The Climate Action Council Delivers

The Climate Action Council, in a momentous step on December 19, approved the state’s Final Climate Scoping Plan in a 19-3 vote. This plan provides a detailed guide to reaching the ambitious climate goals delineated in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, including 70% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% zero emission electricity by 2040. The ramifications are far reaching: New York must retire fossil fuel plants and stop burning fossil fuels like gas in buildings.

This critical milestone represents the culmination of over three years of collaboration and over a hundred meetings, and includes contributions from the Council’s Advisory Panels and Working Groups. The release of the Draft Scoping Plan exactly one year ago led to a public comment period that included 11 public hearings across the state and more than 35,000 written comments.

Meeting of NYS Climate Action Council

The first meeting of the Climate Action Council took place in March 2020. Photo credit: NYSERDA.

The scoping plan establishes a comprehensive foundation for dramatically lowering greenhouse gas emissions, electrifying buildings and transportation systems, securing climate justice, and advancing New York’s commitment to economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. It outlines changes in state policy that, if implemented, will not only move New York away from fossil fuels but also towards a just energy transition, one that will finally address the harm that pollution from conventional energy systems have inflicted on frontline communities. It identifies strategies to reduce the environmental burden of greenhouse gas emissions and associated pollutants suffered by these communities as well as address energy affordability.

The scoping plan makes clear that the benefits of the clean energy transition must not overlook workers and communities that have relied on the fossil fuel economy for their livelihood, and emphasizes that they should not be left behind.

At the heart of the scoping plan is a determination to make sure that the advancement of a clean energy economy results in new economic development opportunities throughout the state and supports long-term, well-paying jobs. At the same time, the plan offers recommendations regarding how to provide support and tools to workers and communities affected by the energy transition.

What happens if the plan is not implemented? The state estimates that the cost of inaction will exceed the cost of action by more than $115 billion. That’s a big price tag for failing to stave off runaway climate change and ignoring environmental justice and health concerns.

Make no mistake, the plan is not perfect. The final draft postpones the dates by which New York will move away from fossil fuel use for construction of new homes and commercial buildings, putting them off one year later than in the draft plan passed in December 2021. To take just one example, the prohibition of fossil fuels in new construction for single family homes will occur in 2025, not 2024. As Cornell Professor Robert Howarth, a member of the Climate Action Council, points out, this delay is especially disappointing given that the building sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Another area inviting scrutiny involves “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen for use in gas pipelines, a ploy by the fossil gas industry to extend its operation and profits into the future. Raya Salter, founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center and member of the Climate Action Council, rightly terms these so-called alternative fuels “a dangerous distraction.” In her words, “there is at best a limited role for alternative fuels, which are in many cases infeasible, costly, untested, leak-prone and carbon intensive to produce.”

Despite these flaws, the scoping plan marks a crucial turning point in New York’s energy transition and establishes an important framework for moving forward. Next steps include presentation of the plan to the governor and state legislature, and the creation of new rules and regulations to take into account its recommended policy changes. As this process unfolds, we should all work to ensure that the scoping plan is funded and fully implemented to ensure a just transition for all New Yorkers.

NY Renews Seeks to Implement State Climate Law

​The following piece appeared in the November 9th issue of the Tompkins Weekly.

Luis Aguirre-Torres’s recent decision to step down as the Ithaca city sustainability director came as a deep disappointment to many in Tompkins County. His plan to make the city carbon neutral by 2030 while making sure climate justice was central to this endeavor was ambitious and inspiring and embodied the spirit and vision of the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND).

Fortunately, Rebecca Evans remains in place as the city sustainability planner. Her expertise, experience and talent, as well as a longstanding commitment to a just and equitable society, will help ensure that the IGND maintains its momentum. But the community also needs to stay engaged and support her work if the IGND is to meet its goals and continue serving as a national model.

Attendees at a recent climate rally in Ithaca.

Besides joining in local activism to promote the IGND, it is important that Tompkins County residents advocate at the state level for effective climate and clean energy policies. The passage in 2019 of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the nation’s most progressive climate law, carved out the path for moving forward.

