Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

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.