Can New York Really Get to 100% Clean Energy by 2040?

Source: By Anne Barnard and Grace Ashford, New York Times • Posted: Monday, November 29, 2021

Clean power supply is being generated in upstate New York, but it is not making its way to New York City, the area that relies most heavily on power from fossil fuels.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has announced two massive transmission-line projects that environmental advocates hope is a sign that she is accelerating the state’s efforts to address climate change.
Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Two years ago New York committed to the nation’s most ambitious climate goals to shift away from the fossil fuels heating the planet and create a new, electrified economy that stops adding to climate change by 2050. State agencies and private companies went to work building hundreds of wind and solar farms to power businesses, vehicles and homes.

But there is a problem.

New York effectively has two separate electrical grids: upstate, where most of the state’s growing clean-power supply is generated, and in and around New York City, the area that consumes the most energy and relies most heavily on power from fossil fuels. The power lines that connect the two, already clogged with a traffic jam of electrons, cannot carry more.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has announced two massive transmission-line projects to help bridge that divide, a step that environmental advocates hope is a sign that she is accelerating the state’s efforts to address climate change and environmental inequities.

By law, New York has just nine years to more than double the share of the electricity it uses that is generated from wind, sun and water to 70 percent, from less than 30 percent today.

That requires unifying and expanding the state’s divided electrical grid and reshaping it to work less like a one-way transmitter and more like an ecosystem. The grid must grow to supply 75 percent more power by 2040, and be flexible: On blustery days it should send surplus wind power north from turbines off Long Island to consumers upstate, and in summer send plentiful energy south from rural solar farms to the city.

The governor unveiled the transmission-line projects amid a series of steps to cut emissions and redress environmental inequalities, including doubling the state’s solar energy expansion goal and creating a program to improve air quality in low-income, long-polluted areas.

Last month, Ms. Hochul’s administration blocked upgrades to two gas-fueled power plants, weighing in on a critical debate over whether the state should immediately stop permitting new fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“Goals are goals,” Ms. Hochul, who attended the global climate conference in Glasgow, said earlier of the state’s climate law. “I want results.”

The new transmission lines promise to bring renewable energy directly to New York City, aimed at making the state’s “tale of two grids” — cleaner upstate and heavily reliant on fossil fuel downstate — “a thing of the past,” said Doreen Harris, who heads the state’s energy development agency. At last analysis, just 21 percent of the city’s power came from sources that do not emit planet-warming gases — a fraction that soon fell to 3 percent with the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant.

One line, called Clean Path New York, will stretch 179 miles from Delaware County in the Western Catskills to a substation on the East River. Another, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, will run a buried cable from Canada down the Hudson River to Queens. The Champlain Hudson line will be built and owned by the global investment firm Blackstone, while the Clean Path will be controlled by the New York Power Authority and private developers. The developers have agreed to 25-year contracts.

The state has not released details of the projects’ costs or expected effect on New Yorkers’ electricity bills. What is known is that the projects will cost billions of dollars, much of it funded by private companies, and amount to the state’s largest infrastructure investments in years. Together with recently greenlit offshore wind projects, the transmission lines set the state on track to meet its 2030 goal of getting 70 percent of the electricity consumed in the state from renewable sources.

But the path remains murky to the state’s tighter 2040 target of using 100 percent energy from renewable or nuclear sources.

Pulling off a transition to renewable energy will require the state to navigate political, economic and technological challenges.

Deciding whether to approve new gas pipeline and power-plant projects pending in Brooklyn, for instance, will force the state to side with either environmental advocates or gas and power utilities. Building hundreds of wind and solar farms means sometimes contending with local opposition; a new state law allows renewable-energy developers to override local regulators, but that too may cause backlash.

The transition will also take careful economic planning, energy analysts caution: In a future where everything from home heat to transportation is powered by electricity, the price and reliability of that electricity will matter more than ever.

State regulators selected projects they believe will maintain that balance. The Clean Path line will tap the state’s growing wind and solar energy supply, carrying it along routes where the state already has the right to build power lines. The private developers on the project include global energy developer Invenergy and the real estate developer Related.

The investment from Related — a company better known for giant real estate developments like Hudson Yards in Manhattan — is another indication of how deeply new climate polices would transform the state’s economy. A raft of new climate regulations includes carrots and sticks pushing companies to venture into renewable energy.

In Related’s case, building the transmission line gets the company renewable-energy credits that it can sell at a profit. That will help offset hefty penalties Related says it will owe, under a new city law, for fossil-fuel energy used by its buildings, even new, energy-efficient ones.

The other project, Champlain Hudson, is even more ambitious, reaching 339 miles to pull down enough hydropower to deliver 20 percent of the energy New York City uses on an average day. Sophie Brochu, president and chief executive of Canada’s state-owned utility, Hydro-Québec, which will supply the power, called it “an umbilical cord” from the dams in the far reaches of Québec to Queens.

Over the course of the project’s circuitous, 10-year trajectory, the line’s promised output has grown by a quarter as technology has improved. The route has changed as well — stretching and twisting in response to local opposition.

Opposition was varied: Local power producers objected to buying Canadian energy. Environmental groups warned of disturbances to wildlife. Seven Hudson Valley towns said construction would stir up toxins in the river that supplies their drinking water. In Canada, some Indigenous groups have contended the export violates their territory and environment.

Transmission Developers, the Blackstone-backed company that will build and own the line, says it has worked closely with opponents to find safe solutions, including financing environmental research and negotiating partnerships and benefits with affected Indigenous populations: Donald Jessome, the chief executive, said the company reached out to all affected “right from Day 1.”

Hydro-Québec has offered a partnership stake with the Mohawk tribe, said a leader, Mike Delisle, although the details have not been hammered out.

“It is a true partnership,” he said. “We will be co-owners with the 57-kilometer line that goes from our territory.”

But not all Indigenous groups have been included to the same degree.

“We still disagree with the project,” said Lucien Wabanonik, a leader with the Lac Simon council in Quebec who has opposed Hydro-Québec exports to the U.S., saying they would have “big consequences” for the land, people and wildlife in the area.

“We as a nation did not get any compensation,” he said, adding: “Stolen land, stolen resources.”

For Ms. Hochul’s administration, it seemed the benefits of the project — 1250 megawatts of reliable, renewable hydropower, delivered straight to New York City, with most permits already approved — outweighed any potential backlash.

The main reason: Hydropower produces guaranteed energy every day of the year, a critical backstop as New York begins to increasingly rely on energy sources that are clean but intermittent because supply varies with weather. Wind power delivers about 30 percent annually of the energy it could produce if, hypothetically, it ran on full capacity every day; solar produces less than 15 percent, according to findings of the New York Independent System Operator, the organization that ensures a reliable power supply.

There are other challenges: Even if the state can build enough solar and wind farms, and a grid to support them, today’s energy storage systems can only hold an eight-hour electricity supply. . Developing technology like green hydrogen, which could be critical for sectors like steel and cement production looking to decarbonize, is not yet available on a commercial scale.

Gavin Donahue, president of the Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents both fossil fuels and renewables, said meeting the goals would require a “herculean” effort that will “fundamentally change” New Yorkers’ way of life.

“There will have to be real — and very difficult — conversations on the horizon,” he said.

But breaking ground at what will be a massive new green hydrogen facility in Genesee County recently, Ms. Hochul was enthusiastic about New York’s potential.

“This is the place where the clean energy revolution is happening,” she exclaimed, later adding: “It’s going to be an all-the-above approach.”