This landmark legislation calls for 70% renewable energy in the state by 2030, 100% zero emission electricity in the state by 2040 and an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

NY Renews, a coalition of more than 320 environmental justice, community, faith, labor and multi-issue organizations, played a key role in getting the CLCPA on the books three years ago. Local organizations in the statewide coalition include Climate Justice Cornell, Sunrise Ithaca, Sustainable Finger Lakes and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative.

With the CLCPA signed into law, the fight has shifted to the enactment of legislation needed to achieve its critical goals. As part of this effort, NY Renews recently announced the public campaign launch for its Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package. The campaign seeks to build public support for this crucial set of bills ahead of the legislative session that kicks off in January 2023.

The Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package, if approved by the State Legislature, will rapidly decarbonize New York, make the state healthier and more equitable, ensure a just transition for workers and help create an accessible green economy for all. Overall, the bills individually and collectively advance the goals of the CLCPA.

Beginning Nov. 16, communities across the state will be rolling out the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package, looking to make the promises of the CLCPA a reality. The Ithaca event, sponsored by Climate Justice Cornell and others, will be Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. at Thompson Park, across from Gimme! Coffee on North Cayuga Street. People planning to attend can RSVP here.

“Ithacans have fought hard to ensure that equity is at the center of the IGND, and the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package would extend that commitment to the state level,” said Siobhan Hull, coordinator of Sunrise Ithaca and member of Climate Justice Cornell. “As vulnerable New Yorkers continue to be hardest hit by pollution, economic recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to invest in our frontline communities and secure a just transition for all.”

The Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package has three main components: 1) fully fund the CLCPA so that it can achieve its objectives; 2) build renewable energy for all and create green union jobs; and 3) hold polluters accountable and ensure everyone pays their fair share in taxes. The details for each of these include:

1. Fully fund and implement New York’s Climate Act

Climate and Community Protection Fund creates a pool of money to ensure sufficient investment to fund the CLCPA. The act’s core investments would include broad labor, procurement, community benefits and responsible contracting standards.

2. Build renewable energy for all and create good, green union jobs

Build Public Renewables Act would allow the New York Power Authority to build new large-scale renewables more quickly, effectively and democratically than private developers.

Climate Accountability Act provides state agencies with the authority and guidance required to implement the Climate Act and ensure that our energy system is accountable and transparent to the public.

Gas Transition and Affordable Energy Act will give the Public Service Commission the power and direction to align gas utilities with the Climate Act’s emission reduction and climate justice mandates.

Blueprint Bill provides a plan to direct the replacement and redevelopment of New York state’s fossil fuel facilities and sites by 2030.

3. Make polluters and the wealthiest New Yorkers pay what they owe

Climate Change Superfund Act makes the state’s worst polluters, major oil companies, pay for the harm they’ve caused.

Fossil Fuel Subsidy Elimination Act will end the most egregious state subsidies of $330 million each year to the fossil fuel industry, a major contributor to the climate crisis.

Invest in Our New York’s Plan to Fund Our Future is a revenue and spending package from the Invest in Our New York (IONY) coalition that will ensure the state eliminates wasteful handouts to businesses and the wealthiest New Yorkers pay their fair share to fund our climate law.

Make no mistake, securing the passage of the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package will not be easy. Implementing these kinds of transformative policies will always generate opposition. In this case, the fossil fuel industry has mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to undermine the state’s climate targets.

new report just released by the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative describes in devastating detail the attempts of various players in the fossil fuel industry to obstruct climate action in the state. According to the report, millions of dollars have been spent by the industry and its supporters “to delay, water down and otherwise frustrate the implementation of the CLCPA and other key climate legislation.”

The study points to the presence of fossil fuel executives on the Climate Action Council, the body appointed to create a roadmap for meeting the climate and energy goals of the CLCPA, and questions their support of the state’s clean energy initiatives.

