ALBANY – New York is moving aggressively to a future powered by renewable energy, with an army of clean energy workers trained to install tens of thousands of solar panels and hundreds of wind turbines in the next few years. At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, the state will phase out its dirtiest power plants.
Cuomo said clean energy is a business opportunity for the state, as well as an important step to address increasing climate challenges.
“The problem of climate change is finally being recognized by most world leaders, anyway,” he said. “Here in New York we have already been actively working to address it. Now, New York State has a business and an environmental opportunity. Let’s become the international capital for clean and green energy products.”
But while Cuomo’s budget proposal included the most aggressive set of climate policies he has introduced during his tenure as governor, some key details about two particularly significant climate and energy initiatives remained vague.
Those initiatives – the $5 billion Clean Energy Fund, which will combine existing and new programs to grow renewable energy across the state, and the Clean Energy Standard, which will mandate more renewables in a tight timeframe – are an essential part of the state’s effort to meet Cuomo’s aggressive goals. The Clean Energy Fund will be the state’s primary financial vehicle for promoting renewable energy products, and establishing the specific methodology and policy to help it grow. Power providers, utilities, and renewable industry companies have all been eagerly awaiting the details on how to meet the state’s needs under that program. And the Clean Energy Standard will further clarify policy and lay out the state’s timeline for getting there.
But until those policies are clarified, it’s not clear exactly how either program will work, or what constituencies will ultimately bear the burden of subsidizing the transition to clean energy, or what enforcement mechanisms will be put in place. The administration provided no timeline for providing those details.
Still, the other elements of Cuomo’s plan, if he follows through, will be significant.
Cuomo had already announced that he would mandate that New York get half of its power from renewable energy within 15 years, which is about double the current amount. Key to that effort is a newly announced plan to train 10,000 employees to fill the thousands of clean energy jobs the state expects to be created here over the next few years.
The administration will seek to phase out the two coal plants that will be remaining at the end of this year, by converting them to natural gas or shutting them down entirely. Coal only provides about 4 percent of the state’s power, but closing down the dirtiest power plant is a symbolic victory for environmentalists.
“Governor Cuomo has enshrined himself as an international climate leader with today’s commitment to phase out all coal in the state by 2020,” said Lisa Dix, New York senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “This measure, coupled with a transition plan for coal affected communities, will both protect the health of New Yorkers and the climate while finally putting an end to coal’s dirty legacy in the Empire State.”
And while New York’s renewable goals will be tremendously challenging to achieve and are reliant on billions of dollars in state and private investment, Cuomo outlined some of the specific ways the state will try to get there. To start, the State University of New York will get $15 million to create a clean energy training program to place new workers in the burgeoning solar industry across the state.
New York will add 150,000 solar panels on businesses and homes, as well as at State University of New York campuses. The state will also have a goal of making 500,000 new homes more energy efficient, including state-owned affordable housing units. Many of those panels will likely be manufactured in New York, after the $700 million SolarCity factory begins producing panels next year. In total, the New York Power Authority will finance $1.5 billion in clean energy projects across state-owned buildings as well as local and municipal projects by 2020.
Cuomo’s plan also calls for the construction of 300 wind turbines, a 40 percent increase, and create a plan to develop offshore wind resources. Developing an offshore wind market will be an essential step for New York to become more reliant on renewable energy.
Wind and solar are job growth areas in New York, with private companies ready to invest billions of dollars in capital, said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.
“We look forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the Public Service Commission to achieve New York’s visionary energy and climate goals,” she said. “Timing and details are crucial, but the clean energy industry is ready to respond and eagerly awaiting new opportunities to invest in a sustainable future.”
Cuomo wants to increase the Environmental Protection Fund to $300 million, almost doubling the current amount, to put toward farmland preservation and land conversation among other uses. The administration also wants to put an additional $100 million into a grant program for municipalities to replace their aging water pipes.
“We appreciate Governor Cuomo’s clear understanding, reflected in his proposed 2016-2017 budget, that New York must lead on water and land protection, renewable energy and habitat restoration,” Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay said. “This sort of investment, and more of it, is the only way way that our public drinking water stays safe, our waterways become better places to swim, boat and fish, and our energy demands get met sustainably.”
The initiatives fit with Cuomo’s shift toward a more aggressive position on climate issues in the last year, since he banned fracking. The budget proposal also includes $32 million for climate change mitigation and adaption. (Cuomo mentioned climate change four separate times during his State of the State speech.)
Environmental activists gathered on the steps of the Capital on Wednesday to ask Cuomo for more measures, including shutting down natural gas pipelines and oil trains.
“New York should not be permitting new methane gas pipelines and must shut down bomb trains’ ability to transport dirty, dangerous fossil fuels through our communities,” said Catskill Mountainkeeper executive director Ramsey Adams. “We are excited by the proposals outlined today and look forward to working with Governor Cuomo to make sure 2016 is remembered as the year New York made good on its promise to build a clean energy future while leaving dirty fossil fuels behind.”