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Governor Cuomo's Energy Plan Inadequate to the Challenge of Climate Change

The Sierra Club, one of the oldest environmental organizations in the United States, has engaged in many fights and dialogues over the years to protect the environment and public health. But nothing seems more important than the challenge of aggressively addressing climate change and promoting renewable energy—wind, solar, water, and geothermal. The health of the planet and all forms of life is endangered. This position means that we work to eliminate all fossil fuels and nuclear energy production; it means that we advocate to replace our electricity, heating, and transportation energy needs with renewables.

Why? Well, here’s the story. A few hundred years ago we discovered that we could greatly increase power to do things and make things by the use of fossil fuels—coal and gas and oil. As an inventive species, we found so many uses for this powerful substance and so many uses for its products that our lives and bodies are literally infused with these elements. Author Bill McKibben figures that each citizen in the US has the equivalent of 300 years of labor at their disposal each year because of this amazing substance.

But how could we have forgotten to ask what were the implications of digging up ancient flowers and animals, burning them, and putting the gases into the air? We know now that we have literally changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and induced global warming with excessive CO2, methane, and other greenhouses gases. And it’s not pretty—droughts, fires, floods, extreme storms, unprecedented extinctions, food insecurity, extreme heat and cold, and on and on. We may not have seen it coming, but we can do something about it.

In New York and across the globe, we can transition off fossil fuels and nuclear right now. I mean now—in the next 10 or 20 years. The International Panel on Climate Change gives us little time to make this transition if we want to maintain a viable food system and economy. The 2050 goals set a decade ago we now realize are too late.

So we at the Sierra Club and many concerned citizens were excited that Governor Cuomo was releasing a NYS Energy Plan. There are some good things about the plan, and indeed the data in volume two is great for any wonks in the crowd.

Unfortunately, as a plan for the great state of New York, it is woefully inadequate.

• The plan does not put nearly enough emphasis on renewable energy. The plan does not include known effective strategies for public and private investment such as the mandated renewables portfolio standard, or RPS, where utilities are required to buy a percentage of renewables. Another effective policy that is not considered is the feed-in tariff, or FIT— a market-based strategy that provides a power purchase agreement to energy producers on a long-term basis. We know this policy works on Long Island, and we know it works because it is the most effective policy in more than 90 jurisdictions worldwide to produce renewables and jobs. Ontario has produced 30,000 jobs in renewables since 2009 using a FIT.

• The governor’s NY Sun Initiative is a good start but timid compared to other states. In Minnesota, an administrative law judge has ruled that distributed solar arrays were more cost-effective than natural gas in meeting the utilities’ peak power needs. Solar also has more price predictability, is more reliable, is better at using existing infrastructure, and much better economically, because every megawatt of solar power generates up to eight times more jobs than gas.

• And wind? The plan almost totally ignores wind as one of the cornerstones of a renewable energy policy. Wind is a great resource here in Western New York. New York State gets less than four percent of its energy from wind, while South Dakota and Iowa produce more than 20 percent of their energy from wind. Wind is a great way to invest in our manufacturing sector, create jobs, and keep our energy costs down.

A recent study by PJM and the Energy Markets found that it was regional wind energy that kept prices down during the polar vortex cold we’ve had this year by reliably producing energy at a low cost. Renewable energy like wind has price predictability. We know what the price of wind-based electricity will be for the next 25 years: the cost to buy/install these systems and the associated price of money used to finance these systems. Remember, the fuel is free. We have no way of knowing what the price of oil or methane will be in five, 10, or 20 years—except we know it will rise. We want predictability, reliability, jobs, and clean air and water.

• The plan does not nearly emphasize conservation and efficiency enough. The cheapest, cleanest, and safest energy is the energy that we do not use. It has been estimated that we can meet over 40 percnt of our energy needs through conservation. This should be a priority, with clear targets identified. Let’s not keep producing energy for leaky buildings—let’s fix them.

• And most egregious, the governor’s plan actually involves the expansion of the use of natural gas, a.k.a. methane. It proposes increasing gas infrastructure that wastes tax dollars on an outmoded technology and deadly fuel; it requires dangerous fracked methane that destroys land and water; and it subjects people to volatile fuel costs as we just experienced. The RPS target for 2030 of 50 percent does not even include methane as a reduced greenhouse gas. Methane is over 70 percent more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years, the most important years for eliminating greenhouse gases.

Renewables are doable. We don’t need a bridge fuel like methane, which is a bridge to a warming planet and continued harm to the earth and the health of people. What we need are clear goals—conservation, mitigation, and adaptation—goals, targets, and timetables. The rest will follow. The Sierra Club is asking the governor to make a serious commitment to wind by doubling on-shore wind by 2018 and beginning a Long Island offshore wind project this year.

It really isn’t hard. In New York we still have a great economy, really smart people, and an engaged citizenry. What we don’t have is a clear goal of stopping the use of dirty fossil fuels and nuclear, and moving to renewables. I am reminded of the World War II war effort when President Franklin D. Roosevelt went to the auto industry and said within one year, you’re not making car, but contributing to the war effort. The entire industry was totally transformed and the economy boomed. That’s the kind of transition we need. That’s the kind of leadership we need on climate change, Governor Cuomo.

It is really a matter of climate justice that includes, but is not limited by, affordability for the current generation as outlined in the plan.

What story will the people in 2050 tell about us? Will they wonder why we knowingly did nothing to stop the devastating impacts of climate change and willingly denied them life, liberty, and health?

Or will they tell the story about how, when our generation understood the danger of climate change, we faced the challenge with courage, intelligence, and determination, and left them an Earth and life as sweet as the ones we inherited?

- Lynda Schneekloth, Chair, Sierra Club Niagara Group

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