State planners and politicians have put climate spin into high gear with the release of New York’s draft scoping plan, an 800-page document meant to guide energy policy. With singular hubris, the Climate Action Council writes: “Recognizing the complexity of the energy transition and the imperatives to mitigate the worst scenario projections of a warming global climate, New York stands ready to continue its legacy of climate leadership.” In her State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul echoed those themes, speaking of climate leadership, renewable jobs and environmental justice.
Residents of Queens’ Asthma Alley and environmental justice communities created by new gas power plants in Dover and Wawayanda could tell us that New York has made no progress at all in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two years after adoption of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, oil and gas generators in metro New York and the lower Hudson Valley are spewing 10 million more tons of GHG emissions into the air every year to compensate for carbon-free energy lost by the premature closure of Indian Point.
New York has big plans for offshore wind. But the claim that this makes us a “leader” is tough to swallow. According to staff in the governor’s office, by 2030 the downstate grid will be “significantly decarbonized” when 4.3 gigawatts of offshore wind come online. Currently, New York City is powered 90% by fossil fuels. Offshore wind has, at best, a 50% capacity factor because only infrequently does the wind blow sufficiently for maximum generation and wind often doesn’t blow at all. That 4.3 GW will produce — intermittently — less than 19,000 gigawatt-hours annually. That’s about what Indian Point produced in 2019. Taking 10 years to return electricity-sector emissions back to last decade’s levels is not much to brag about.
Furthermore, onshore and offshore wind turbine performance degrades over time — 4.5% a year according to some sources. The amount of energy from a turbine installed today would drop to a fraction of its original output by mid-century. Since the state’s offshore wind turbines will be deployed over many years, their average capacity factor is likely to be far less than 50%. It’s no wonder that the CAC only talks about retiring small peakers; big gas plants will be used when renewables fail to provide sufficient power.
The CAC asserts that “solar, wind, and other renewables, combined with energy storage, will deliver affordable and reliable electricity over the next decade and beyond.” According to analysis by New York’s independent grid operator — NYISO — thousands of wind turbines covering a million acres or more could be needed. Projections by the state energy research and development authority, NYSERDA, suggest that 500 square miles of rural farmland could be sacrificed for industrial-scale solar projects: That equates to an area the size of the city of Albany, covered in glass and steel, each and every year, for two decades. Despite the costly and environmentally damaging construction of solar fields and wind turbines, planners admit that New York would still need dispatchable capacity — supposedly, carbon-free — equal to our entire fleet of fossil-fuel power plants for when the weather doesn’t cooperate and storage is depleted. That capacity won’t be green hydrogen. Is the real plan just to keep burning gas?
The promise of green jobs is also, sadly, misleading. Large-scale wind and solar projects need labor for construction but generate few permanent jobs. As reported by Forbes, the Samson Solar Energy Center in Texas will be the largest solar farm in the nation — blanketing 18,000 acres — but when complete it will create only 12 jobs. Here in New York, the recently approved Alle-Catt wind project will cover 30,000 acres, yet produce just 13 jobs after construction. Industrializing rural communities, as NYISO and NYSERDA have proposed, with sprawling energy projects, might create altogether a thousand permanent “green” jobs. More jobs than that were lost when Indian Point closed.
Big Green groups tell us that powering the state with intermittent renewables will be amazingly affordable due to the falling costs of solar panels and wind turbines. In reality, the need to overbuild wind and solar, as well as the necessary transmission, storage and backup generation, do a hatchet job on any levelized-cost analysis. NYISO estimates that almost half the electricity produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be dumped if a predominantly renewable solution is pursued. Used or not, we’d have to pay for those solar panels, turbines, transmission and storage; we’d have to finance construction and maintenance of backup power, too.
The governor and Big Greens are promoting the “beneficial electrification” of vehicles and heating systems. But to support that critical transition, we will need about twice as much electricity as we currently use. Electric vehicles won’t be “zero-emission” and buildings won’t have “renewable heat” if the electricity to power them comes from fossil fuels. Projects like “ExC” – which would boost deliveries of fracked gas to the metro region through the Iroquois Pipeline — suggest that New York has no plans to reduce gas combustion.
We should be worried. The CAC’s plan won’t achieve state climate goals or ensure reliable carbon-free electricity; rather, it will increase energy costs and perpetuate environmental injustice; it tramples the rights of upstate residents, relying on Cuomo’s accelerated siting law to ignore public input and avoid thorough environmental review.
In her defense, Gov. Hochul did not appoint the members of the CAC. Some are lobbyists representing the wind, solar and fossil-fuel companies ready to profit from incompetent planning. Some are ideologues, clinging to their talking points despite science and empirical evidence that proves them wrong. Government representatives on the council seem happy to go along with any outcome, no matter how absurd.
New York already has reliable generators of carbon-free electricity, which provide thousands of high-paying jobs. In 2019, nuclear power produced a third of the state’s electricity and it continues to contribute to upstate New York’s low-carbon grid. In Washington, D.C., and in Illinois, leaders on both sides of the aisle have taken action to protect today’s fleet of nuclear plants recognizing that there is no cheaper way to generate carbon-free electricity. Elsewhere in the country, entrepreneurs are working to build the next generation of passively-safe reactors to replace fossil fuels, tackle climate change and restore our nation’s competitive edge. At the federal level, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently said, “We are very bullish on advanced nuclear reactors ... Nuclear is dispatchable, clean baseload power, so we want to be able to bring more on.” According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear energy is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of global warming. It also has the smallest ecological footprint and material requirements of any energy source.
Gov. Hochul inherited an energy-planning fiasco. Disingenuous press releases won’t fix that. If the governor is sincere in her commitment to science and honest government, she will include nuclear energy representatives in planning efforts and welcome an intelligent discussion of how advanced nuclear technology can ensure reliable carbon-free energy for New York’s future.
Dennis Higgins lives in Otego.