This story first appeared in New York Focus, a nonprofit newsroom investigating how power works in New York state. Sign up for their newsletter here.
ALBANY, N.Y.—When New York passed its climate law four years ago, it declared wind, solar, and battery storage to be the energy sources of the future. The law not only required the state to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, but set precise benchmarks for technologies like offshore wind.
That riled power companies, who have long argued that picking technologies in advance will stifle innovation needed for the energy transition. There was still an opening for them to make their case. New York’s climate law requires the state to produce 100 percent of its energy from “zero emissions” sources by 2040, but what exactly that means is still up for debate.
Power plant operators’ lead trade group, the Independent Power Producers of New York (IPPNY), have spent years pushing the state to focus on that more distant goal. The group’s president, Gavin Donohue, pressed the legislature, the Public Service Commission, and the Climate Action Council to back a new subsidy for technologies that will close the gap in New York’s energy supply when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Those could include hydrogen; nuclear; alternative fuels like waste products from agriculture; or carbon capture and storage, which could allow plants to keep burning fossil fuels as long as they keep emissions out of the air.
Donohue wasn’t alone in this effort. Along the way he won support from the afl-cio, the leading voice of organized labor in the state.
But environmentalists pushed back, arguing that the effort was a ploy to keep polluting plants open with the help of expensive technologies that have yet to be proven commercially. For much of the last two years, they’ve maintained the upper hand: the IPPNY-backed bill died in committee last session, and the state’s climate plan de-emphasized the kinds of alternative fuels the power industry says will be needed.
Now, state regulators are signaling that the issue deserves a fresh look. On Thursday, the Public Service Commission ordered the state to begin studying which new technologies — beyond renewables — it will need to meet its climate targets.
Announcing the decision at a Public Service Commission meeting on Thursday, chair Rory Christian called it an important step.
“If we’re successful, this will give us the tools to address many of the emerging issues that we’re seeing, and help us hit our various reliability needs and long-term goals,” Christian said.
State officials have stressed that the effort is intended to complement, not supplant, the central role of renewables. New York is already planning a massive buildout of wind, solar, and transmission lines: To meet the climate law’s requirements, it will need to build 100 times as much large-scale solar in the next five years as it did in the last ten, for example.
Yet even that explosion of renewables won’t be enough to ensure reliable energy while phasing out fossil fuels, studies by the state energy authority NYSERDA and the New York Independent System Operator have found. New York will also need to build new clean energy systems that don’t rely on the weather, and can be turned on at a moment’s notice.
The state’s climate plan asks the PSC, along with NYSERDA, to draw up the final criteria for those “firm” or “dispatchable” resources, and that’s what it started doing on Thursday. Like many regulatory decisions, the order published on Thursday is only the start of a lengthy process. It kicks off a two-month public comment period, which will be followed by a technical conference — likely in the fall — to decide what kinds of technologies qualify as “zero emissions” under state law.
Donohue, the head of the power plant lobby, said the move was a long time coming.
“The fact that the commission has finally said, ‘We need these technologies,’ and the fact that they did not limit technologies in this order, is a positive thing,” Donohue said. Still, he called it “incremental progress,” coming nearly two years after IPPNY petitioned the state to take the issue on.
The PSC’s order, which responds explicitly to IPPNY’s petition, meets the group halfway. It stops short of creating a state-backed market for the technologies that ultimately meet the criteria, as IPPNY has sought. The state currently has such markets for wind, solar, and other renewables: Through a mechanism known as the Clean Energy Standard, the state signs contracts for qualifying renewable energy projects, guaranteeing a buyer for the power they generate. The cost of underwriting those contracts trickles down to New Yorkers through their utility bills.
No such guarantees exist for technologies like hydrogen, making them a riskier bet to develop. That isn’t changing for now. But IPPNY hopes the PSC decision will pave the way toward such a subsidy before long.
The effort’s most vocal backer among state regulators is Commissioner Diane Burman, who was appointed by then–Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013 and is PSC’s longest-serving member.
