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Upstate Power Play

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Upstate Power Play

Governor Cuomo’s renewable-energy push gets dirty. July 28, 2016
Infrastructure and energy
New York

New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s renewable-energy ambitions are running headlong into the hard realities of maintaining a reliable electric grid. On July 8, the New York Independent System Operator, the agency charged with managing the state’s grid, provided comments on the governor’s plan to require utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030. The NYISO maintains that to keep the lights on, the state will have to spend heavily on new transmission infrastructure to accommodate more renewables, preserve all of its nuclear capacity (including the controversial Indian Point Energy Center), and build even more onshore wind-energy capacity in upstate communities. Five days after the NYISO filed its comments, Cuomo’s energy czar, Richard Kauffman, fired off an angry—and rather bizarre—letter to Brad Jones, the NYISO president and CEO. Calling the grid operator’s comments “misleading, incomplete, and grossly inaccurate,” Kauffman claimed that the NYISO showed “an alarming lack” of understanding of “how a modern grid can be developed and operated.”   

Kauffman apparently wanted a political response from the NYISO. Instead, he got a technical one. Indeed, the NYISO’s comments are straightforward. The grid operator pointed out that about 90 percent of the new renewable-energy generation needed to meet Cuomo’s targets will be located in upstate New York. Given the distance between those upstate generation sources and the main population centers located in the southern and eastern parts of the state, the NYISO concluded that “nearly 1,000 miles of new bulk power transmission” will have to be built over the next decade and a half. This likely upset Kauffman because high-voltage transmission lines are costly and difficult to site. Indeed, rural residents across the country have waged lengthy battles to stop construction of transmission lines through their neighborhoods. It’s readily apparent that rural New Yorkers will resist such plans as well.

The NYISO also made it clear that Cuomo will have to change his tune on nuclear energy. “Retaining all existing nuclear generators is critical to the State’s carbon emission reduction requirements as well as maintaining electric system reliability,” the agency wrote. For years, Cuomo has pushed for the closure of Indian Point, though the twin-reactor, 2,069-megawatt facility provides up to one quarter of New York City’s electricity. Now the governor appears to have gotten the message. About ten days after the NYISO published its comments, the Cuomo administration said that it would be willing to include nuclear energy as part of the state’s Clean Energy Standard. That’s important, because late last year, Entergy Corporation announced that it planned to close its 838-megawatt FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego by early 2017.

On Monday, the New York Public Service Commission will vote on a proposal that will provide about $1 billion per year in subsidies to the state’s nuclear plants to keep them operating. While giving subsidies to big utilities is hardly an ideal outcome, the move recognizes the difficulty that utilities are having in keeping their reactors in operation—especially when they have to compete against highly subsidized sources like wind and solar.

The NYISO also provided some remarkable numbers on the amount of renewable-energy capacity that will be needed to meet Cuomo’s 50 percent goal. It projected that the state will need nearly to triple its installed wind-energy capacity. That means that New York, which now has  about 1,750 megawatts of wind-generation capacity, will have to add another 3,500 megawatts of onshore wind. That will require covering roughly 450 square miles of land with wind turbines—a territory nearly as large as Albany County, which covers 523 square miles. Where will New York put those thousands of new wind turbines? Upstate, of course.

But an increasing number of upstate communities are already battling against the encroachment of Big Wind. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Jefferson County voted against giving tax breaks for wind and solar projects because the projects don’t create enough benefits for local communities. In April, the town of Clayton imposed a six-month moratorium (later upheld by the state supreme court) on applications for new wind-energy projects. Last July, the Town Board of Catlin passed a law prohibiting wind projects after Florida-based NextEra Energy proposed a $200 million project in the town. In 2014, after a decade-long fight, oil-and-gas giant BP announced that it was abandoning plans to build a 200-megawatt wind project near Cape Vincent amid fierce opposition from local residents. In 2007, the western Catskills town of Bovina also banned wind projects.

Three upstate counties—Erie, Orleans, and Niagara—as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset are all fighting a proposed 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind. A few months ago, I interviewed Yates supervisor James J. Simon, who told me that the fight against Lighthouse Wind is “about trying to preserve our rural agricultural landscape.” An associate dean at Genesee Community College, Simon wasn’t active in politics until now. The attitude of the pro-wind forces, he says, is “you all are small potatoes and we are going to cram this down your throat.”

According to the NYISO, along with pushing thousands of new wind turbines on upstate residents, the state will also need to add nearly 10 gigawatts of new solar capacity over the next 14 years. That’s roughly equal to all the combined solar capacity of Spain and Australia. And the NYISO expects that the majority of that new solar capacity (6.8 gigawatts) will have to be utility-scale solar—meaning huge swaths of land covered in nothing but PV panels. Where will these massive solar arrays be located? Yep—upstate.

Maybe it was the publication of these eye-popping numbers that angered Cuomo’s energy czar. In his letter to Jones, Kauffman claimed that the NYISO is “held captive” by the state’s electric utilities and that it lacks “understanding into the imperative to address climate change.” To hear the Cuomo administration tell it, the NYISO—an independent nonprofit whose principal job is assuring electrical reliability for 19 million New Yorkers—is both incompetent and corrupt. Kauffman’s letter—combined with the looming fight over hundreds of miles of high-voltage transmission lines and thousands of new wind turbines—shows that Cuomo’s renewable-energy plans are headed for some nasty political fights.

Photo by inakiantonana/iStock

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