A lesser-known provision in legislation that would put state government in the renewable-energy construction business would shutter state-run power plants that generate an essential share of electricity in New York City and on Long Island—including crucial peaker plants—with no functional plan to replace that power.
The Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) would require the New York Power Authority (NYPA), which among other things operates the large hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls and on the St. Lawrence River, to shut down all fossil fuel energy production and build or buy only renewable power as of 2030. BPRA passed the Senate last year, and its prospects look good in this year’s legislative session.
Backers say the BPRA is necessary to wean New York off fossil fuels faster, and build renewable power more quickly and affordably, than private power developers can. But the nature of what is being replaced, and what is replacing it, matters.
NYPA owns and operates a dozen natural gas and dual-fuel power plants, in and around New York City (and contracts for power with a 13th plant). Collectively they can produce almost 2,000 megawatts of power, and generate 6.1 terawatt hours of electricity per year—equal to nearly 12 percent of the city’s electricity demand.
Crucially, six of NYPA’s natural gas plants are “peaker plants,” the ones that keep the power on when demand is highest on the hottest summer days and in the bitter depths of winter. Their value is that they can be turned on as necessary when demand skyrockets, but wind and solar cannot. Even at equal power generation potential, wind and solar may not be available when most needed.
But currently, wind and solar don’t even come close to matching New York’s current energy production. For example, the South Fork Wind project, which is planned to go on-line this year with 12 turbines—ten years after first being awarded to the developer—will produce only 130 megawatts of power and just over half a terawatt-hour of electricity annually (generously assuming a capacity factor of 50 percent). That means that by 2030—a mere seven years from now—NYPA would have to build or buy power from the equivalent of at least 24 South Fork wind projects.
It may take even more projects—and time—if NYPA has to rely on solar, because of that source’s lower productivity. In June 2022, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority announced procurement of bids for 22 large scale solar projects, which collectively would generate up to 4.5 terawatt hours of renewable electricity—less than three-quarters of what NYPA would need. It would take 30 of these solar projects just to replace NYPA’s natural gas and dual-fuel generators.
NYPA has a goal of replacing peakers with dispatchable battery power, but this will take years and could turn out to be prohibitively expensive. Because batteries have limited duration, it could also leave New York without the power it needs to keep the lights on—especially in case of emergency.
To accurately consider these hurdles, NYPA should be allowed to pursue the option on a schedule determined by economics and technology developments, not by politics.
The current, politically motivated timeline for NYPA to build or buy only renewable power is simply too ambitious. And much of the lag can be ascribed to bureaucratic holdups.
Before being built, renewables projects must receive approval from the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which operates the state electric grid, to connect to the state’s underdeveloped electrical grid. This is a years-long process that could keep some projects from being completed until after the BPRA’s 2030 deadline.
Further, some projects that receive approval never get built. Once a project is approved, the developer must do a final assessment of its economics, and if conditions have changed—for example because of recent inflation—they may decide their company will lose money if they proceed with the project (as happened recently with a Massachusetts wind power project). This means one cannot simply count on NYPA being able to access what’s currently in the approval queue, as some projects will never come to fruition.
Even if we assume all these private projects do get built and manage to come on-line before 2030, they are not intended just for NYPA’s use but for private utility power purchases as well, meaning NYPA might have to get into a bidding war to access renewable power, undermining BPRA supporters’ goal of cheaper power.
Proponents have an answer for this, too: getting NYPA involved in building, as opposed to just buying, renewable power will help the state move more quickly toward its goal of 70 percent renewable power by 2030, as required by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. But there has been no shortage of private investment in renewable power—each time the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency has asked for bids for renewable energy projects, they have had a sufficient number of offers from private developers.
Crucially, NYPA officials themselves do not believe they can build renewable generation projects more quickly and cheaply than private developers. NYPA would, of course, be subject to the same lengthy NYISO approval process as private developers, does not have its own in-house staff to design such projects, and as a non-taxpaying entity can’t access state or federal tax credits like private firms can.
NYPA’s Acting President and Chief Executive Officer, Justin Driscoll, has argued that “the bill’s mandates . . . are simply unworkable,” and “preclude NYPA’s trustees from exercising appropriate independent judgement on issues critical to NYPA’s mission and financial health.”
Fortunately, the BPRA does include an escape clause for keeping NYPA’s fossil-fuel generation on-line. But this requires persuading the NYISO and the regional clean energy hub in which the fossil-fuel facility is located that doing so is necessary to ensure a reliable supply of electricity.
Because the NYISO has primary responsibility for electricity reliability, it would likely approve such a NYPA request. But it’s less certain whether the regional clean energy hub would go along. Overall, it’s unacceptably risky to make NYPA jump through hoops just to fulfill its most basic task—providing the power that keeps the lights, air conditioning, and electric heat on.