Climate Action in NY: 2019 Could Be Even Bigger than 2018

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

During the past year, we’ve been hit with an onslaught of doomsday news on the climate change front. From scorching wildfires out West to devastating hurricanes in the Southeast, extreme weather events have become all too familiar. The recent climate science reports from the International Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment further outline the dire impacts of climate change and how we need to act even faster than we’d originally thought to dramatically cut climate pollution if future generations are going to have any chance of raising their kids on a livable planet. Compounding that, we’re stuck (for at least a little longer) with a Trump administration that continues to do all it can to roll back sensible environmental protections, scaling up the dirty energy of the past and halting any federal progress on advancing the clean energy economy of the future.

Despite all of this, there is still good reason to be optimistic, as there is an inspiring portfolio of states and cities across the country that actually accept the science of climate change, recognize the economic benefits associated with climate solutions, and are heeding the moral imperative to act. One of the brightest examples of such action has been New York State.

As the calendar closes on another year, it’s a good time to assess where the Empire State is in terms of progress on climate and clean energy, and where it is poised to go in 2019.

Major Progress in 2018—A Foundation to Build On

As the fourth most populous state and the third largest economy in the nation, actions taken by New York can have a big impact and shine a bright light on how it’s more “gain” than “pain” when it comes to transitioning to a 21st century clean energy economy.  Below are some of the highlights from 2018 that show what climate leadership looks like and can deliver:

  • Energy Efficiency: Following the announcement of an ambitious energy efficiency target that would vault New York back into the group of leading states on this issue, the Public Service Commission (PSC) followed through on establishing critical implementation elements necessary to ensure the state’s goal is met. In a year-end Order, the PSC outlined various components of the state’s long-awaited energy efficiency framework that is estimated to drive $15 billion in customer savings by 2025, including: clear guidelines and an expanded role for utilities; a clean heating target to spur the expansion of electric heat pump installations; and, a focus on low- and moderate-income customers.
  • Energy Storage: During the year-long span, New York went from embracing a strong energy storage target to one that represents one of the biggest commitments in the country. Following the Governor’s January announcement and subsequent roadmap to achieve 1,500 MW of energy storage by 2025, the PSC’s December Order established a nation-leading target of 3,000 MW of energy storage by 2030. The Order includes smart incentives to ensure that energy storage achieves desired environmental and health benefits, including rules that promote hybrid solar plus storage systems.
  • Electric Vehicles: New York has been “driving forward” big changes to promote electric vehicles, as it seeks to curb emissions from transportation—the state’s largest single source of climate-changing pollution. The New York Power Authority recently announced a bold initiative—EVolve NY—to deploy 400 fast chargers at 200 locations across the state, creating a “backbone” of EV infrastructure that would allow New Yorkers to charge their cars in as little as 20 minutes. New York’s utilities are also stepping up, recently submitting, along with state agencies, a proposal to the PSC to incentivize the deployment of fast charging stations. 
  • Empowering Local Communities: NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Communities initiative had an incredibly successful year, with more than 500 communities participating in the program to date. The state continued to build clean energy capacity across the state, while helping to achieve its own climate and clean energy goals, with the provision of financial awards and technical assistance to local jurisdictions interested in moving forward with renewables, efficiency, and clean transportation projects and policies. 
  • A Regional Strategy to Reduce Transportation Emissions—Unfinished Business: Governor Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State directed several state agencies, “to develop policy approaches to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector” and to “coordinate with other states participating in the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) to explore potential regional policies and partnerships for states to work together in reducing transportation emissions.” Along with the other TCI states and on its own, New York held a number of listening sessions across the state to gather varied perspectives regarding transportation challenges and potential solutions. However, when 9 states and Washington, DC announced their intent to move forward in 2019 to craft and ultimately propose by year-end a smart regional policy to reduce transportation emissions, New York was inexplicably absent. The governor can recapture that missed opportunity, and further build momentum for the effort, by adding New York to TCI’s statement of intent without delay.

Looking Forward: Governor Cuomo Lays down a Marker for 2019 and Beyond

On December 17th, Governor Cuomo outlined a sweeping, nation-leading “Justice Agenda” that will define his priorities for the first 100 days of his third term in office.  Spanning everything from social issues to criminal justice reforms, it also includes two major commitments on the climate and clean energy front: to make New York’s electric sector 100% clean energy by 2040, and to transition the state’s entire economy to be carbon neutral by 2045. These commitments build on New York’s existing goal of a 40% economywide reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2030.