“Legislators, communities and other stakeholders invested in a cleaner, greener, decarbonized future for New York must stay vigilant around efforts by the fossil fuel industry to muzzle and erode the state’s most far-reaching climate legislation ever passed,” cautions the report.

So, keeping these words in mind, be sure to attend the unveiling of NY Renews’ Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package at Thompson Park on Nov. 18, and demonstrate your support for real climate action that will bring about a greener, healthier and more equitable future for all New Yorkers.

Building Electrification in the Empire State

New York burns more fossil fuels in its residential and commercial buildings than any other state in the country, a fact that underscores the importance of dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of our built environment to avert runaway climate change. As the New York legislature entered the final days of the 2022 session last week, however, prospects for passage of the All-Electric Building Act (AEBA) appeared dim.

Commercial building heat pumpsThe AEBA would have required all new buildings starting in 2024 to be constructed using only electric appliances for heating, cooking, hot water, and drying clothes; in 2027, the standard would have applied to taller buildings as well.

Although other significant environmental and climate legislation did make it through, including the two-year moratorium on cryptocurrency mining produced by fossil fuel power plants, it was lights out for the AEBA when the session ended. The bill had strong support in both houses, but the leadership blocked it from going to the floor for a vote. It was a bitter disappointment for climate activists, especially in light of the Democratic majority in the state legislature.

Similar proposals have fared better elsewhere in the U.S. Washington became the first state in the country in April to effectively ban the use of natural gas in most newly constructed buildings, mandating the installation of all-electric heating and hot water systems. California adopted a new building code in August 2021 that established a strong preference for electric heating in new construction, although it did not impose an explicit ban on natural gas.

Closer to home, the Ithaca Common Council in May 2021 voted unanimously in support of an energy code supplement that required all new construction beginning in 2026 to be net-zero buildings that do not use fossil fuels except for cooking. New York City passed a law in December 2021 prohibiting the use of natural gas and oil burning systems in new construction starting in 2024, when developers would have to design buildings with all-electric heating, hot water, and cooking appliances.

The AEBA would have implemented a key recommendation of the Climate Action Council, which has been charged with developing a plan to achieve the goals established under the state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Protection Act (CLCPA). The Draft Scoping Plan, released at the end of December 2021 for public comment, calls for the adoption of all-electric state codes that prohibit the use of fossil fuel for heating, cooling, hot water, cooking, and appliances by 2024 for new construction of single-family and low-rise residential buildings and by 2027 for multifamily buildings over four stories and commercial buildings (see pp. 125-28).Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State address in January seemed to signal a green light for building decarbonization, and she included support for a ban on natural gas in new construction after 2027 in her executive budget, a move backed by the State Senate. The General Assembly, however, left it out of its one-house budget.

The failure of the state legislature to take action on the AEBA makes it very difficult for New York to meet the legal climate targets stipulated in the CLCPA. All the more reason, then, that concerned citizens should make their voices heard in support of the Draft Scoping Plan recommendations. Fortunately, there is still time to do so now that the public comment period has been extended to July 1. Comments may be submitted via the online public comment form, via email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and via U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. The Climate Action Council will issue a final draft of the climate plan by the end of the year.

Crunch Time on Climate Action in Albany

The future of climate action in New York State is at a critical inflection point. The new budget has been approved and the remaining weeks of the legislative session are now focused on policy proposals. At the same time, the draft Scoping Plan issued by the Climate Action Council at the end of 2021 has been undergoing scrutiny at public hearings around the state and only a handful more of these hearings remain.

When the New York Legislature convened in January, environmentalists and climate activists were hopeful that dramatic headway could be made on such issues as reducing the consumption of natural gas, building electrification, cryptocurrency mining, fossil fuel divestment, and investments in renewable energy development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and its supporters have stepped up their opposition to these measures in recent weeks, spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns and lobbying, money that could be put towards a clean energy future.

The pushback has revealed the obstacles to phasing out fossil fuels even in a relatively progressive state such as New York. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the challenges faced by those who take the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act seriously, focusing on the fight over banning natural gas use in new construction.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But, by the time the negotiations came to a close, the proposal was absent from the final budget deal. The ostensible reason for its exclusion, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, was that policy measures don’t belong in the proposed budget.

