Cuomo plots course to accelerate renewable energy development

Source: By MARIE J. FRENCH, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard | AP Photo
A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard | Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
 ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants state agencies to develop shovel-ready sites for large-scale renewable projects as the private sector struggles with a challenging regulatory process.

Cuomo made the proposal on Tuesday during his budget address. He said New York needed to take the lead in doing more, faster, on the issue of climate change.

“Setting goals without the means to achieve them is… baloney,” Cuomo said. “We have to do it faster. It currently takes five to 10 years to begin constructing a new energy project. You can’t have the goals we have and then have a system of bureaucracy that takes five to 10 years to start a new energy project. It just does not work.”

Developers of new solar, wind and other projects have raised concerns about the current siting process. Only a handful of projects have been approved under a 2010 siting law that Cuomo signed. None of the projects approved under that Article 10 process have begun full-scale construction.

Cuomo said he wanted to bring together the Department of Public Service, Empire State Development and the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, “reform” them and “flip the whole model.”

“We need a new, faster siting methodology, financing and building methodology,” he said. “Let the state go out and find the site and do the approval and provide the financing and set up the transmission lines and then bring in the private developer.”

Lawmakers and renewable developers expressed some interest in the concept of having state entities secure permits and build transmission infrastructure for projects.

But there are many questions about how such a process might work — including how it would interact with the New York Independent System Operator’s processes and the existing regulatory structure that is dominated by state agencies but allows input from local interested parties.

The briefing book did not highlight any planned legislative changes on siting, but statutory changes to Article 10 are expected to be necessary, according to the governor’s office.

“I really need to see the details, but I’m pleased the issue got recognized,” said Alliance for Clean Energy New York’s Anne Reynolds in an email. She represents renewable energy developers. “We DO need to build renewables faster, and look forward to digging into the nuts and bolts of their proposal.”

Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the chamber’s Energy Committee, raised questions about issues with staffing at DPS, which have been raised by developers.

“Where do we get the people to do this and still have to do the backlog and everything,” Parker said.

Lawmakers last year rejected a sweeping proposal to allow the New York Power Authority to own new renewables, approving a more limited expansion of NYPA’s scope. Parker said he wasn’t as concerned with a proposal to make sites shovel-ready because the state wouldn’t own the projects.

“I’d like to see what the details are but it sounds promising,” said Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island), who chairs the Energy Committee in that chamber.

Cuomo also said he’s committed $33 billion over five years to address climate change. That includes the proposed $3 billion Restore Mother Nature bond act, which would provide a boost to restoring wetlands and waterways, improving flood resiliency, increasing fish stocking and access and other priorities.

The governor’s budget briefing book included a commitment for an unspecified amount of the Restore Mother Nature bond, which would need approval from lawmakers and voters this year, to go to two new Hudson River parks — a 508-acre facility in Kingston and the other a new recreation area connecting five boat launches along the upper Hudson.

The remaining funding appears to be already-announced commitments from state agencies and authorities, primarily through levies on utility ratepayers.

Billions in subsidies for offshore wind, on-shore renewable projects, clean energy research and financing and electric vehicle chargers are part of ongoing programs overseen by the Public Service Commission and administered by NYSERDA. Supplemental funding for priorities like electric vehicle charging, storage and renewables is coming from the New York Power Authority.

“We have been increasing in those programs each year and there’s a focus on making sure all of those programs are now aligned in a climate budget,” said Cuomo’s budget director Rob Mujica. “Going forward, we’re funding the renewables, we announced the windmill projects, we’ve announced projects all across the state that are coming from these funds and these funds are growing each year so those are not old funds, those are the next five years.”

The five-year horizon includes already-announced commitments to new renewable subsidies under the state’s Clean Energy Standard; the $5 billion, 10-year Clean Energy Fund that was announced in 2016; and subsidies for offshore wind approved by the Public Service Commission.

Some advocacy groups have been pushing for specific, new, on-budget funding to fight climate change. NY Renews has proposed a $1 billion climate fund as part of an initial commitment while other groups have pressed for even more — Food and Water Watch is among those pressing for a $10 billion “Green New Deal” investment this year.

“Instead of proposing the level of bold new funding necessary to combat climate change, the governor has mostly repackaged existing funding commitments. Simply put, that’s not enough,” said Food and Water Watch’s Alex Beauchamp. “Make no mistake, without dramatically increased funding to speed the transition to 100% renewable energy, New York will miss the goals put into law just last year.”

Cuomo’s $33 billion, five-year target for climate funding includes $740 million in state capital funds. Some portion of the Environmental Protection Fund may be included in that number.

Cuomo plans to keep the EPF funded at $300 million, the highest level it’s been at in its history and the same as he has proposed for the past several years.

The budget includes a proposed 10 percent increase in funding to the Department of Environmental Conservation to $1.6 billion. That hike is driven by capital spending from the proposed bond act and water infrastructure grants, according to the briefing book.

It also proposes adding 47 staff members at DEC to implement the state’s climate law and the flooding recovery and economic development programs in Lake Ontario. More staffers are also expected at NYSERDA to implement the climate law.

Cusick said additional staffing was something he supported and had been pushed by the Assembly in their one-house budgets over the years.

The governor also plans to propose changes to how freshwater wetlands are regulated and will support lawmakers’ push to permanently ban fracking as part of the budget.