New York’s risky all-or-nothing energy policy

October 18, 2022

Michelle Hook | October 17, 2022

Last month, Gov. Hochul warned New Yorkers that home heating and energy prices are expected to skyrocket this winter, while also asking that utility companies take steps to prepare for a lack of available natural gas. The announcement tacitly acknowledges that this winter, New York will need to burn higher-emitting fossil fuels — like oil — to keep people warm and run the electrical grid. It was a subtle but dire warning, and unfortunately, the crisis it foretells was eminently preventable.

Due to the aggressive advocacy of a small group of environmentalists, Albany has failed to enact energy policies that meet the dual goals of moving New York toward the state’s ambitious climate goals while protecting consumers from blackouts and rising energy costs. While the war in Ukraine has certainly exacerbated the problem, this moment has been years in the making — with many warning signs.

On the same day that Hochul issued her warning, New York’s energy grid operator outlined what is necessary to meet the emissions reduction targets in the state’s climate law. It’s estimated New York will need to add 20,000 megawatts of power to the grid in the next seven years. That’s roughly 10 new power generators with the output of the just-closed Indian Point nuclear plant.

To make things even worse, the report says that if we don’t meet the target, New York will need to rely on high-emitting resources — like coal power imported from neighboring states — because we don’t generate enough power here.

New York isn’t going to make it. Even if New York meets its most ambitious offshore wind targets, there will still be a significant power gap. It’s nearly impossible to fill this gap with the cleanest alternatives, because New York has enacted a de facto ban on any new, non-renewable power generation.

This same scenario is already playing out in California, and it’s a disaster. The state spent years pushing to quickly shutter their fossil-fuel facilities, and by 2020, California found itself importing the same fossil-fuel power from out of state. When other states needed the power for themselves and recalled it, California — which had relied too heavily on renewables alone while shuttering and denying traditional power resources — was left sweltering in the dark. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the creation of a $5 billion fund to establish a network of “reliability reserve” (aka: fossil fuel-powered) generators to prevent the crisis from happening again.

Other states are being more pragmatic, making strides in emissions reductions by using an all-of-the-above approach. Pittsburgh International Airport just installed the first-ever microgrid that operates on both solar power and natural gas. This new project achieved $1 million in energy savings in its first year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 8.2 million pounds. In mid-September, Pittsburgh hosted a clean energy forum touting the project’s efficiency and reduced emissions. At the same time, Climate Week was underway in New York City, where speakers and environmentalists treated natural gas as an energy pariah and discussed ways to eradicate its use.

This isn’t just shortsighted political expediency prioritized over sound energy policy; it’s hurting the environment. This winter, after years of denied permits and blocked natural gas infrastructure, New York will be relying much more heavily on oil to power and heat our homes — not just increasing carbon dioxide but also sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which contribute heavily to asthma and respiratory illness.

As complex as energy policy can be, the solution for New York is simple. About 60% of New York’s power, and 70% of home heating, comes from natural gas. While natural gas is constrained in parts of the world, the United States sits on vast reserves. But even as the U.S. responds to global gas needs, New York lacks the infrastructure to transport it, and the power plants that use it are old and inefficient. These are solvable problems: In addition to renewable energy development, we should consider options to expand pipeline capacity, add transmission and update power plants with modern technology that also reduces emissions.

In a September column about Ukraine and energy policy, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman pointed to the irresponsibility of “moral-preening progressives who want an overnight immaculate green revolution” who need to “stop living in a green fantasy world that says we can go from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy by just flipping a switch.”

There is a way to balance our energy needs with climate progress. Politicians need to focus on sound policies that protect New Yorkers and have the courage to do what’s right. Maybe this winter — when many New Yorkers may need to choose between heating their homes and eating — Albany will finally get a wakeup call.

Hook is the executive director for New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a statewide coalition of business, community and labor leaders.