Climate advocates are now pressing state lawmakers to pass the measure as a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. The Renewable Heat Now coalition, in particular, is pushing for passage of the All-Electric Building Act as part of a package of proposals to reduce demand for fossil fuels and compel utilities to plan for a transition to renewable heat.

An organization called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, essentially a front group for fossil fuel and utility companies and corporate lobbying interests, is mounting a well-oiled campaign to defeat the measure. It contends that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. Among those behind the organization are National Grid, the American Petroleum Institute, the pipeline company Enbridge, and the Business Council of New York State. A recent investigative report concludes that “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.”

The lines couldn’t be drawn more distinctly: on one side, the backward-looking oil and gas companies, utilities, and other corporate defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo, and on the other, citizens, activists, and other members of the public who want a decent, bright future where runaway climate change has been averted, mass species extinction avoided, and clean air and water acknowledged as fundamental human rights.

The next few weeks will tell us unambiguously where Gov. Hochul and the state legislature stand. In the meantime, we must make our voices heard in Albany as loudly and clearly as possible.

This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.

Go Faster and Go Further

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration this Saturday, it’s clear that the new president has determined to maintain the fossil fuel regime. In response, hundreds of marches will be held around the country (including in Ithaca), with the main event in Washington, DC. As Bill McKibben notes, “since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing.”

The rollback of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, which had their own limitations, means that the U.S. will send up to 900 more megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent report, that will increase the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent at a time when we need to be making dramatic cuts in these emissions.

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Trump’s advisors are divided about whether the U.S. should abandon the Paris Agreement, but even the strongest advocates for not doing so want to renegotiate the terms of the accord. In any event, it certainly appears as if we’re handing over leadership on this critical issue to China and Europe. In terms that Trump might understand, such a failure of leadership will do permanent damage to our nation’s brand. But much more than a marketing blunder is at stake;  the fate of human civilization rests on not going down this road.

The one bright light is that the transition to a clean energy economy seems to have reached a tipping point that will carry it forward regardless of any policy shifts. In particular, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, It’s too late to bring back coal or the associated mining jobs, not just because natural gas has become too cheap for coal to be competitive. The costs of wind and solar have dropped so significantly in the last several years that they, too, have become cheaper than goal. This new reality is apparent in the recent decision of the Kentucky Coal Museum to install solar on its roof as a cost-saving measure. Yes, that’s right: the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar.

The numbers tell an even more impressive story. As the chart above indicates, renewable energy capacity grew 9.3 percent in 2015, the fifth year in a row that the rate has been above 8 percent. In the first quarter of 2016, renewables made up 99 percent of the new electricity production capacity in the U.S., and from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 they increased from 14 percent of electricity to 17 percent. In contrast, coal dropped during that same period from 36 percent to 29 percent.

The global growth in solar has been especially explosive. For the first time since 2013, solar outpaced wind in 2016. The primary driver has been the astonishing reduction in the cost of utility-scale solar: it fell 62 percent from 2009 to 2015 and is projected to drop another 57 percent by 2025.

At the same time, renewables have become a key source of new employment around the world. Renewable energy jobs rose by 5 percent in 2015 to 8.1 million and there were an additional 1.3 million jobs in large-scale hydropower. In another sign of the historic transition taking place, the American solar industry now employs more workers than coal: 209,000 compared to about 150,000 jobs.

So we’re moving in the right direction; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that we need to move a lot faster and go a lot further. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we need to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix by 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Overall, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent per year on average to meet the Paris target.

Accomplishing this task is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And, clearly, we can’t count on the federal government to make it happen; it’s up to us. All the more reason we need to take to the streets on Saturday and make our voices heard.

Uniting the Labor Movement Behind Clean Energy

There’s plenty going on in the Trump campaign to keep voters’ attention on the growing split in the Republican party. But there are also signs of serious divisions in the Democratic party, and I’m not just referring to the tensions between the Sanders and Clinton camps, although these certainly could dampen voter turnout in November.

