N.Y. enacted a landmark climate law. Now comes the hard part

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2019

New York’s landmark climate bill, which commits America’s third-largest state to effectively eliminating greenhouse emissions by midcentury, ranks among U.S. climate hawks’ greatest political victories.

The bill’s passage earlier this year was the result of a multiyear push by climate activists in Albany. It happened after Democrats swept Republicans out of the majority in the state Senate during last fall’s midterm elections.

But if enacting the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was a heavy lift, actually meeting its goals will be even more difficult.

New York has considerable work to do to achieve the targets of the legislation. It cut emissions 8% between 1990 and 2015, according to the most recent state greenhouse gas inventory. The new law calls for reducing emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% by 2050 (Climatewire, June 18). The remaining 15% of emissions would be offset to make the state carbon neutral.

“We acknowledge these goals are extremely ambitious. They need to be in order to meet the level of greenhouse gas reduction scientists tell us is necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change. And we acknowledge there is not a playbook we can pull off the shelf for how to decarbonize the world’s 13th-largest economy,” said Alicia Barton, who leads the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “New York is committed to writing that playbook, to not only having a vision but backing it up with concrete plans.”

The state is already working toward its renewable energy goals, she said, noting that the legislation incorporates Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) targets for offshore wind, distributed solar, storage and energy efficiency.

Many of the details for putting in place the new law are left to a Climate Action Council. The legislation requires that members of the 22-person council be nominated by January. They will then have two years to draft a plan and another to finalize it.

New York will be a key test of states’ ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump’s push to roll back climate legislation nationally prompted states to pass ambitious climate plans this year. New Mexico and Washington committed to decarbonizing their electricity supply. Maryland and Nevada passed bills to increase their supply of renewable energy to 50% by 2030. And Colorado completed an overhaul of its regulatory rules, giving state officials more power to green the economy.

But New York is unique among states for the scope of its ambition. To date, the majority of state climate action has been focused on the electricity sector. New York’s plans are economywide.

Still, the Empire State is like its peers in that it is looking to green its electricity supply as a first step toward wider decarbonization.

The law calls for generating 70% of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2030. That includes a 9-gigawatt mandate for offshore wind and 6 GW of distributed solar.

The state announced two offshore wind contracts for 1.7 GW of offshore wind last week. It now boasts 1.5 GW of nonutility solar capacity, according to data collected by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

“Every warehouse and big box store and building with a large, flat roof should have solar on it, and many single-family homes,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “There will need to be a greater combination of mandates and incentives.”

‘Time to cape up’

Significant upgrades to New York’s electric grid are also needed for the state to realize its carbon-cutting ambitions.

New transmission capacity will be necessary not only to accept large injections of offshore wind, but to connect large wind and solar projects in upstate New York to population centers in the south. Just as importantly, the state will need to overcome local opposition to renewable developments. Environmentalists and industry representatives alike say it is now too easy for local opposition to gum up a project.

Those challenges dovetail with the need for even more electricity. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates New York’s electricity demand could increase by as much as 71% in 2050 if widespread electrification of buildings and transportation takes hold.

New York City passed its own climate law in April aimed at curbing emissions from buildings, which are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the Big Apple. The legislation envisions converting heating and cooling systems that rely on natural gas and fuel oil to electricity (Greenwire, April 19).

But a pair of recent blackouts in the city show how much work needs to be done to upgrade the state’s electric grid to accommodate the new law, said Karl Rábago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. Ultimately, New York’s grid will need to be able to withstand more frequent heat waves and increased power demand associated with buildings, he said.

“It’s time to cape up,” Rábago said. “We need a superhero regulatory response because they are super challenging problems.”

Gavin Donohue, the CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York Inc., said the law’s backers have yet to consider practicalities. The state has not conducted a technical or economic analysis of converting its grid to renewables. He argues that should be order No. 1 for the new Climate Action Council.

New York will ultimately need a price on carbon to accommodate such a dramatic shift in electricity generation, Donohue said. The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) is already studying such a plan.

“In the short term, if you’re going to build these resources, in my opinion, the only way you can get there is pricing carbon in the marketplace. That is going to be, frankly, how you get to 70% by 2030,” said Donohue, who was appointed to the Climate Action Council by state Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R) last week. “The problem I see overall is nobody has investigated the implications of this law and what it means for everyday people paying their bills.”

He added, “We’re really good in New York at printing out press releases. We’re less than stellar on execution.”

Greens are also wary — for another set of reasons. New York made climate commitments before under former Gov. David Paterson (D) and Cuomo, only for them to end up gathering dust.

Environmental justice advocates are watching how the state allocates money to low- and moderate-income communities. An initial version of the legislation called for spending 40% of clean energy revenues on disadvantaged communities. Cuomo balked at that proposal. The final bill called for spending at least 35% on such communities, but it is more ambiguous on from where that money will come.

That may ultimately be a good thing for low-income communities, said Priya Mulgaonkar, resilience planner at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Where the original bill contemplated funding from only one source, money and initiatives could now come from a variety of state agencies and programs.

But that might also make the money less likely to be spent, in which case advocates are willing to press the state to follow through, she said.

“The reason we pushed so hard for this law is we want this to be a more enforceable goal,” Mulgaonkar said. “We want the opportunity to sue state agencies if they are not complying with the road map that the Climate Action Council will be setting.”

Transportation

Even more complicated questions loom on the horizon, especially surrounding transportation.

Transportation accounted for a third of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, far and away the most of any section of the economy. Earlier this year, the state passed a congestion pricing plan for vehicles entering New York City. The plan will reduce traffic and raise money for public transportation.

But other factors are outside the state’s control. The federal government sets emissions standards for vehicles; Trump has proposed rolling back the rules set under President Obama. And Trump might not even be the biggest impediment.

“It’s a cultural issue,” said Julie Tighe, the executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Power plants are used to being regulated. People are not.”

Education about the importance of electric vehicles and public transportation will be key, she said. In the meantime, Tighe said, environmentalists will push New York to rejoin plans to put in place a regional cap-and-trade program for vehicles in nine Northeastern states and the District of Columbia. New York joined the initial conversation surrounding the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) but was not among the member states that committed to formalizing a plan last year (Climatewire, Dec. 20, 2018).

Others argue that the state needs to step up its efforts, even as it awaits further instructions from the Climate Action Council.

One easy avenue: beefing up efficiency targets for state-owned buildings, such as those operated by the State University of New York, said Elizabeth Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“Anything that can be done today or tomorrow the state should be moving on,” she said. “Every day we wait to take action is another day that goes by that we’re contributing to the crisis. New York needs to stand up and be a model to the country and the world.”