The Rift between NYPA’s Vision and New York’s Renewable Needs
By Ashley Dawson and Lindsay Griffin
In 2019, spurred by a mass movement of citizen, labor, and environmental groups, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA or Climate Act). This law requires that the State reach 70 percent renewable power by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. Last spring, our representatives took a major step to ensure we meet those goals– the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA). This empowers the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build out renewable infrastructure to ensure that NewYork keeps up with the pace of energy transition required by the Climate Act.
NYPA just released its first Renewable Energy Conferral Report, an important measure of the State’s progress towards the targets established by the Climate Act of 2019. The report is also intended to summarize various stakeholders’ assessments of this progress and to reflect on NYPA’s role in developing new renewable generation. The Conferral Report serves as a vital preview to NYPA’s biennial strategic plan, scheduled for release in January 2025 that will set the terms for NYPA’s significantly expanded mission to provide the swift energy transition mandated by the BPRA.
The Conferral Report suggests that Governor Kathy Hochul, and NYPA leaders like CEO Justin Driscoll, need to take the mandate for a rapid and just energy transition given to NYPA far more seriously.
In its assessment of Climate Act progress, the Conferral Report notes that “the contracted portfolio of renewable energy projects is in a persistent state of flux.” This admission of “flux” – although crisis might have been a better term – was no doubt prompted by the Public Service Commission rejecting requests for more public subsidies for wind projects in October. Striking an optimistic note in the face of this significant setback, the Conferral Report notes that the state plans to issue a new accelerated solicitation for renewable resources to “backfill” any contracted land-based or offshore projects whose contracts are terminated.
But can the public rely on this new round of solicitations to be any more successful than the ones thrown into crisis in October? The Conferral Report admits that “it is possible that the number of currently-contracted renewable contracts could decrease in the near future” and that “some level of attrition can be expected,” but remains remarkably optimistic about NYSERDA’s new round of procurements, arguing that “updated competitive pricing” will keep New York on track to meet the Climate Act goals.
This optimism lacks a realistic view of how well renewable projects are progressing in the state. The Conferral Report’s claim that New York “has enough operating, contracted, and under-development renewable energy projects to supply 79% of the State’s 2030 electricity needs with renewable energy” cites nothing more than a press release issued by Governor Hochul’s office as evidence. It’s worth recalling that the mentioned press release was issued just two weeks after several contracted projects, covering 25% of the state’s expected electricity demand in 2030, faced uncertainty. A significant portion of the projects alluded to are, in other words, not yet even contracted. Will these “under-development” projects really be completed?
The Mind the Gap report, commissioned by the Public Power NY coalition, confirms these worrying conclusions about completion rates for contracted projects. Using detailed analysis of data for NYS’s current rate of renewables deployment, analysts concluded that, under a business-as-usual scenario, NYS will only reach 45 percent renewable energy by 2030 (a gap of 41,441 gigawatt hours). Even under the most optimistic scenario – with low growth in energy demand and high success of interconnection – there will be a gap of over 14,000 GWh, leaving the state at only 61 percent renewables.
In contrast to the Conferral Report, the Mind the Gap report uses solid data to show that Governor Hochul and NYPA’s current strategy isn’t effective. The reliance on for-profit corporations to address climate challenges is clearly falling short.
This should not be surprising. Big multinational companies like BP, Orsted, and Equinor, key players in the troubled offshore wind contracts, are focused on maximizing profits. They’ll easily abandon contracts if current market conditions don’t promise significant earnings. These major players are grappling with economic challenges too — Orsted shares hit a record low after the company abandoned some US projects. They won’t commit to new projects in our state without a guarantee of substantial returns.
Given the urgency of decarbonization, we need an alternative approach. As the Mind the Gap report concludes, to ensure that New York State reaches its renewable energy goals, “public sector entities [such as NYPA] must play a more proactive role in RE deployment beyond market development and support for private sector project development.” As a nonprofit authority accountable to the people of New York State, NYPA can deploy projects at cost to serve the state’s needs and prioritize community benefits.
FDR established NYPA in 1932 with the belief that the government should develop state or federally owned power sites. It is high time that the current leadership of NYPA and Governor Hochul embrace the legacy and mission of NYPA to provide public power at a time of great urgency. We need public power adequate to the scale of the climate crisis, and we need it now.
Ashley Dawson is a professor at the City University of New York and author of People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (2020). Lindsay Griffin is Regulatory Director for the Northeast with Vote Solar. Both are members of Public Power NY.