Even as the Democrats struggle to find a way to bring progressives and centrists together, a fault line has emerged in the labor movement between the building trade unions and the AFL-CIO. As the Washington Post reported last month, the building trade unions attacked a new labor partnership led by the AFL-CIO with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, whose opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline upset unions that viewed the project as an important source of new construction jobs.

Wind Farm Under Construction.jpg

The primary source of the conflict is a new super PAC called For Our Future that Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, is establishing in conjunction with the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); and the National Education Association (NEA).

The PAC, according to a spokesperson for Steyer, will provide an important vehicle to “help elect progressive leaders who are committed to a just transition to a clean energy economy.”

The fixation of the building trade unions on fossil fuel energy in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular overlooks the jobs potential of building the clean energy infrastructure necessary to avoid runaway global warming. Furthermore, there is a pressing need to rebuild our country’s civil infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water systems, and schools, And what about making our cities climate resilient, especially along the coasts? An enormous number of construction jobs would be generated, and none of this even involves what a transition to clean energy would generate in the way of new job opportunities.

In addition, federal borrowing rates are at historic lows (near zero) and the federal deficit has declined dramatically since the early years of the Obama administration, so there’s really no excuse for the country not to be undertaking the kinds of public works projects that were so widespread in the 1930s.

The main difference between now and the 1930s, of course, is that the Republicans are in control of the House and Senate and they are dead set against the federal government borrowing the money necessary to fund these projects. They continually raise the alarm about the federal debt to GDP ratio even though there is no real consensus about what constitutes a “safe zone.” See here for more details. We could take a lesson from the Chinese government, which doesn’t even put infrastructure spending in the deficit total because they consider it to be an asset, not a liability.

At any rate, there are plenty of construction jobs to be had with the right national policies in place, many more than will be lost if we stop building pipelines and fossil fuel power plants. In order for this happen, of course, the different wings of the labor movement have to get on the same page. There’s no getting around that fact; if it doesn’t happen, the political consequences will be dire. It’s clearly another reason why the 2016 elections will mark a critical turning point in the nation’s path to the future.

The Ithaca 2030 District Emerges

As part of the City’s economic development program and effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Seneca Strategic Consulting and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), together with Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, Taitem Engineering, and the Building Performance Contractors Association of New York State, are collaborating to create a 2030 District that will showcase ways to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of building construction and operations, while ensuring Ithaca’s economic viability and profitability for building owners, managers, and developers.

These districts seek to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions reduction targets for existing buildings and new construction called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning. So far, 2030 Districts have been established in many cities all over the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but Ithaca will be the first to create a 2030 District in New York.

The Ithaca 2030 District will build on the work of the TCCPI, an award-winning coalition of community leaders from the education, business, local government, youth, and nonprofit sectors that provides a place to network around climate and energy issues. Leveraging the climate action commitments made by Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the Towns of Caroline, Dryden, and Ithaca, TCCPI seeks to foster a more climate resilient community and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The district will demonstrate how property owners and managers can work together to undertake energy efficiency projects in nonresidential buildings in an economically sound way. This project will create jobs in the energy efficiency sector, encouraging more investment in downtown areas, and helping to foster community revitalization. Building owners and managers will share energy, water, transportation data and case studies that will spur additional efforts to make more effective use of limited resources, improving the sustainability and resiliency of the community.

The Ithaca 2030 District is currently in the planning stage. There is a steering committee that is meeting monthly and beginning outreach to property owners and managers in the City of Ithaca. NYSERDA, through its Cleaner, Greener Communities Program, has awarded the Ithaca 2030 Districts team $90,380 against a match of $108,000 provided by the team members. Contract negotiations have been completed and the agreement with NYSERDA should be executed soon, allowing the project to get fully underway. It is anticipated the launch of the District will take place in the late spring of 2016.

