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A policy puzzle

June 8, 2016

There’s a network of renewable energy mavens at work across New York State, pouncing on each new official plan, hoping for wise energy policy and formulating thoughtful responses shared through the public comment process. Everyone sprang into action on April 19 when the New York State Public Service Commission issued “The Clean Energy Standard,” a staff white paper that outlines strategies for meeting renewable energy goals laid out in the New York State Energy Plan.

When the New York State Energy Plan was formalized in 2015, many of us were disappointed that it set such a modest goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. We hoped for a more ambitious timeline, like the 2012 energy policy paper “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight,” known as the Jacobson Plan in honor of lead author Mark Z. Jacobson, which outlined a strategy for meeting 100% of the state’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2030.

In addition to lackluster renewable energy goals, the New York State Energy Plan was widely criticized for its over-reliance on natural gas and its infuriating categorization of natural gas as a “clean” energy source, ignoring the impact of extreme extraction and the critical problem of fugitive emissions at every stage of shale gas development, mining, transportation and end use. In the intervening months, New York has misguidedly incentivized shale gas to an extent that far exceeds the concept of a “bridge fuel,” for a range of purposes from upgrading home heating systems to utility scale power plants, despite studies like Jacobson’s that demonstrated the economic feasibility of moving straight to renewables.

With the Clean Energy Standard white paper, the consternation deepens, centered now on a controversial bailout for the nuclear power industry. While the standard proposes that utilities be required to purchase a portion of the energy supply from renewable sources, it also requires that utilities purchase energy from three financially troubled nuclear plants in upstate New York, starting with 4.6% in 2017 and rising to 15.7% by 2020, with no cap on costs above market rates for electricity. This action would reverse a long-standing policy against subsidies for nuclear energy and is shaped to benefit these three nuclear plants exclusively. The Alliance for a Green Economy estimates it could cost ratepayers $3.5 billion over 13 years and make the nuclear industry the most heavily subsidized resource in New York State.