In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a Green New Deal for his state. The lofty plan calls for quadrupling offshore wind targets and doubling distributed solar, and sets a goal of 100 percent clean power by 2040. The state legislature will likely vote on the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) this summer. This legislation calls for a 100 percent reduction of all emissions by 2050, attaches fair labor standards to green projects, and requires 40 percent of the state funds used to propel the transition to be invested in low-income communities and communities of color.
Meanwhile, the state has announced plans to shutter its last few coal-fired power plants, banned fracking, and denied permits for new natural gas pipelines. Cuomo’s broad vision to lead the country in the transition to renewables, combined with the concrete steps the state has taken to move beyond fossil fuels, have drawn praise from environmental advocates.
In a memo penned to New York legislators, representatives from a coalition of environmental groups urged legislators to combine the best of both the CCPA and Governor Cuomo’s plan, and to codify goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency. These plans, they write, offer “a clear path forward to coming to a negotiated agreement on climate legislation that sets us on a path to enshrining our climate change mitigation goals and programs in law, and achieving emissions reductions necessary and even more ambitious that those forth in the Paris Climate agreement.”
But these ambitious plans have drawn ire from groups like New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, which warn of lost jobs, spiking energy prices, and freezing residents as gas and oil are increasingly rejected as energy sources. They also raised questions about how to address present-day climate change challenges, such as the recent cold weather that tested energy infrastructure across much of the East Coast.
“If we continue to block natural gas infrastructure, New Yorkers will continue to lose access to affordable, reliable, domestic natural gas,” says Peter Kauffman, spokesman for New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, in a press release. “Dreams of technologies that may be developed decades from now will not keep New Yorkers warm this winter.”
Kauffman was referring, at least in part, to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) pipeline permitting decisions. In 2017, the DEC denied water quality certification (required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act) to the Northern Access Pipeline, which would have routed gas from Pennsylvania through upstate New York. And in April 2018, the agency denied the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project, a 24-mile pipeline that, if eventually approved, would run under New York Bay and bring natural gas to customers in the Rockaways, on Long Island. The Williams Company submitted a new application for the Northeast Supply project at the end of last year.
National Grid, one of New York’s investor-owned utilities, has been pressuring the state to approve the project, arguing that the pipeline is needed to avoid a moratorium on new customers. They point to Consolidated Edison, or Con Ed, which in January announced it would not be able to accept new natural gas customers in parts of Westchester County after March 15 because of limited supply. Critics were quick to blame the state’s resistance to new pipelines, calling it a “wake-up call” and predicting economic fallout to the region, which is booming with multi-family construction projects.
To understand the moratorium, it’s helpful to understand New York’s “energy portfolio” and how natural gas supply works.
Although New York is a national leader in hydropower and wind, natural gas still fuels about 40 percent of the state’s net electricity generation, and nearly 60 percent of households are heated with natural gas. Reliance on natural gas has grown as coal-fired plants have been phased out and as building owners, encouraged by programs such as NYC Clean Heat that incentivize natural gas over oil, have switched the source of their heating energy.
Supply must be planned for times of highest demand, which are usually periods of extreme cold — for example, this past January, when the polar vortex plunged much of the eastern US into a deep freeze. During these events, demand spikes (along with prices), and power plants with the capacity to do so switch from natural gas to carbon-intensive oil, which is readily available and cheaper.
Turning to oil during cold snaps is far from ideal. But clean energy advocates are wary of expanding natural gas infrastructure. Natural gas production, especially hydraulic fracturing, produces significant emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which has led many to reject natural gas as a cleaner “bridge fuel” between other fossil fuels and renewables.
“Pipelines are a 30-year investment,” says Miles Farmer, senior attorney with the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You don’t want to make that investment if it’s only needed for five years.”
He and others argue that New York can avoid new fossil fuel infrastructure by turning to “non-pipe” solutions such as energy efficiency, and by switching from heating oil or natural gas to efficient electric heating. At the same time, the state can continue to build renewable energy capacity.
