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October 22, 2014
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A big step backwards


New York State’s (NYS) new energy plan starts off with an overview, “Shaping the Future of Energy,” which expresses admirable aspirations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and move to renewable energy generation. The bad news comes in Volume II, which outlines the plan’s specifics in 618 pages of statistics and predictions.

Despite the glowing promises in the overview, and a list of the benefits of renewable including GHG reduction, job creation, reduced imports and price volatility of fossil fuels, improved health, lower peak demand and wholesale electricity prices, the plan presents very puny targets for solar and wind power. Citing a vaguely explained concept of “bounded technical potential” (BTP) and a mysterious reference to “physical, social and technological factors at play,” it concludes that no more than 18% of NY’s energy needs could be met by renewables by 2020, and no more than 37% by 2030. On GHG reduction, the plan cites its own research indicating a possible 43% reduction, but arbitrarily downgrades that target to 20% “achievable.”

The plan’s core recommendation is increased reliance on natural gas in every sector—from gas-powered electricity generating plans to expanding the natural gas delivery system for residential, commercial and industrial use, to incentivizing CNG (compressed natural gas) and LNG (liquid natural gas) vehicles, to pushing homeowners to convert to gas-fired boilers. It skirts the issue of where all this natural gas will come from and what the climate costs will be. It documents the decline in conventionally mined gas, cites the potential of the Marcellus Shale and anticipates the lifting of drilling restrictions in New York, but carefully avoids actually endorsing fracking. Similarly, the plan analyses the market forces pushing to export U.S. natural gas and promotes the creation of export infrastructure, without making the connection between exporting our natural gas and greater price volatility here at home.

Worst of all, the plan ignores the fact that methane leaks at every point in gas production, from drilling and processing to transport and end use. Methane is estimated to be 70 times more potent as a GHG than CO2 over a 20-year window—precisely the window climate scientists give us for reducing GHG significantly enough to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change. In fact, the plan seems unaware that natural gas is a fossil fuel, and frequently includes it in lists of “clean” renewable energy sources.

On natural gas, the plan is fundamentally regressive. According to Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, 10 of Europe’s largest utilities have decided to mothball or close more than 20 gigawatts of recently built, highly efficient combined-cycle gas turbine power plants because they are not recovering fixed costs. An energy plan that proposes to incentivize an exponential increase in the use of natural gas is not dealing responsibly with climate reality or market reality—leaving us to spend 21st-century dollars on 19th-century technology.

The deadline for public comment on the NYS Energy Plan is April 30. I urge you to read the plan and comment online at www.energyplan.ny.gov.