While there are many details yet to be unveiled—and we’ll be evaluating all of those legislative and administrative proposals as they emerge—based on what we know so far, here are some thoughts on how to move the governor’s incredibly ambitious agenda forward over the course of the coming year.

100% Clean Electricity by 2040, Five Years Sooner than California

California recently enacted trailblazing legislation to ensure that by 2045, all of its electricity comes from zero carbon resources. Based on Governor Cuomo’s new commitment, New York intends to pursue a similar path on an even tighter time horizon—accomplishing the same goal by 2040. That’s an incredibly ambitious but achievable target—if we hit the ground running in 2019. The following big picture policy enhancements would go a long way toward getting us on the necessary trajectory.

  1. Renewable Energy: The current Clean Energy Standard (CES) target of 50% renewables by 2030 is bold (we’re at just over 26% now). But if we’re going to get to the 2040 goal, we need to go even bigger. New York should consider expanding its renewables goal to approach 75% by 2035 and accelerating the near-term annual solicitations to ensure that utilities are procuring an increasing amount of clean energy.
  2. Double Down on NY-Sun: Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun program has been a blockbuster, expanding solar projects at an exponential rate since its inception. As a result, we’re poised to deploy over 3,000 MW of behind the meter solar PV earlier than the original 2023 expectation. Even with this substantial growth, we need to do more—getting to one million homes powered by solar over the next five years (more than doubling the current trajectory), including adding solar to 100,000 low-income residences. New York should ensure it maintains a strong focus not only on growing solar, but on increasing access to this resource, by putting in place policies and initiatives to ensure that community solar projects efficiently and effectively move forward at scale from New York City to our most rural areas across the state.  
  3. Offshore Wind—Go Even Bigger: New York’s 2,400 MW by 2030 offshore wind target is ambitious, and NYSERDA’s recent 800 MW solicitation is a huge shot in the arm for the burgeoning industry. Given the immense potential for this resource right off the shores of our biggest population centers, the state should consider pursuing an even larger MW target for 2030. Going big on offshore wind will be critical for the state to reach its 100% clean electricity goal and will set an even stronger example for other states to follow. While interstate collaboration will be key, there is also “healthy competition” as states vie for who can move the furthest and fastest in this space. Indeed, New Jersey has already adopted a 3,000 MW by 2030 target.  
  4. Keep it Going on Energy Efficiency: Reducing the total amount of electricity consumed will make it easier and cheaper to ensure that what we do use comes from 100% clean resources. The state should continue to build upon its aggressive efficiency goal and recent groundbreaking PSC Order to ensure successful implementation of its framework, as well as adopt other policies and initiatives that facilitate the procurement of all cost-effective energy efficiency and streamline and simplify the energy efficiency process for customers.

A Carbon Neutral Economy by 2045

In addition to the above steps for the electricity sector (cleaning up our supply of energy), to decarbonize the economy by 2045 will require an “all hands-on deck” approach to ensure demand for energy in our buildings and vehicles is completely transformed.

  1. Electrify Everything: We can’t get there unless we wean our buildings off burning oil, propane, and natural gas for heating/cooling purposes. The state’s recent energy efficiency Order included a promising step forward to drive at least 5 tBtus of heat pumps by 2025 (for context, the state’s overall heating demand is about 1000 tBtus). A recent report found an aggressive but achievable 31 tBtu target by 2025 is doable. New York should expand on its existing 2025 target and establish an aggressive 2030 number approaching 80-100 tBtus.
  2. Transportation—the Elephant in the Room: Transportation emissions constitute the largest and most persistently growing portion of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Rapidly expanding electric vehicles and the associated charging infrastructure is essential, and we need more of that in a hurry, along with policies like congestion pricing and smart growth initiatives like those happening under California’s SB375, But without a binding and declining cap on emissions for this sector (like we have for power plants), there is simply no way New York can get anywhere close to meeting the governor’s ambitious targets. As mentioned above, after years of collaboration among state agencies in the region, New York did not join fellow Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states in announcing their intent to move forward in 2019 to develop a regional mechanism to reduce transportation emissions. The single-most important transportation step Governor Cuomo can take in 2019 is to add New York to that list of states moving forward on a regional solution and recommit to unwavering leadership in that process, as he did for RGGI.

Reason for Hope  

From dark times emerge beacons of light. As we continue to fight regressive rollbacks at the federal level that threaten to undo decades of progress on climate, states like New York are pushing forward. Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’ve seen big things from the Empire State—and undoubtedly his recent climate and clean energy announcements strongly position New York to lead the nation forward again in 2019.

About the Authors

Donna De Costanzo

Director, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Jackson Morris

Director, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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