One Step Closer to 50 Percent Renewable Energy by 2030 in New York State: It's Getting Real Now

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The New York Times reported today that Governor Cuomo will direct the New York Public Service Commission to adopt a requirement that New York achieve 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind and offshore wind by 2030. New York's "energy czar," Richard Kauffman, New York's Chairman of Energy and Finance, has confirmed that this exciting news is real, explaining in a widely distributed email that: "Governor Cuomo will issue a mandate, called the Clean Energy Standard, to ensure that New York State will achieve 50% of its power from renewable sources by 2030." This is a huge step forward. The "50 by '30" goal was included in the State Energy Plan this year, but action by the Public Service Commission is needed to make this goal a reality that is measurable, implementable and enforceable. We're excited to learn all the details and are hoping for a formal announcement from the governor soon.

Governor Cuomo's new mandate will require New York State to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, like this upstate wind farm, by 2030. (photo: Chris Bentley via Creative Commons)

How significant is making the "50 x '30" goal a real, enforceable requirement?

It's a game changer. Governor Cuomo will cement his growing climate leadership by taking this bold action. By directing the Public Service Commission, which regulates the state's utilities and electric system, to adopt and implement enforceable policies needed to get half our electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2030, Cuomo will win New York a place as one of the leaders nationally in this space. This ambitious but eminently achievable goal will slash carbon and other pollution while creating jobs and attracting private sector investment. This move builds upon the state's successful (and soon to expire) Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). New York's RPS has driven more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable projects--predominantly onshore wind, and more recently a significant expansion in rooftop solar as a result of the NY-Sun Initiative--all while driving over $2.7 billion of direct investments in the state economy. It's been highly cost-effective as well, generating roughly $3 of investment for every $1 of public support for the programs.

New York currently gets roughly 24 percent of its electricity from renewables. So more than doubling that number over the next 15 years will only be achieved through a combination of sustaining the strong political will being demonstrated by the governor, along with smart program implementation by the state. There will need to be robust budgets and implementation strategies that maximize the megawatts of renewables installed per public dollar invested. The state will also need to pursue strategies to accelerate the deployment of offshore wind power and solar projects both large and small. Just as important, greater clarity on how the state plans to scale up energy efficiency will be vital, since meeting demand with "negawatts" means chasing 50 percent of a smaller overall energy pie in 2030.

What about the upstate nuclear power plants?

The New York Times also reported -- and Richard Kauffman has confirmed -- that as part of the Clean Energy Standard, Governor Cuomo also plans to direct the Public Service Commission to develop a program to support the continued operation of several aging nuclear reactors located in Oswego County, near Lake Ontario, that have been operating in the red because natural gas and renewable electricity are cheaper and are out-competing them. The owners of these nuclear plants -- the Fitzpatrick and Ginna plants -- have announced plans to close them down because the plants are losing money, even though their operating licenses allow their continued operation for more than a decade longer. Kauffman has explained that New York's goal in seeking to prop up these plants is "not to lose ground in reducing climate emissions," while New York State builds its energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. While we don't have enough information yet to assess this part of the plan -- the details will be very important -- here are a few initial thoughts.

First, while nuclear power is a low-carbon technology, it is not the long-term solution to fighting climate change. And nuclear power is not clean or renewable: There are environmental, public health and safety concerns associated with every step of the nuclear fuel cycle. So New York State must take care to ensure that any program to provide economic support for the continued operation of the Central New York nuclear reactors will be kept totally separate from the "50 by '30" renewable energy requirement -- which must be firmly limited to truly renewable resources such as solar, wind and offshore wind -- and that support for nuclear power is absolutely never drawn from funds that are dedicated to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Importantly, Kauffman's note suggests that New York agrees: he says, "To be clear, nuclear sources will not count toward our 50% renewable mandate." However, even lumping the two programs together under a "clean energy standard" banner still runs the risk that these two programs will be confused and that support for renewable energy will be siphoned off to support existing power plants in the future.

Second, we will need more details and a thorough analysis of what it would cost of keeping these currently uneconomic reactors operating and whether keeping these plants running until 2030 is the best use of New York ratepayer funds.

Third, significantly, the Times reports that the Governor's proposal would be limited to the upstate nuclear reactors whose operating licenses still have many years to run, and would not include the Indian Point reactors in Westchester, located within 50 miles of over 17 million people, whose operating license is expiring. NRDC opposes the relicensing of Indian Point based on long-standing safety and environmental risks associated with that plant.

Bottom line: While important questions remain about the role of the Central New York reactors, the governor's move to establish a "50 by '30" enforceable renewable electricity requirement is another big step forward for clean energy in New York. We look forward to digging into the details and working with New York State and other stakeholders to build a program that will help boost our reserve of truly clean power sources -- wind, offshore wind, solar and efficiency -- while building the clean energy economy and helping to further reduce the state's reliance on the polluting energy sources of the past.