To plan NY’s energy future, we need reliability, accessibility and affordability

August 26, 2020

The Journal News

By Michael Lawler
Special to the USA Today Network

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) is in the final stages of its proceedings on “Gas Planning Procedures” and is due to release recommendations by the end of the month on how to regulate the natural gas planning process for New York’s gas utilities, in a manner consistent with the recently passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).

Sadly, many activists and environmental groups, including the National Resource Defense Council, have sought to use these proceedings to advocate regulating the natural gas industry into extinction rather than plan how to encourage changes that would allow New York to explore meaningful ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the gas sector and take advantage of the affordable and existing resources.

The basic thrust of their argument is that in order to meet climate targets and reach net zero emissions by 2050, gas use must decline. This is contrary to reality and discounts the tremendous reduction in carbon emissions that have been made over the last two decades because of natural gas.

According to the Western Energy Alliance, natural gas “is the number one reason the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country.” The shift from dirtier-burning fuels like coal to natural gas has produced 57% more carbon-emission reductions than have all the renewable energy sources that have come online since 2005, EIA data shows.

Working with the PSC and numerous other agencies, the industry continues to make strides in efficiency and emissions reduction through avenues such as renewable natural gas, power-to-gas installations to supply hydrogen/low-carbon fuels using existing gas infrastructure, enhanced energy efficiencies, hybrid electric air source heat pumps coupled with high efficiency natural gas furnaces as well as carbon capture, use and storage technologies.

However, the simple fact is that New Yorkers rely on natural gas as an affordable and reliable source of energy. As many as 60% of New York households heat with natural gas, and 40% of our electricity comes from power plants that run on natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Simply put, whether New Yorkers heat their homes in the winter or power their air conditioners in the summer, natural gas is fueling their everyday lives.

So as the PSC finalizes its recommendations, it’s critical that they keep three important words in mind: reliability, accessibility, and affordability.

Today only 30% of New York’s electricity comes from renewables. Getting from 30 to 100% zero-emission by 2040 just for the energy we presently consume is a massive and incredibly expensive undertaking that will use enormous amounts of land, carrying its own environmental impacts that could be minimized by using existing gas infrastructure in concert with our electric grid.

With the Indian Point nuclear unit shutting down by 2021, New York will need even more natural gas for power plants to fill the gap. Furthermore, the more New York moves to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the more vital it will be to have natural gas power plants online and available to cycle up as quickly as the wind stops blowing or the sun goes behind a cloud.

In other words, we need dispatchable energy available at any given moment to address the market demand, especially when renewable energy is not available, or in the event of a “black start” situation, to help the energy grid recover in the event of a total or partial shutdown.

If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that we need reliable, affordable energy to help power emergency operations for hospitals, grocery stores and millions of New Yorkers working from home in a time of crisis. If natural gas was not available to us during this pandemic, I shudder to think how our state would have functioned under those conditions. 

Likewise, restricting the use of natural gas in favor of more expensive options during New York’s efforts to rebuild its economy will further burden the homeowners and businesses that can ill afford these costs. The truth is, natural gas is the only source of energy that can fully, reliably and affordably meet the needs of New Yorkers.

What the NRDC and others fail to address, as is often the case with the push for the total elimination of natural gas, is cost and affordability:

  • For instance, what is the social and financial cost associated with the move to 100% renewable energy and how are we, as a state and individual taxpayers, going to pay for it?
  • What is the direct cost for each homeowner to convert their natural gas home heating system and their natural gas ovens and stovetops to electric?
  • How would the loss of natural gas impact communities across our state, especially low-income communities?
  • How would the elimination of natural gas impact the cost of new construction, especially as it relates to affordable housing?

These are important questions that require thoughtful consideration by the PSC and our elected officials as they seek to meet New York’s ambitious climate goals and make policy decisions based on the reality of where we are today and how best to get where we want to go.

My organization, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, is in agreement with the governor and the state Legislature about the need for a clean energy future, but we must take into account reliability, accessibility, and affordability when making these decisions.

In other words, let science guide our decision-making process — not politics.

Michael Lawler is the director of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy.