Plaudits were given, songs were sung, fake windmills were spun.
More than 100 environmental advocates, organized by the Sierra Club, gathered on the steps of City Hall on Thursday to applaud Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to powering city operations with 100 percent renewable energy, specifically offshore wind, and to encourage him to pursue that goal with even more fervor. At one point some of them mustered a verse of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
But the real-life fulfillment of de Blasio’s environmental ambitions is still a long way off.
Requests for information went out last year to power the city government’s operations entirely with renewable energy. The RFI’s were due back in September 2015. In December de Blasio said he was examining the proposals.
“We are trying to sort out how to get to it and how to get real metrics to it,” he said during a teleconference with constituents. “Getting the city to run entirely on renewables, we’re still working that through.”
Nilda Mesa, de Blasio’s sustainability director, thanked the group but again acknowledged the challenge facing the city.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” she said in remarks before the group. “Particularly since right now only 2 percent of the city’s electric grid comes from renewable sources.”
She said the city was still examining the renewable energy RFI’s.
“The responses that we’ve gotten so far have been very positive,” she said. In a follow up email, de Blasio spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said the city hopes to make an announcement by the end of 2016.
“In particular, we’re looking at wind, solar, and hydropower,” she said. “This is a big focus of ours, the Mayor’s commitment to moving toward renewables has been very clear through the many OneNYC initiatives in place and underway, and we are focused on doing this right.”
The group, which included 350.org, Sane Energy, NYPIRG, and several other advocacy organizations, advocated for offshore wind to become a significant part of the mix and sent a letter to the mayor urging him to keep pushing in that direction.
“As you consider the pathway to meeting this appropriately ambitious goal, we urge you to ensure that offshore wind power plays a significant role in making New York City’s clean energy future an enduring reality as envisioned in your comprehensive OneNYC plan,” the group wrote.
The complications of wind in particular can seem daunting. Mesa and others in the industry agree that rooftop wind in New York City will likely not yield significant power with current technology due to the city’s geography and building stock.
Offshore wind in a utility-scale form would likely have to be sited off the coast of Long Island and while New York has made slow progress toward that end, the Long Island Power Authority last year rejected a proposal to build such a facility, saying it would be too costly to ratepayers.
Other projects are in the works and the Power Authority is pursuing offshore leases from the federal government, but between permitting, construction and financing, industry experts estimate a viable offshore wind farm in New York could be five to 10 years away.
There is another complication: NYPA is currently the supplier of New York City’s power. The city’s rate agreement with the authority, controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, doesn’t run out until the end of 2017 and the city is locked into other contracts as well.
“The city could choose to secure its energy needs outside NYPA in 2018 and beyond; however, the city has entered into a separate long-term agreement to utilize power produced by Astoria Energy II, a dedicated non-renewable energy resource,” said NYPA spokesman Paul DeMichele. “That contract does not expire until 2031.”
Conor Bambrick, air and energy program director for Environmental Advocates of New York, said the success of de Blasio’s plan will depend in large part on a deal with NYPA.
“The question is does NYPA come along and work with the city and serve that goal?” he said. “Or does the city have to part ways and pursue the energy on their own?”
Both Cuomo and de Blasio agree on the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, but despite many shared goals, the two men rarely agree on the appropriate course. Still, both administrations have put a premium on market-based solutions to ramping up renewable energy.
In fact, one of de Blasio’s motivations in announcing his 100-percent renewable goal was to kickstart private enterprise into meeting the demand.
The city’s operations consume about four million to five million megawatt hours a year, a $600 million to $650 million prize to the supplier or suppliers who can figure out how to provide that power from renewable sources.
Despite the potential roadblocks, advocates say simply expressing ambitious goals is an important step, provided action is taken.
“It’s absolutely important that the mayor or governor say these things. It’s even more important that they follow through,” Bambrick said. “We are rapidly running out of time.”
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