What is Energy Democracy? And Could It Exist in New York State?

How is the price of our electric bill determined? How and where is the power we use generated? How quickly are we moving toward renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind? The public has a rare opportunity to discuss these and other energy-related questions with state officials over the next two weeks.

Despite the fact that New York State consumers pay billions to utility companies for our electricity needs, there is virtually no public involvement in determining how our energy supply and delivery system works and what the long-term objectives are.

Now more than ever, how we power our state has massive repercussions- for the economy, for public health, and for the climate.

The State is proposing to transform New York’s retail electricity market. They also want to change the way in which renewable energy and energy efficiency programs are funded. A major decision-making process –Reforming the Energy Vision (REV)- is now underway, and renewable energy and consumer advocates are encouraging the public to participate in the discussion.

The REV proceeding was initiated last year by the Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utility companies in New York.

A More Decentralized, Market-Driven Approach

The stated goal of the REV process is to promote more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, and wider deployment of “distributed” energy resources.

What is distributed energy? Think smaller scale and decentralized energy sources like micro grids, on-site power supplies (rooftop solar and residential wind), battery storage, and combined heat and power. Building retrofits for greater energy efficiency are also considered a distributed energy resource.

New York currently relies overwhelmingly on electricity generated at large plants fueled by natural gas, coal, nuclear, or hydro sources. That electricity is then delivered to consumers via high-voltage power lines.

Maintaining all of this infrastructure is expensive, and that cost is passed down to consumers. Transitioning toward distributed energy resources would ultimately save consumers money, say REV’s proponents.

A decentralized system would also be more nimble and resilient, and better able to recover from extreme weather events and outages, they argue.

Decentralizing our energy generation and distribution system means that consumers will -in theory- have many more choices about how they manage and consume electric energy. More New Yorkers are also generating their own electricity on-site.

How would consumers get to make choices in a decentralized energy market? A new pricing structure would be created to incentivize more environmentally friendly decisions. And the State envisions the use of “energy management products” which consumers could use, for example, to change their energy use during periods of peak demand.

Who Will Manage NY’s Clean Energy Markets?

Because so many more options will be available to consumers- who controls the infrastructure which manages those options is a critical question. Some environmental and public interest groups say that the platforms used to manage clean energy distribution and delivery in the future should not be controlled by investor-owned utilities, like National Grid or Con-Edison.

Rather, they argue, clean energy markets should be overseen by an independent statewide institution, “democratically governed by representatives from a variety of public interest sectors and stakeholders.”

Questions for the State

The Alliance for a Green Economy, a coalition of local environmental and social justice groups that is pushing for a “carbon and nuclear free” New York, says REV offers “potential for more localized ownership of energy projects and more participation by residents as energy producers, not just consumers.”

“There is also the potential,” says the Alliance, “for a power grab by corporations with a vested interest and lot to lose or gain from the transition to clean energy.”

The Alliance says that the REV process needs to address questions like:

  • What will the state’s renewable energy goals be for the next decade?
  • Will communities, individuals, competitive businesses or utilities own the state’s renewable energy resources?
  • What will be the role of utility companies in meeting the state’s energy goals?
  • Who can best motivate or help energy consumers make choices that will save them money, protect their health, and reduce their environmental impact?
  • What consumer protections will be put in place against deceptive marketing and predatory lending?
  • Will the state ensure affordable basic energy service for all?

The Bottom Line: Will REV reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions?

The State plans to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent (from 1990 levels) by 2050. Electricity generation produces about 16 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, says a recent State analysis.

[Transportation is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in New York State, generating one-third of the state’s total.]

REV reforms must include strong greenhouse-gas reduction targets for the energy sector, argues ALIGN, “based on the latest climate science.”

As the State plans to transform (and hopefully stimulate) the market for clean energy, the PSC is also proposing to change how New York’s renewable energy and energy efficiency projects are financed. Currently, electricity consumers help to pay for these programs, through a surcharge on our utility bills.

The thinking is that energy market reforms, such as a new pricing structure, will create strong incentives for a lot more private sector renewable energy development.

But the proposal to phase-out public sector support for renewable energy via the surcharge concerns some advocates.

Government support and subsidies for renewable energy should not be phased out, ALIGN states, “unless or until the REV’s market approach proves it can meet the state climate goals.”

Info sessions & public hearings on REV

A note to readers- the state’s REV process is highly complex and I am just starting to learn about it. Let’s share information! What do you know about REV and what it could mean for New Yorkers? Please submit any thoughts or info in the comment box below.

The Public Service Commission has organized public information sessions and hearings about REV, which are taking place across the state in the next two weeks. NYER will be at the New York City hearing so we can gain a better understanding of what the State is actually proposing.

Wednesday, January 28
The Oncenter
800 South State Street
Syracuse, NY 13202
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm

Thursday, January 29
Buffalo Central Library
1 Lafayette Square
Buffalo, NY 14203
Info Session 2pm
Public Hearing 3pm
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm

Tuesday, February 3
Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Info Session 2pm
Public Hearing 3pm
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm

Wednesday, February 4
Council Chambers
City Hall
420 Broadway
Kingston, NY 12401
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm

Thursday, February 5
State University of New York at Albany
Page Hall
135 Western Avenue
Albany, NY 12203
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm

Tuesday, February 10
Yonkers Public Library, Grinton I. Will Branch
1500 Central Park Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10710
Info Session 6pm
Public Hearing 7pm