Shortly after he was first elected governor, Andrew Cuomo laid out an ambitious plan to reconfigure markets and support innovative projects that promised to make New York an undisputed leader in use of renewable energy.
But as of the end of his first term, the state has yet to see significant progress toward the plan’s goals.
“There’s going to be a lot of time that will elapse before we really have a sense of how this is going,” said Richard Sedano, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit adviser to energy regulators. “I know people measure time in political terms, in four year increments. We’ll only have a glimmer of how it’s going by the end of the governor’s next term.”
When Cuomo was elected in 2010, the state got 22 percent of its power from renewables. Four years later, it gets just 23 percent.
The most significant increase of an individual renewable form was in wind- generated energy, which increased from 1,275 installed megawatts in 2010 to 1,875 installed megawatts in 2014. At the same time, though, solar energy has grown by about 200 installed megawatts during Cuomo’s first term, according to the New York Energy Research and Development Authority.
The administration has signaled its readiness for a more aggressive approach to large renewable projects and, earlier this month, granted tens of millions of dollars to support two new wind farms upstate that will provide approximately 150 megawatts of power. Still, the state is falling far short of a goal, set under former Gov. George Pataki, of getting 30 percent of the power grid from renewables by 2015.
The energy plans Cuomo introduced in his first term are longer-term, but their goals are no less ambitious: They call for an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions in New York by 2050. Cuomo will end his first term with major initiatives designed to increase the state’s use of renewable effort.
Those plans include the “Reforming Energy Vision” plan to rework New York’s energy markets to accommodate more renewable sources; the $1 billion Green Bank, which leverages ratepayer dollars to encourage loans for clean energy projects; and NY-Sun, a $1 billion effort to grow solar capacity by 3,000 megawatts over the next decade.
Environmentalists are generally optimistic about the potential of Cuomo’s clean energy initiatives, which will be supported by billions of dollars of state and ratepayer investment. But some say they’re still waiting for a more detailed overall plan.
“The governor has certainly brought a lot of new ideas to the table,” said Conor Bambrick, energy and air director at Environmental Advocates of New York.
“The concepts and proposals out there are certainly going to take the state in a dramatically different direction. What’s really needed is a comprehensive plan, one geared toward a roadmap of an 80 percent climate pollution reduction by 2050.”
But even in the short term, significant challenges remain, such as getting the utilities on board with the increased emphasis on renewables, convincing a critical mass of homeowners and business to invest in clean energy, and building larger-scale solar and wind projects that are needed to replace fossil-fuel burning plants.
Those challenges aren’t necessarily ones that can be addressed in the next four years, it’s time for the state to see a meaningful shift toward alternative energy sources before Cuomo, presumably, finishes his second term.
State energy czar Richard Kauffman said he understands the skepticism, since the state is moving forward so quickly with a dramatic restructuring of the energy markets and the renewable industry. But he said the administration is going beyond the types of mandates for renewable energy that environmental groups tend to favor.
“It can make environmental groups feel comfortable if everything is mandate-based, but the problem with that is it only takes you so far,” he said. “If we’re really going to achieve the objectives we want to achieve in terms of emissions reductions and economic growth and affordability and innovation, we have to do things in a different way. I understand that is going to cause anxiety because we are making changes.”
Certainly, the state is committing real resources to those changes. Perhaps most significant is the state’s planned reworking of its grid, the Renewing Energy Vision plan, which will change New York’s energy market to encourage production from renewable sources and less reliance on large fossil fuel-consuming facilities.
But other promises have failed to materialize, like the “energy highway” the governor talked about in 2010.
It promised hundreds of miles of new transmissions lines that would bring upstate power to downstate’s growing demand. Four years later, hardly any of it has been built. A major centerpiece of the proposal, about $600 million worth of transmission lines that would cut through the Hudson Valley, has been mired down in community and environmental protests.
And the reworking of the state grid—a crucial component of the administration’s overall scheme—is now threatened by intensifying opposition among the state’s power producers and advocacy groups worried that it will cost more money than it will save.
Even the state’s own Utility Intervention Unit, part of the Division of Consumer Protection, wrote in documents filed with the state that the Department of Public Service must make a “compelling factual case for DPS Staff’s proposals that are grounded in verifiable economic benefits and costs before any significant customer funds are committed to the implementation of a REV program.”
“This is a big idea with major consequences in cost and reliability and it needs to be done smartly,” said Gavin Donahue, executive director of the Independent Power Producers of New York, an industry group. “The P.S.C. is moving at a fast pace with no details, subjecting ratepayers to high costs.”
Another problem so far has been that the incentives offered to would-be producers of renewable energy in New York have been blunted by competition from cheap natural gas coming from Pennsylvania and other nearby states that have a thriving fracking industry. (To say nothing of how a legalized hydrofracking industry in New York could affect the clean energy market here.)
Right now, New York is simply not a major marketplace for the kinds of large- scale renewable energy projects that are most needed, said Marion Trieste, director of public outreach at Haley & Aldrich, an energy consulting firm that has represented many of the state’s top utilities.
“Business is elsewhere,” she said.
Yet there are areas of untapped potential that represent a heavier political lift, but a potentially more meaningful payoff.
The most obviously under-leveraged area is New York City, which despite having the largest power demand in the state, has been ignored in the planned transformation, relative to other areas. It’s just more of a challenge to break through there, given that it’s largely populated by apartment- and condo-dwellers not likely to put solar arrays on their buildings.
The state has not secured the rights for the massive offshore wind farms off Long Island that could bring hundreds of even thousands of megawatts in clean energy to the power demands of New York City.
And city officials have tended to be skeptical of the state’s plans for the energy grid, due to the cost increase it could pass to consumers, according to comments submitted to the P.S.C.
“The Commission needs to consider the costs, benefits, and burdens on customers and other markets,” wrote Michael Delaney, a director at the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.
There’s also Long Island, which is regulated separately from the rest of the state by the Long Island Power Authority.
Long Island accounts for about 20 percent of the state’s energy usage, and LIPA is currently focused on energy efficiency rather than a major expansion of solar and wind.
Connecting LIPA to state initiatives is essential to meeting any sort of future clean energy goal, said Jackson Morris, director of Eastern Energy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Until we fix that we’re not going to have a statewide energy plan on renewables,” he said.
The same could be said for utilities, whose participation—or lack thereof—in the shift toward renewables will be a major determining factor in the plan’s chances of succeeding.
These entities are generally secure profit- makers for their shareholders, and have been doing business in a similar way for a century. New York’s new energy plan could upend that. Publicly, at least, Con Edison backs the plan, on the grounds that technology and renewable energy will give customers more control of their energy bill.
Con Ed executives worry that the logistical challenges in the plan haven’t fully been thought through—that the markets need not just to be reworked to allow for the expansion of solar and renewable sources, but to produce ones that are capable of sending power back into the grid.
Beyond that, the company’s position is that it will do its best in whatever circumstances the state creates.
“To us, it’s not for or against, it’s the reality,” Clendenon said. “We are completely on board. We get it.”
New York’s ambitions are meant to shape federal energy policy as well, Kauffman, the state energy czar, told the audience at a clean energy industry conference recently.
He said that states can push the federal government to encourage expansion into clean energy by first putting their own more aggressive policies in place.
“Other states are looking to New York,” he said. “We can get this right in New York. … That’s the path to a global solution.”
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