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.

A Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant in Wyoming.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

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As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

No Easy Answers

With Earth Day weekend fast approaching, the calendar is filling up with all kinds of events to mark the observance: conferences, lectures, summits, fairs, and film screenings. Spring is late in coming to the Finger Lakes this year but, if we’re lucky, the weather forecast might hold up and the warmer temperatures will continue and maybe, just maybe we’ll even get some sunshine in time for the celebrations.

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Cayuga Power Plant

It’s no little irony that at the same time we recommit to becoming better stewards of our life support system otherwise known as “the environment,” we are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to the news that Cayuga Power Plant is seeking to shift from coal to natural gas. While many are touting natural gas as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, recent reports coming out of Cornell and elsewhere suggest that the methane emissions released during the life cycle of natural gas production and distribution, not just combustion, make it as dirty or perhaps even dirtier than coal.

So what to do? Cayuga Power Plant supplies over 300 megawatts of electricity to the grid and is not easily replaced. It also is a key source of property taxes for both the town of Lansing and Tompkins County. Shutting it down would have a major impact on the area’s economy.

There is no easy answer and there will be huge trade offs regardless of what course we take. If nothing else, the Cayuga Power Plant stands as a stark reminder of just how deeply embedded we are in the fossil fuel regime and just how difficult it will be extricate ourselves from it.

The debate over how to move forward has the potential to be a crucial teachable moment in the life of our community, reminding us that there are always consequences to our decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. Perhaps one of the best ways we can observe this year’s Earth Day is to recognize there are no easy answers, only complexities and challenges that we must confront and work our way through.

Time for an Energy Policy that Makes Sense

We all know that a clear, predictable, and fair national policy encouraging investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy is the key to any real, viable solution to avoiding runaway climate change. If this is the case, then why does the overwhelming bulk of our federal tax dollars go to subsidizing the oil, coal, and gas industries and not clean energy? Why are the tax credits that support the fossil fuel industry permanent and unchallengeable? Why are the tax credits that support renewable energy temporary and constantly up for grabs?

A Shell oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico

According to a 2010 Environmental Law Institute study, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008 to the fossil fuel industry. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. During that same period, the renewable energy industry received only $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of the renewable energy tax credits are permanent.

Of course, as David Roberts writes in Grist, “Comparisons of direct subsidies capture only the tip of a giant iceberg – most of fossil fuels’ big advantages are invisible, beneath the surface, and entirely taken for granted.” Even a quick glance at the indirect subsidies makes clear how uneven the playing field is. External costs such as the public health toll paid for air and water pollution and the national security price of maintaining our addiction to oil amount to trillions of dollars.

Then there are the costs of climate change as superstorms such as Sandy become more frequent and violent. Early estimates of the damage from Sandy range up to $50 billion. And let’s not forget the enormous sunk costs of an infrastructure built on the assumption of cheap fossil energy: highways, suburbs, airports, and the like.

Viewed in this light, as Roberts vividly observes, shifting “from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not like going from Coke to Pepsi; it is to build a new world.” Not even Nate Silver, as good as he is, can tell us how long this new world will take to build and whether we will get far enough along in time to stave off runaway climate change. But one thing we should all be clear about: it’s long past the time to get started, and a national energy policy geared towards this future is an essential first step.

Envisioning a Low-Carbon Future

Listening to the rhetoric of oil, coal, and gas company executives such as the Koch brothers, you would think they were champions of limited government and the free market. In fact, however, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most subsidized businesses in the United States and its burgeoning profits would shrink dramatically without federal support. According to the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. In contrast, during that same period, the renewable energy industry received $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of these tax credits are permanent.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visit a Penn State lab in February 2011.

On top of these enormous subsidies for oil, coal, and gas, there are staggering external costs incurred as a result of our dependence on fossil fuel. These include the expense of defending strategic oil interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, the damage to air quality and our health, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate. Then there is the looming crisis of peak oil and our growing competitive disadvantage as other countries such as China rush to embrace clean energy technologies. Taking all of these factors into account, it’s hard not to believe that relying solely on fossil fuel energy is foolhardy.

The Pentagon knows this. At a recent White House summit on clean energy, I spoke with several Army officers from Fort Carson in Colorado and it was clear they were hard at work making the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. No one had to remind them of the tremendous sacrifice in lives and dollars sustained in military operations as a result of our dependence on foreign oil. And no one had to convince them that climate change was a rising national security risk; they had their own hard data about the impact of global warming on political and economic stability around the world.

In light of these developments, it makes perfect sense that President Obama is seeking to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars that the government gives to oil and gas companies. As he put it in a speech at Penn State earlier this month, “It’s time to stop subsidizing yesterday’s energy; it’s time to invest in tomorrow’s.” The redirected dollars would go towards the development of wind, solar, and geothermal power, energy efficiency technology, and building upgrades.

In his Penn State remarks, President Obama called on Americans to take up the challenge of energy innovation. The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) has been doing just that since June 2008. A coalition of community leaders from the business, financial, nonprofit, local government, and education sectors, TCCPI has brought together many of the key organizations and institutions in Tompkins County to explore ways we can build a low carbon future and achieve the County’s target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is efforts like these in countless communities across the U.S. that will make it possible for us to reengage as citizens in a democratic society and take our country in a different direction, one that steps back from the brink of ecological disaster and moves towards a world in which the balance between the natural world and human civilization is restored and a more just and equitable future for our children and grandchildren is made possible. In the end, it will be people, not technology, who make the difference.

Note: A longer version of this post was published in the Tompkins Weekly, February, 29, 2011.