New York already hosts incentive programs that encourage customers to choose efficient electric heating systems such as ground-source and air-source heat pumps, aka “mini-splits,” which can also be used for cooling.
“We have seen carbon reductions from transitioning from home heating oil to natural gas,” says James Denn, spokesman for New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which oversees and directs the state’s utilities. “But going from oil to a heat pump results in even greater savings.”
Many utilities and clean energy advocacy groups view energy efficiency as a resource on par with renewables. In fact, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, estimates that, with regulatory support, energy efficiency could become the country’s greatest electricity resource by 2030.
Measures such as building insulation, efficient heating and cooling systems, and LED lighting reduce demand so that the same amount of energy “goes farther.” These “demand-side” measures can be less expensive to implement than new pipelines or other infrastructure, especially if the avoided costs of building that new infrastructure are factored in. In addition, many demand-side measures that increase energy efficiency — air sealing and insulation, for example — save the most during extreme weather conditions, while buffering occupants and easing the burden on the grid. “Supply-side” measures are more vulnerable during these events. Cold temperatures can compromise electromechanical equipment, wind and ice can down power lines, and storms can delay fuel-delivering vehicles.
While the PSC does not rule out new pipelines per se, the agency has been pushing for non-pipe solutions and acknowledges that as clean energy mandates ramp up, natural gas will play a decreasing role. As per Cuomo’s Green New Deal, the state’s updated Clean Energy Standard will require 70 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind by 2030, up from the previous target of 50 percent by 2030. (Currently, New York sources 28 percent of its electricity from renewables, most from hydropower.) In the last year, Cuomo has unveiled a series of initiatives aimed at accelerating energy storage and incentivizing energy efficiency.
“The Clean Energy Standard pushed us to dramatically increase energy efficiency initiatives,” says Denn. “We are definitely bullish on the demand side of the equation.”
In the wake of the Con Ed moratorium, the state acted swiftly, announcing the Westchester Clean Energy Action Plan on March 14. The $250 million investment funds programs and incentives that enable existing Westchester customers to boost energy efficiency and switch to electric heat pumps, and provides grants for alternative heating and cooling systems for new customers on Con Ed’s waitlist.
NRDC’s Farmer agrees that the moratorium is indeed a wake-up call, but not for the reasons cited by pipeline proponents. He urges Con Ed to adopt a new comprehensive planning framework that taps the full potential of non-pipe solutions. This would allow utilities to get ahead of the curve instead of reacting to crises.
Under the traditional approach, Farmer explains, utilities present a “portfolio of gas supply arrangements” to the regulator — in this case, the PSC. Farmer argues that utilities should seek investments in “clean, non-pipe alternatives” first, before turning to new gas supplies.
Farmer points to the Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management program as an example of an initiative where Con Ed successfully reduced electric demand and avoided building an expensive new electric substation. The suite of strategies included energy efficiency, on-site energy generation, energy storage, and “demand response,” which enables energy users to plan their energy usage to avoid times of high demand. Together with “utility-side” strategies, these measures reduced demand by 52 megawatts, and helped avoid a $1.2 billion investment in new infrastructure.
According to the PSC, Cuomo’s Green New Deal is being negotiated separately from the state’s budget, which was released in early April, and the DEC is expected to make a decision on the Northeast Supply pipeline in May. In a new wrinkle, President Trump recently signed an executive order that will make it harder for states to block pipelines by denying certification under the Clean Water Act. Governor Cuomo immediately condemned the move on Twitter and in an official statement.
“President Trump’s Executive Order is a gross overreach of federal authority that undermines New York's ability to protect our water quality and our environment,” writes Cuomo. “Any efforts to curb this right to protect our residents will be fought tooth and nail.”
Trump’s order is likely to be challenged in court. Meanwhile, time will tell if the natural gas moratorium is a sign of difficulties to come, as naysayers predict, or a small bump in the road toward a thriving clean energy economy. In any case, New York is certain to be a battleground for these issues and the state’s climate and clean energy legislation could lay the groundwork for a national Green New Deal. The rest of the country will be watching.