The Climate Action Council’s approval Monday of a Scoping Plan for implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) doesn’t solve — or even address — the state’s looming problem with energy reliability. 

The CLCPA requires the state to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and achieve 100 percent emissions-free electricity production by 2040. Currently the state gets about 30 percent of its electricity from renewables, and just over half from emissions-free sources (mostly hydropower and nuclear). 

So even if electricity demand remained steady, New York would need to more than double its renewable electricity generation capacity in just eight years. 

But the reality is worse. Because the state will be mandating zero-emission vehicles – mostly electric cars – after 2035, and because the Scoping Plan calls for dramatic growth in the electrification of space heating after 2030, electricity demand is expected to almost triple. The Plan itself notes the need for “a three-fold increase in generating capacity between now and 2040.”

Currently the state has generation capacity of 37 gigawatts, but by 2040 it will need between 111 and 124 gigawatts of capacity. And because some of the current generating capacity will be lost as natural gas plants are shut down, at least 95 gigawatts of new generation capacity must be developed in just 18 years to manage the increase in demand. For perspective, less than 13 gigawatts have been brought on-line in the last two decades, and there has been a net loss of more than two gigawatts in the last five years.

In short, New York is currently moving backwards, but needs to move forward at a pace it’s never attained. 

And most of that new power must be from renewable sources. A full 70 percent of 111-124 gigawatts means 78-87 gigawatts of renewable energy – more than twice the state’s current total production including fossil fuel sources. At present New York gets about 11 gigawatts from hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass. This leaves it needing another 67-86 gigawatts of renewables, almost all of which will have to come from wind and solar. 

Even if that much capacity can be built in 18 years – which is highly improbable – there will still be a severe mismatch between demand and supply, in large part because wind and solar are not reliable sources of energy. 

So, following the lead of the New York Independent System Operator – which has carefully analyzed the needs and risks in New York’s energy future – the Council calls for approximately ten percent of New York’s total electricity needs over the course of a year to be met with so-called DEFRs, dispatchable emissions-free resources, which must be capable of producing between 27 and 45 gigawatts of power at any time they’re called upon.

Currently these DEFRs are mythical creatures. No source of energy production or storage is available that meets the requirements.

The best solution might be nuclear power, as it emits no greenhouse gases, is the most reliable source of power available today, and, while not ideal for the task, can be designed to load follow. In fact with sufficient nuclear power we could dispense with solar and wind altogether and ensure a much more reliable grid. However traditional nuclear plants are exorbitantly expensive to build and next-generation power plants are just now being experimented with, and probably won’t begin to be widely used before 2040. Additionally, there is regrettably intense opposition to nuclear power among some climate activists.

The ideal for many CLCPA supporters would be battery backup. But batteries are destined to play only a small role for many years to come, for three reasons: price/production; capacity; and recharging. 

First, batteries are exorbitantly expensive and manufacturing levels are too low to produce as many as the world will be demanding. Price and production levels will improve over time, but geopolitical and environmental conflicts over the mining and processing of the raw materials of batteries make that timeline wildly unpredictable.

Second, the Scoping Plan recognizes that because of the high variability of wind and solar, a “zero-emission electricity system will require substantial amounts of energy storage operating over various time scales – spanning from minutes to hours, days, weeks, and even longer. . .” But multi-week battery capacity is currently a science fiction concept. The only way to achieve it now is to have a huge number of extra batteries, discharged in succession, which simply returns us to the problems of cost and production levels.

Third, discharged batteries must be recharged. This means that we need extra electricity production – above and beyond what’s necessary to keep the power on in homes, businesses, schools and elsewhere – in order to top off the batteries after they’re used. This means building yet more generating capacity to meet that extra demand.

The only other options that seem to be on the table are renewable natural gas (RNG) and hydrogen. These can be produced and stored until they are needed to fill gaps in wind and solar energy production.

But while RNG is carbon neutral, it’s not carbon-free. It’s made from waste that would emit CO2 even if not turned into RNG. This means it doesn’t fit the letter of the law. That’s why its potential use has already ignited organized political opposition. And at any rate, as energetically useful as RNG is, there are likely to be substantial limitations to how much can be produced.

That leaves hydrogen, which can be produced cleanly from water using clean renewable energy or nuclear energy. When burned, it produces only water as a byproduct. But currently hydrogen is too expensive to produce at the necessary scale.  Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator Chuck Schumer are making a laudable effort to win one of President Biden’s regional clean hydrogen research hubs, but at this time, nobody knows if we can make hydrogen production economical by 2040. We know we can make it, but nobody knows at what cost.

In short, no cost-effective DEFRs currently exist, and so the actual cost of compliance with the CLCPA remains a mystery, as does the degree to which it will spike the energy bills of businesses and homeowners.

Because reliable gas-fired power plants are scheduled to be shut down to comply both with the CLCPA and the state’s Peaker Plant rule, the state looks set to be at the mercy of the unreliability of wind and solar. In short, as Council member Gavin Donohue wrote in his dissenting statement, “Reliability is inadequately addressed, putting New York at risk for economy crushing blackouts and potential public safety risks.”

This was by design. Councilmember Paul Shepson – an atmospheric chemist, not an economist or energy expert – emphasized that the purpose of the CLCPA is to “aggressively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” adding, “it wasn’t written with reliability of energy delivery in mind,” and it is “not good” for the Scoping Plan to “overstress the need for reliability.”

Clearly, a Council majority agreed with him that energy reliability is secondary to further reducing New York’s already minuscule share of greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps they’re unaware that up to 700 people died from a single power outage in Texas just two years ago. Perhaps they don’t know that almost half of the world’s population lives in poverty because they still don’t have access to reliable electricity.

The one way – absent a miraculous technological breakthrough – that New York can keep the power on during future electricity shortfalls is by importing electricity from out of state. Because neighboring states mostly have dirtier energy, this will create “leakage,” whereby the state’s energy use creates greenhouse gas emissions, even though they’re not produced in-state.

The sad part is that the tradeoff isn’t even necessary. It’s a consequence of the CLCPA being based on what sounded good politically rather than on what is economically and technically reasonable.

What the state should be looking for is steady and affordable improvements in greenhouse gas reductions, such as it achieved when natural gas plants replaced coal-fired power plants. What we don’t need is what the Legislature birthed in the CLCPA: arbitrary goals set to an arbitrary timeline.

Unfortunately, the Scoping Plan clarifies that full implementation of the law will not only force New Yorkers to shoulder a massive cost burden, but it will further jeopardize the reliability of the energy supply on which they and the state’s prosperity have long depended.

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