Energy & Environment

Achieving New York’s climate goals will be massively challenging

From retrofitting buildings to finding land for renewable energy projects, the state is in for a few decades of really hard work.

Windmills on Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY.

Windmills on Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY. eyerazor/Shutterstock

In 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which committed New York state to one of the most ambitious environmental goals in the world: an 85% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The law established interim goals of reducing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, while mandating that 100% of the electricity generated in the state come from clean energy sources by 2040.

Along with making a complete transition to renewable energy in the power sector, meeting the state’s benchmarks will likely require buildings that rely on gas for heating and hot water to be retrofitted as well as major upgrades to the electrical grid. Alone, any of these measures to decarbonize the built environment would be difficult, but to synchronize them all on an expedited timeline will require a collaborative – and monumental – effort.

The state Climate Action Council has begun developing a plan of attack. Advisory panels and working groups have presented recommendations to the council, which has until the end of the year to draft a scoping plan. The final scoping plan is due by January 1, 2023, following a year of public comments.

Under the 2019 law, the electric power industry, which is responsible for around 17% of the state’s emissions, must develop six gigawatts of distributed solar energy by 2025, three gigawatts of energy storage by 2030 and nine gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035. And while the state has announced a number of clean energy initiatives in recent years, these projects are being financed and built at a slower pace than some advocates would like.

“The problem is the state of New York says we are making all these leaps and bounds and progress and, yes, we are really good at issuing (requests for proposals) lately, and issuing awards, but we need to permit and build these facilities – and that is not happening at the pace that anybody would like to see,” said Gavin Donohue, the president and CEO of Independent Power Producers of New York, a trade association representing electric generation companies.

A spokesperson for the governor said that the state had “moved to dramatically speed up siting and permitting of large-scale renewable energy projects” with the passage of the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, which created the Office of Renewable Energy Siting and a program to advance large-scale renewable energy development on underutilized sites.

“If you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and make all the gas-powered affordable housing switch over to electricity, there is not enough electricity at peak time to power all of that demand.” – Jolie Milstein, president and CEO of New York State Association for Affordable Housing

Donohue said it has been a challenge to site renewable power projects, which often face opposition from local governments, and he added the state’s newly created Office of Renewable Energy Siting remains understaffed. The Independent Power Producers of New York is also pushing carbon pricing as a mechanism to spur investment in renewable energy, which Donohue said would be “less painful for ratepayers,” as well as a more “transparent” process.
“It is much more attractive to the industry because it actually has market dictating outcomes, versus government and Gov. Cuomo determining whether he likes you or doesn’t like you, and whether you survive or not,” Donohue said.

The governor’s spokesperson said that the Clean Energy Standard, which currently provides the state with mechanisms for facilitating the transition to green power, had a “demonstrated track record of providing the most cost-effective means of advancing renewable energy.”

The governor’s spokesperson added that the state would need assurance about the superior effectiveness of carbon-pricing before it would adopt the New York Independent System Operator’s proposal. “The NYISO’s own analysis shows that the scheme does not meet that test – in large part because the state’s existing Clean Energy Standard is demonstrated to be both successful at attracting the needed amount of resources to the state as well as to do so at reducing cost levels.”

Incorporating energy from renewable resources into the power grid presents technical challenges, industry experts said. Because the intermittent nature of wind and solar power requires storage technology that is still being developed, maintaining some fossil fuel infrastructure may be needed to safeguard the reliability of the grid.

“I am optimistic that we can meet these targets, but the policy has to match the urgency of the situation.” – Conor Bambrick, director of climate policy at Environmental Advocates NY

According to Kevin Lanahan, the vice president of external affairs and corporate communications at the New York Independent System Operator, a nonprofit corporation that operates the state’s bulk electrical grid, the goal of getting 70% of electricity from renewable resources by 2030 is attainable based on current technologies. The greater challenge, he told City & State, would be achieving the 2040 goal of 100% of electricity coming from clean energy while “keeping the system as reliable as we know it is today.”

“We did see what can be the unfortunate repercussions in Texas and California when reliability is sacrificed,” Lanahan said, referring to power outages that have occurred in those states in the past year.

Constraints in the state’s antiquated transmission system have presented another hurdle to overcome. Most of New York’s renewable energy resources are currently clustered upstate. Bringing more wind and solar online will necessitate an investment in transmission lines to deliver power to major population centers like New York City.

Right now 70% of New York City’s grid is powered by fossil fuels, and its buildings account for around 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. And as the electric generation industry weans itself off fossil fuels, the commercial and residential sectors would likely follow suit. Buildings could be retrofitted to remove boilers, stoves and other appliances that run on natural gas. According to a proposal from a working group, 200,000 residences need to transition away from on-site fossil fuel space heating and hot water systems annually by 2030. Bans on the sale and installation of fossil fuel hot water appliances starting in 2030, fossil fuel space heating appliances starting in 2035 and gas-fired appliances starting in 2040 have also been under consideration.

But there is an even greater challenge than replacing appliances that run on fossil fuels: delivering electricity to the systems that replace them. The wattage and wiring of many buildings may need to be upgraded. The prospect of carrying out expensive retrofits has raised a number of concerns among property owners, especially in rent-stabilized buildings.

“All we have heard is about the fines that are going to be levied against owners who don’t comply,” said Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Project, a trade association representing owners of more than 400,000 rent-stabilized properties in New York City. “We have heard nothing about either the tax incentives or financial incentives that are going to help property owners get to a point where they can comply.”

Right now 70% of New York City’s grid is powered by fossil fuels, and its buildings account for around 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to the cost, which Martin said could be between $1 million and $2 million per property, installing new electrical wiring in buildings could cause serious disruptions to tenants.

“You do have to displace residents, and it’s a real issue,” said Jolie Milstein, the president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing.
The concern of the real estate sector, therefore, is that it could undertake costly and disruptive retrofits only to find that the grid is unable to handle the resulting spike in electrical demand. “If you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and make all the gas-powered … affordable housing switch over to electricity, my understanding is there is not enough electricity at peak time to power all of that demand,” Milstein said.

A potential solution could be for buildings to keep their fossil fuel systems operational for a transitional period as they upgrade their electrical wiring to receive the increased amperage that an overhauled grid would deliver. And the dialed-up demand on the electrical grid would also be coming from the electrification of vehicles, which would presumably be proceeding on a similar timeline.

“There is no question that the increased load – the increased demand and need for power – will require more investment in the electrical grid,” said Allan Drury, a spokesperson for Con Edison, the utility company that provides electrical and gas service to New York City and Westchester County.

Achieving New York’s ambitious emission-reduction goals will require a successful concerted and coordinated government-led effort. That President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to invest in clean energy and the electrical grid has environmentalists more hopeful than they were under the previous administration. It will still be up to the state, though, to lead the way.

“I am optimistic that we can meet these targets, but the policy has to match the urgency of the situation,” said Conor Bambrick, the director of climate policy at Environmental Advocates NY. “The state really needs to step up and fund the implementation of the climate law, and we haven’t seen that happen as of yet.”