State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

New York State Should Catch up to California’s Decarbonization Program

new york state capitol building
New York State Capitol building. Photo: Matt Wade via Wikimedia Commons

As the president attacks the media, Congress, immigrants and his own justice department, it is difficult to imagine we will see any positive environmental leadership coming from the federal government. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will at least ensure that we stop backsliding on environmental sustainability and may even manage to horse trade with the Senate to secure additional funding for green infrastructure and scientific research, and the Tea Party climate deniers will no longer chair committees in the House of Representatives. While it’s helpful that the House has flipped, the fundamental transition to America’s renewable resource-based economy will come from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. Here in New York State, the Democrats have gained control of every state-wide office along with the entire legislature. Issues such as voting modernization, transit funding, upstate economic development and downstate affordable housing will certainly reach the political agenda. I assume we will also continue the state’s push on environmental quality and promoting a modern, renewable energy-based power system.

New York State, along with California, has set ambitious goals for energy transformation. The Governor’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program details the state’s approach to decarbonization. REV’s 2030 Goals include a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. It mandates that 50% of electricity must come from renewable sources by then and requires a 600 trillion Btu increase in statewide energy efficiency. But California’s Jerry Brown recently left New York’s Andrew Cuomo in the decarbonized dust. California increased its goals to 60% renewable by 2030 and 100% carbon free by 2045. New York state should match California’s ambitious goals and more critically develop a funding and regulatory plan that can help us reach those goals. California is ahead of its greenhouse gas reduction targets and New York should do what it can to learn from California’s experience.

Writing about California’s new program this past September I observed that 100% decarbonization:

“…will require new technologies and represent a stretch goal for the state, but if accomplished will not only make California a climate leader, but a less polluted and more cost-effective leader of the world’s economy. Fossil fuel free energy will ultimately be less expensive than the current energy system, and electric vehicles will be less expensive to run and maintain than those powered by the internal combustion engine. This will help the state’s ability to compete in the global economy. Once the technology has arrived and the new vehicles have proven themselves, the tax system could be used to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. People could be rewarded for retiring the old vehicles and replacing them with new electric vehicles.”

Implementing REV and enhancing its goals involves a delicate dance between the governor, his “energy czar” Richard Kauffman, the Public Service Commission, environmentalists, and private utilities and their shareholders. Also included in this discussion are energy consumers, sometimes called the “ratepayers”, since the cost of REV implementation is passed on to consumers. But along with these initial costs, consumers ultimately enjoy the benefits of lower energy costs. While one state cannot mitigate climate change on its own, two large states might well make a measurable dent in the problem. More to the point, a modern, smart-grid managed renewable energy system may cost a great deal of money to set up, but in the long run will be cheaper to run. Fossil fuels will only become scarcer and more expensive as time goes on, while the sun will always remain free and plentiful.  If New York’s energy system includes microgrids and more distributed generation of electricity it will also be more reliable. The impact of intense storms can be localized and limited. This will make our economy less subject to costly disruption.

The decarbonization of our economy is necessary if we are to mitigate climate change, but it is also important to get off of fossil fuels to protect the planet’s ecosystems, along with the air, land and water required for human life. Extracting fossil fuels from the ground damages whatever is above it: oceans, forests, fields, and freshwater resources. Transporting fossil fuels damages the environment and burning it causes pollution that can impair human health. The process of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels is expensive. In a global economy, wealth comes to those that can produce with the most efficient cost structure. If New York and California ultimately have less expensive energy than places that burn fossil fuels, their cost of doing business will be lowered.

It is easy to understand the apprehension of utility and fossil fuel executives who have invested billions of dollars in the infrastructure needed to deliver fossil fuel-based energy. As the Koch brothers clearly understand, renewable energy poses an existential threat to their businesses and wealth. Despite the power of the fossil fuel industry, the technology of renewable energy is coming, and nothing they can do will stop it. It’s true that the fossil fuel interests are working very hard to ensure that the U.S. federal government slows down decarbonization, but they can’t stop it. Slowing renewables in America does not slow them in Europe or China. Similarly, the monopoly role of energy utilities in delivering energy to homes and businesses will be significantly disrupted by decentralized renewable energy technology as it develops and improves.

There are two models of response to technological disruption: 1) You can be destroyed by it as in the case of Kodak following its own invention of electronic photography; Kodak put their money into printing pictures and today most photos are never printed. 2) You can embrace disruption as AT&T did; that company evolved through regulatory break up into “Baby Bells”. They survived the displacement of telegraphs by land telephone lines, and the replacement of land lines by cell phones. The fossil fuel companies can use their knowhow to evolve into energy companies, or they can head toward oblivion. As for the utilities, the grid will be useful for the foreseeable future due to its economy of scale, convenience, and ability to deliver large amounts of energy on demand. But it must be capable of using and distributing renewable energy generated from a large number of locations. The one-way street it was built on must become a multi-lane, multi-directional super energy highway. The business and regulatory model of electric utilities will need to change as energy technology changes.

Modern life depends on automation and electric power, and therefore, we should expect our use of energy to increase. We will use more energy per capita, and more people will live in cities that rely on inexpensive, reliable energy. The planet is already showing signs of strain due to the use of fossil fuels. The need to decarbonize is urgent.

And that brings us to Albany, and the new political world that New York’s voters created last Tuesday. California has shown us what needs to be done. New York is a very different place. Our buildings and energy system are older, many of us live in multi-family dwellings, our weather is colder and upstate New York has been an economic disaster for decades.  Nevertheless, bold leadership and dramatic action is required to counter the backward facing energy and environmental policy we see in Washington. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature should step up and accelerate New York’s transition to a carbon-free economy.

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