Note: This article appeared originally in the Winter 2015 issue of the Commercial Energy Now newsletter.o

Reforming the Energy Vision in NY

The New York Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates the state’s electricity industry, is not known for challenging the status quo. So, several months ago, when it rolled out Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), a program aiming to give customers more choice and a greater role in managing and sourcing their electricity, a healthy dose of skepticism was in order.

The PSC has been traveling around the state, presenting the ideas behind REV and holding public hearings to gather feedback on its proposals. Calling for a new business model that would base the electric system on distributed energy resources, REV at first glance appears to position New York as a national leader in tackling grid modernization and promoting integration of renewable energy into the state’s power system.

According to the PSC, REV would turn the state’s utilities into what it calls “distributed system platform providers.” This new approach would enable the state’s utilities to track, trade, and forecast assets like rooftop solar, customer-sited co-generation systems, demand response, energy efficiency, and energy storage.

The big question regarding REV is whether the existing utilities should serve as the vehicle for managing and coordinating distributed energy resources. Think about it: if the utilities are both purchasing energy and managing the system, that’s a direct conflict of interest. It’s not hard to imagine utilities favoring their own assets over those of other parties. As many observers have pointed out, It’s crucial for the entity governing the distribution of energy to be independent.

Unfortunately, it seems as if utilities have gained the upper hand in controlling the process. If they succeed, it will choke off a key source of innovation. Right now utility revenues are based on how much electricity the utility sells; the more it sells, the more revenue it gets. With utilities in charge of the process, what incentive will they have to find other ways to generate revenue?

To its credit, the PSC is also considering allowing municipalities to pool the electric load from residents, businesses, and institutions and collectively purchase electricity, a process known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). CCAs are already allowed in several states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts. If the PSC allows CCAs in New York, it would provide some check against the power of the utilities.

In any case, the key point is fairly straightforward: as New York turns more from fossil fuels toward alternative energy, it’s important that major utilities not dominate the process. Only if citizens make their views known to the commission, however, will they be stopped. Comments may be submitted to the PSC by clicking here.

Getting from Here to There

2014 turned out to be a momentous year for the climate protection effort, culminating in the historic march on September 21 in New York City that brought more than 400,000 people, including many from Tompkins County, to join in a demand for action from world leaders. The news on November 12 that the U.S. and China, which together account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had struck a deal to limit these emissions suggested that perhaps they were listening.

Then, on December 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration would ban fracking in the state largely because of concerns over risks to the public’s health. The watershed decision came after years of citizen activism insisting that the state should leave its considerable fossil fuel reserves in the ground because of the threats fracking posed to the air, water, and soil of its communities.

The call for leaving carbon in the ground also came from a rapidly growing divestment movement.

Beginning with students at U.S. colleges and universities, the movement soon encompassed, among others, higher education institutions in Scotland and Australia as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Ithaca’s Park Foundation. As a result of this campaign, according to Fossil Free, more than $50 billion in assets have been divested so far. Building on this momentum, 350.org and its partners have begun organizing a Global Divestment Day for February 13-14, 2015. Stay tuned.

At the same time, renewable energy rapidly gained traction throughout the world. As the year wound to a close, reports out of Germany indicated that the country had generated a record 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources during 2014, with wind and solar leading the way. On May 11, almost 75 percent of Germany’s overall electricity needs were met by renewable energy.

All of these impressive developments, however, took place against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening outlook for the planet’s climate. According to climate scientists, all indications are that 2014 will be the hottest year on record for the planet, marking 38 years in a row of higher-than-average temperatures.words,

In Rebecca Solnit’s words,”It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here.” But, she notes, that’s how it felt to lots of ordinary 18th-century Europeans when they contemplated overthrowing the divine right of kings and becoming citizens rather than subjects. It takes sustained, concentrated effort on the part of lots of people working together to create a new reality.

Closer to home, Cornell’s purchase of community-owned wind power, the doubling of residential solar power in Tompkins County, the growing recognition that economic development and greenhouse gas emission reductions are not mutually exclusive, and new initiatives to make our commercial buildings more energy efficient all serve as examples of how to build this new reality. May those examples continue to multiply and grow in 2015.