“We need all the tools in the toolkit to help us achieve our clean energy goals,” she said on Thursday, echoing longstanding talking points from the power industry. “To do that, we need to not be so focused on picking winners and losers, in that we are actually going to chill the opportunities that may be there.”
A week earlier, Burman spoke at IPPNY’s annual conference, where Donohue called her a “good friend.” The conference dedicated a 90-minute session to the issue of dispatchable resources, featuring a program manager at NYSERDA, a chemical engineer, an executive at a fuel cell company, and a pipefitters’ union leader.
“We don’t have to displace middle-class union jobs to achieve our goals,” said John Murphy, the pipe trades union representative. “Intermittent renewables can’t do it alone.”
Speaking to New York Focus on Thursday, Donohue said the PSC’s expected decision on IPPNY’s petition shaped the conference lineup.
“I didn’t do this in the dark,” he said, adding that the PSC’s decision was a sign of regulators warming up to IPPNY’s agenda.
ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS WARY
Environmentalists, who came out in uniform opposition last year to IPPNY’s push, remain wary. Environmental justice advocates in particular have condemned biofuels and hydrogen as “false solutions” that would roll back hard-fought commitments in the state’s climate law.
“If the intention is to have an honest discussion about what actually is zero emissions, and what’s industry hype and… gaslighting, then that’s one thing,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. “However, a lot of us are skeptical and worried because of actions that we’ve seen of late by the Hochul administration themselves, looking to potentially undermine the climate law.”
Bautista pointed to the sudden proposal from Hochul’s office in late March, just days before the state’s budget deadline, to overhaul how New York counts carbon emissions. The shift could have allowed polluters to continue burning gas and other fuels for longer, and could have opened the door to more fuels derived from biological sources like wood, or methane gas captured from farms or landfills. Hochul dropped the proposal from budget talks following an uproar from climate groups, but officials have said they intend to revisit it.
The plan adopted by the state’s Climate Action Council in December rejected most uses of alternative fuels, to the relief of environmental justice advocates — and the dismay of the three industry-aligned members, including Donohue, who voted against. Now, Bautista is nervous that Hochul might be wavering on the council’s recommendations.
“It’s hard not to see signs of the Hochul administration not fully embracing the plan,” he said.
Raya Salter, an environmental justice advocate and lawyer who sat on the Climate Action Council, was not surprised to see the state moving forward with IPPNY’s petition. She said it was up to climate groups to “hold the line” against any move that would “increase costs to New Yorkers and put disadvantaged communities at risk.”
“We set the bar high in New York, in terms of what any technology that will be used in our state will do in terms of affordability, health, cost, etc.,” she said. “Through the fog, we’re talking about emerging technologies that are unproven and really have a long way to go before clearing any bar.”
The PSC’s order acknowledges some uncertainties around new nuclear, biofuels, and hydrogen, but it doesn’t rule any technologies out. Aside from possible pollution, critics worry that many of these technologies remain prohibitively expensive — though new federal funding, mostly from the Inflation Reduction Act, could change the economics.
Officials say some state investment is necessary to bring emerging, zero-emissions resources to market, just like the technologies that came before them.
“All of our energy infrastructure, at some point, was built with public injection of funds,” said NYSERDA operations manager Richard Bourgeois at the IPPNY conference.
The state will need at least 17 gigawatts’ worth of these clean, “firm,” systems by 2040, NYSERDA estimates — about two-thirds the capacity of all the fossil fuel plants that serve New York today.
Those dispatchable systems will run very rarely, generating only about 1 percent of the power New Yorkers actually end up using, according to a recent presentation by Vlad Gutman-Britten, assistant director of policy and markets at NYSERDA.
Bautista says that limited role means there’s no need for the state to rush into supporting these technologies, particularly given advances in battery storage. “Their solution is always shooting an elephant gun to kill a fly,” he said. “They can’t say in 10 years where battery technology is going to be.”
Gutman-Britten sees things differently.
“That resource is really going to carry New York through some of the most difficult weeks of every year, when renewables are not generating at the times when demand is highest,” he said.