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Debate underway in New York over feasibility of Cuomo's Green New Deal

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It remains unclear what version of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Green New Deal, if any, the New York State Legislature will pass in the current session.

Source: Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Green New Deal" initiative passes the New York State Legislature is unclear, but how any policy to eliminate fossil fuel reliance in the Empire State might be implemented is already kicking off debate.

During the spring conference of the Independent Power Producers of New York on May 9 in Albany, N.Y., panelists disagreed about the feasibility of achieving "deep decarbonization" and the eventual elimination of fossil fuels in the state.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has promised a Green New Deal at the state level that will make New York "100% carbon neutral by 2040 and ultimately eliminate the state's entire carbon footprint."

While the proposal, part of the governor's budget, may not make it through this session of the New York State Legislature, Cuomo is expected to "act by executive order or executive mandate" to implement certain policies as the law allows, according to Max Luke of NERA Economic Consulting.

New York's Clean Energy Standard requires that 50% of the state's electricity is generated by renewable resources by 2030, but Cuomo's proposal would push that target up to 70%. To date, 23% of the state's power is obtained from renewables, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Renewable portfolio standard policies apply to 55% of retail electricity sales in the U.S., with 29 states having an RPS policy in place at the end of 2018, according to a film presentation by the Independent Power Producers of New York. Current RPS standards would require a 50% increase in renewable generation capacity nationally over the next 10 years, equivalent to adding 56 GW of new capacity.

Key to achieving Cuomo's goal will be eliminating reliance on gas-fired generation, according to Lisa Dix, senior New York campaign manager for the Sierra Club.

"Building new gas is wholly incompatible with getting to a carbon-neutral New York in 2040, but what is really necessary and is needed is a phase-out of existing gas," said Dix, who suggested using the state's transition from coal as a guide. "Coal is a really good example of how a phase-out in New York can look and how we can come together to create transition policy to make sure that New Yorkers, families, businesses, workers and communities are not going to be left behind."

What qualifies as renewable?

Dix described as "inevitable" a 100% carbon-neutral New York that would also be free of fossil fuels and nuclear generation. Her fellow panelists disagreed, with Luke saying that strict reliance on only wind and solar would lead to "significant challenges."

Absent nuclear, biomass or gas-fired generation, New York would require a "major overbuild of generation capacity" to meet peak demand, according to Luke, who conceded that new technologies may be able to remedy the problem. Right now, however, lithium-ion batteries are unable to store as much generation as would be needed to offset potential deficits, with combined power deficits and surpluses expected to amount to half of New York's annual load.

Luke's pure-wind-and-solar scenario did not factor in hydro generation in New York, though total electricity generated from hydroelectric sources accounted for less than that generated by either gas-fired or nuclear facilities in January, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A solution potentially lies in new spins on conventional generation, according to panelist Arne Olson, senior partner at E3 Energy + Environmental Economics, an energy consultancy.

Small nuclear reactors, carbon capture and sequestration technology, and carbon-neutral gas, including gasified biomass and synthetic gas, are all potential candidates to supply backup generation, according to Olson. "None of them are ready to go today and each of them has their own challenges politically and environmentally and ethically and with respect to cost."

Olson believes that gas-fired generation is not going anywhere any time soon. "I think it still has an important role to play at least over the next 20 years and perhaps beyond," but only if it is used sparingly.

Panelist Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, disputed the idea that battery storage promises clean energy so long as materials are produced in China, which still depends on coal for 70% of its power but plans to reduce its consumption to 50%.

At what cost?

DeVore, a former member of the California State Assembly and a candidate for the Republican nomination in California's 2010 U.S. Senate race, said the clean energy proposals of many politicians represent merely "virtue signaling."

"'Demand flexibility,' that's a euphemism. Let me tell you what I hear as a politician. I hear blackouts and brownouts and I envision my constituents with pitchforks and torches," DeVore said.

Elected officials are "going to have a major problem with energy poverty if they don't insulate the poor with their policies," DeVore added, suggesting that demonstrations similar to the "yellow vest" protests in France may materialize in the U.S. should policies such as a gas tax be pursued. These economic issues matter more to voters than environmental questions, in DeVore's view.

"Yes, people are concerned, but when you start assigning a cost to it, what they're willing to pay, the concern rapidly evaporates," DeVore said.

But those same voters have an economic stake in energy and the environment, Dix said.

"When we're talking about pricing and costs, I think something that never gets put into the conversation is how much does it cost for us to have clean drinking water and not be drinking fracked chemicals? How much do we put a price on protecting our communities from sea-level rise?" Dix said.

Climate change impacts food systems and fisheries and contributes to drought and famine, Dix said.

"I just want to keep the cost conversation in perspective because we're talking about trillions of dollars in terms of climate disasters in our communities that ratepayers and taxpayers are going to have to pay for over the long-term," Dix added.