seemed for a while that we were being taken into account and there were several policies put in place that seemed promising,” said Jessica Azulay of the Alliance for a Green Economy, also a member of Energy Democracy, reflecting on the results of REV. “They were really going to open up access to affordable energy, but lately we’ve seen a slowdown of that.”  

Among Azulay’s chief complaints: the decision by the Public Service Commission to use a complicated metric known as the “Value of Distributed Energy Resources” to determine the cost of solar energy, which actually lowered its value, raising a barrier to communities seeking to develop local solar resources. “The devil has been in the details” when it comes to REV, she said.

Once Kauffman had left the stage on Tuesday, a member of Greentech Media’s staff took to the microphone to inform conference attendees that brochures distributed by the Energy Democracy activists calling for affordable, equitable distribution of localized renewable energy and a halt to nuclear subsidies were not official conference literature.

Elia Gran contributed reporting to this article.

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Photo: Activists confront Gov. Cuomo’s Energy Csar. Credit: Elia Gran.