How far is New York State prepared to go in shifting from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy?

Organizations like the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and the Alliance for a Green Economy say the transition could be happening faster.

A coalition of environmental groups announced yesterday in Albany that they had delivered 50,000 comments from residents across the state in response to New York’s Draft State Energy Plan. They urged Governor Cuomo to “set New York down the path to clean, renewable energy and away from dirty fossil fuels of the past.”

Yesterday was the last day for the public to comment on the draft plan, which was released by the State Energy Planning Board. The “comprehensive, economy-wide multi-year plan…presents the Governor’s vision on how the state will produce, transport and consume energy over the long-term.”

For instance, the state says that New York’s total electricity requirement -to meet the needs of all sectors combined- is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 0.7 percent per year from 2012 through 2030.

Environmentalists say that the state’s plan does not provide enough of a clear framework for a rapid and meaningful conversion to renewables.

But how will the demand for electricity, or fuel for needs like transport and heating, be met? Eleven percent of New York’s energy needs are currently supplied by renewable sources says the state.

The Cuomo administration envisions a mixture of energy sources in the next few years -renewable and not. Environmentalists say that the state’s plan does not provide enough of a clear framework for a rapid and meaningful conversion to renewables.

A statement released by the groups in Albany yesterday said that the use of renewable energy (wind and solar) has more than doubled in New York between 1990 and 2012, “far exceeding the growth rate of every fossil fuel source (including natural gas)” but the [state] plan forecasts virtually no growth in renewable energy use during 2020-2030, “despite significant technical advances continually being made in renewable technologies”.

One Plan: Multiple Objectives

The state’s energy plan seeks to accomplish multiple tasks -including “preserving the environment”- that will have to be balanced against each other. The state says it wants to:

  • “ensure adequate supplies of power,
  • reduce demand through new technologies and energy efficiency,
  • preserve the environment,
  • reduce dependence on imported gas and oil,
  • stimulate economic growth, and
  • preserve the individual welfare of New York citizens and energy users.”

Traditional economic development strategies require low-cost energy and guaranteed availability. Transitioning to renewable energy sources poses challenges for local governments.

Use of renewables can mean initially higher energy costs. And some renewable sources, such as wind, do not provide consistent energy so another level of planning is required for the overall supply.

Environmentalists argue that aggressively increasing the scale of renewables will help to address these challenges more rapidly.

New York State has developed a variety of incentives for renewable energy use. The last New York State energy plan was released in 2009.

Energy Policy as a Tool to Fight Climate Change

Environmental groups are very supportive of aspects of the current state plan: for instance, the goal of achieving an 80% reduction (from 1990 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But the groups in Albany pointed out that the state’s plan also sets an interim goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2030. And, “this step only applies to carbon dioxide whereas the 2050 goal properly applies to all greenhouse gas pollutants.”

“It is imperative,” the groups argued, “that New York State immediately target all greenhouse gases, particularly given that some – like methane that is released by natural gas – are especially potent in the atmosphere in the short term.”

Prioritizing Renewable Energy

It is no longer acceptable for the state to have an “all of the above” approach to energy sources, these environmental groups say.

“While Governor Cuomo has stated that renewable energy is a priority,” wrote the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club in an April analysis, “the only priorities mentioned in the [state] plan are affordability, private sector financing, a resilient and flexible power grid, more consumer control over energy use, and ‘aligning energy innovation with market demand.’”

“Our top priority must be to move beyond fossil fuels as rapidly as possible”

“Continued investments in fossil fuels [are] incompatible with achieving New York’s climate change goals,” said the Sierra Club. “We, along with the national Sierra Club, see the rapid development of renewable energy—coupled with intensive efforts to further energy conservation and efficiency—as the means of extricating ourselves from a climate change disaster, or at least mitigating its consequences.”

A number of environmental groups have found fault with the state’s planned continued use of natural gas, including its support of new natural gas pipelines.

“Our top priority must be to move beyond fossil fuels as rapidly as possible,” stated Jackson Morris, Senior Energy and Climate Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in testimony to the Energy Planning Board this March.

“NRDC therefore urges the state to take aggressive measures to reduce our dependence on all fossil fuels, including natural gas…The Final [state] Plan must scale up renewable energy,” he added.

“As with energy efficiency,” noted Morris, “the Draft Plan includes ‘a State commitment through 2025’ to a renewable energy portfolio. While this is positive, the Final Plan should direct the PSC [Public Service Commission] to issue an Order by year-end 2014 that targets meeting half of the state’s electricity demand with renewable energy by 2025.”

A Push for Off-Shore Wind

Environmentalists say that New York can ramp up its wind energy capacity just as it has done with solar. “The [draft energy] plan must commit New York to doubling land-based wind capacity and investing in offshore wind this year,” the Sierra Club stated.

“Specifically, the state can purchase offshore wind energy to power Long Island from a project under development east of Montauk Point, and move forward with a project proposed by the New York Power Authority off the Rockaways,” they explained.

The Need for Hard Targets

It is time for the state to set hard targets and stick to them, environmental groups agree.

“The state should recommit itself to meeting the energy efficiency and renewable energy goals it set for 2015, and should immediately set even more aggressive efficiency and renewable energy goals for 2020 and 2030,” noted the Alliance for a Green Economy in a point-by-point review of the plan.

The state’s 2009 energy plan proposed that New York “meet 45 percent of its electricity needs by 2015 through increased energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

“Both a commitment to the 2015 goals and new ambitious targets for the coming years are absent from the draft Energy Plan,” they stated.