Creating A Low-Carbon Empire State: A thought-provoking new report, and NRDC's own recommendations, point the way

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers have risen to the challenge of rebuilding damaged homes, communities and infrastructure. Still, almost six months after the storm, there’s much more to be done. As we rebuild, we need to think not only about whether and how to reconstruct what we lost but also about how to make New York State more resilient to climate change. We need to decide how to curb global warming emissions so that we reduce the severity and frequency of extreme weather events like Sandy.

To examine these issues, last year, Governor Cuomo set up three commissions, involving a broad range of stakeholders. (I was one of them.) That process led to a robust set of recommendations on climate resilience and mitigation. In addition, NRDC provided the Governor with a thorough blueprint for action, with proposals addressing issues from public health to clean energy. The Governor adopted many of these recommendations, calling for a suite of bold, new initiatives on clean energy and climate in his State of the State address in January.

Today, a team led by professors at Stanford and Cornell universities added their voices to the climate resilience and mitigation conversation in New York by releasing a thought-provoking whitepaper. Their report examines how New York State can move off fossil fuels and instead use renewable energy for 100 percent of our energy needs—for electricity, heating, transportation fuels and industrial power.

While NRDC doesn’t see eye-to-eye with every aspect of this detailed report, we share the researchers’ vision and goal: a future where New York State–and our nation as a whole–breaks its addiction to fossil fuels, and instead draws its power from clean energy sources used efficiently.

The big question, of course, is how we can get there from here. The answer is this: We need to engage in the hard work of mustering the political will and putting in place the right policies and resources. New York State already has a strong record on renewable energy and energy efficiency. By moving fast to adopt the Governor’s new initiatives, and by taking the additional steps outlined here, we can vastly decrease our reliance on dirty energy sources and move to a future dominated by clean energy. In the process, we can create thousands of new jobs, increase the reliability of our electric grid, reduce our global warming pollution significantly, and clean up the air that our kids breathe.

What follows is a summary of those recommendations, many of which are also included in the Stanford/Cornell report issued today:

I. Clean Renewable Energy

Extend and expand New York’s renewable energy standard (RPS). The current standard requires the state’s utilities to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015. But the program sunsets at that point. We need to “[p]rovide long-term certainty for renewable energy development beyond 2015,” notes the state’s recently released New York Energy Highway Blueprint. The RPS should ramp up by an additional 2 percent a year, so that by 2025, our great state gets 50 percent of its power from clean-energy sources.

Deploy at least 5,000 MW offshore wind by 2020. The state should develop environmentally protective siting criteria and innovative financing mechanisms (see the Green Bank recommendation below) that can speed development of offshore wind farms in the federal waters off New York City and Long Island.  The first step would be to move forward with plans for a 350 MW offshore wind project proposed by the New York Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority and Con Edison.  

Implement the proposed New York Green Bank. Governor Cuomo’s nation-leading private-public Green Bank, announced in his State of the State address, would offer renewable energy and energy efficiency developers capital at or below market rates, thereby lowering many of the financing hurdles they currently face. In so doing, the bank can help transform our energy system. Now is the time to implement this innovative proposal.  

Extend the NY-Sun Solar Initiative for a full decade. The NY-Sun Initiative, created last year and authorized through 2015, provides approximately $150 million a year in funding to help deploy solar power. In his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo proposed extending this program through 2023, at current funding levels. Doing so will provide investors and developers with the necessary policy clarity, certainty and longevity they need to make New York a national leader in solar. The extended Initiative can create thousands of new jobs here in New York and generate billions of dollars in economic activity. 

Pilot innovative community financing programs to support solar power. Many New Yorkers would love to run their homes and/or businesses on locally-generated renewable energy. But, because so many New Yorkers are renters rather than property owners, or because our properties aren’t suitable, we often can’t install solar panels where we live and work. By allowing community- and crowd-sourced renewable energy, we can enable New Yorkers to, in effect, become partial owners of solar projects even when those projects aren’t located on their rooftops but elsewhere in our communities.

Increase the deployment of clean, distributed energy technologies. Solar power, combined heat and power systems and non-combustion fuel cells all bring significant public health and economic development benefits to our communities. Better still, they can be a clean-energy alternative to backup emergency power systems that run on diesel or gasoline. Too often, utility rules make it difficult or expensive to install these technologies. Similarly, battery storage for rooftop solar systems can mitigate many of the problems associated with grid-power losses. Working with industry, the state can advance and promote these exciting technologies and make it easier to install clean, on-site power. Governor Cuomo’s recent State of the State address recognized the importance of increasing alternative local, renewable power sources.


II. Energy efficiency in buildings and on the grid

Expand New York’s Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (EEPS). The Empire State EEPS calls for a 15 percent reduction in statewide electricity use below forecasted levels by 2015. The state Public Service Commission should expand that target significantly beyond 2015 and increase investment in energy efficiency five-fold over the next year. To help meet the post-2015 target, the State’s current efficiency investments can be used to leverage greater private sector capital. And New York can expand demand for energy-efficiency services through the increased use of energy benchmarking, audits, retro-commissioning, energy-aligned leases and enhanced financing options. Such options include a state loan-loss reserve fund and commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy financing, which allows businesses to access financing for energy efficiency and distributed renewables, such as solar arrays; they can then pay back that financing through low-cost payments on their property tax bills.

Promote energy efficiency at the local level. The vast majority of New York’s buildings use far more energy than they need. Working with local governments, the state can advance the use of energy efficient building and retrofitting techniques, bringing the benefits of energy efficiency to homeowners, renters and business owners alike.

Advance demand reduction. Demand reduction programs, sometimes know as “demand response” programs, work with building owners and others to reduce electric demand when the grid is under stress. The state can work with utilities and other energy service providers to increase demand management programs. In the short-term, these programs reduce the need for more costly and more polluting short-term energy backup on the grid. In the long-term, state support for these programs can save ratepayers money by reducing the need for expensive new power plants and transmission infrastructure.


III. Electric Cars

Boost adoption of electric cars. Working with utilities, the state Public Service Commission can structure vehicle-charging rates to minimize drivers’ costs and maintain grid reliability. The PSC can also help optimize infrastructure planning, making vehicle charging easy and accessible for everyone.


IV. Curbing Climate Pollution

Last but certainly not at all least, the clean energy future won’t come about by itself without policies that cut carbon pollution and internalize the huge environmental, health and economic costs of fossil fuels.

Create new rules that strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Governor Cuomo has already endorsed new pollution standards that will strengthen RGGI, a nine-state compact. RGGI has effectively cut global warming pollution in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, created thousands of new jobs, kept our energy dollars in the local economy, and spurred economic growth. Now, we need new state rules that will buttress the program’s success.

Assist local communities impacted by the closure of power plants. Coal-fired power plants supply about 10 percent of New York’s electricity. As we transition away from these polluting power plants, the state should assist communities impacted by their closure. This can be accomplished using a portion of the additional revenue collected as a result of lowering the RGGI cap, as the Governor mentioned in his State of the State address.

Support global-warming pollution reductions under the Clean Air Act (CAA). Using its existing authority under the Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency can cut power plant carbon dioxide emissions nationwide by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels, according to a proposal NRDC released in December. These standards will help prevent repeats of Hurricane Sandy. They’ll save lives and create thousands of new jobs. New York and other RGGI states could comply by strengthening RGGI and implementing other recommendations described here. As we New Yorkers say, “What’s not to like?”

The vision of an Empire State run on clean, renewable energy is one that many New Yorkers share. Today’s new report by researchers at Stanford and Cornell Universities, together with NRDC’s own recommendations, show that such a future is closer than many think.

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