Understaffing Threatens to Slow New York Climate Plans

Renewable energy developers are hungry to build in New York, but staffing at the bodies charged with managing the process hasn’t kept up.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   September 29, 2022
At New York Independent System Operator's primary control center, staff monitor New York's electric grid | NYISO

This article was published in partnership with the Albany Times Union.

IT’S A FIGURE that’s long dogged New York officials. Three years after the state passed its landmark climate law, just 6 percent of its electricity comes from wind and solar, leaving it trailing behind even deep-red states like Oklahoma.

To meet the state’s climate mandates, officials are promising vast amounts of new renewables on an ever-tightening timeline. So far, it’s not happening quickly enough: Analysis by the clean energy advocacy group RMI finds that New York is likely to miss its 2030 wind and solar targets by about a third.

Watchdogs blame a wide range of factors, from local opposition to a lack of transmission lines. But there’s another big stumbling block that has gotten far less attention. According to clean energy advocates and regulatory documents reviewed by New York Focus, the key bodies tasked with implementing the state’s climate agenda simply don’t have enough staff. A legacy of austerity, paired with job attrition during the pandemic and “Great Resignation,” have left regulators struggling to manage an economy-wide shift away from fossil fuels.

A Doubled Workload

The process of connecting new renewables to New York’s grid right now is like “a snake eating an elephant,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy NY, a coalition of renewable developers and green groups.

As contracting and permitting have sped up, much to developers’ and environmental advocates’ relief, the number of projects seeking connection to the grid has exploded. But the transmission and interconnection processes haven’t kept up, and now stand as the biggest obstacles to clean energy deployment, Reynolds said. 

Staffing has been an important factor, notably at the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which manages the grid. While NYISO is a nongovernmental group, it works closely with state and federal regulators and plays a critical role in implementing energy policy. Among its core responsibilities is managing the state’s “interconnection queue,” which every new energy facility has to go through in order to be added to the grid. The number of requests to enter that queue has more than tripled since 2016, while the number of engineers managing it has barely budged. 

According to an internal NYISO presentation made earlier this month and obtained by New York Focus, engineers’ workload has increased dramatically as a result. Engineers have to study whether it will be technically feasible to connect a new facility without overloading the grid and how much it will cost, among other responsibilities.

The team reviewing new interconnection requests had close to 350 active studies this year, up from 120 in 2018, while adding only three new staff in that time, the presentation showed. That translated into a doubling of each engineer’s workload — from roughly 20 studies per engineer in 2018 to 40 today.

“They have more projects than ever before, and not more people … because so many of the engineers at the ISO have left to go work for renewable energy companies,” Reynolds said.

Last October, the chair of NYISO’s budget working group, Alan Ackerman, complained in a presentation that 9 percent of the organization’s budgeted positions — about 50 of 600 — were unfilled, a “historic high.” He blamed the vacancies on increased turnover and difficulties in recruiting, compounded by higher salaries and bonuses at NYISO’s competitors in the post-pandemic job market.

“The demand for most jobs, especially highly technical ones in the energy sector, is much higher than supply,” Ackerman wrote.

As of this May, NYISO’s 9 percent vacancy rate remained unchanged, according to published meeting minutes, though it was “trending in the right direction” after “two good recruiting months.” The organization raised salaries 3 percent across the board this year in a bid to improve retention, according to a recent budget presentation

NYISO’s communications chief Kevin Lanahan told New York Focus in an interview that the group has been open about its need for more resources as it tries to meet enormous new challenges.

Not only has the total number of interconnection requests spiked in recent years, but most of those requests are now for renewables, when they used to be overwhelmingly fossil fuels. NYISO has had to adapt accordingly. The organization streamlined its interconnection process in 2019 and says the changes have paid off this year, allowing it to work more quickly through its surging list of projects. 

It is also making a concerted effort to expand its staff.

“The good news is that, collectively, there’s a recognition that we need to add to the planning department, and that’s what we’re doing,” Lanahan said. 

“I think it’s just in time. ... I know that the folks that are doing the work that are here now are anxiously awaiting those seats to be filled,” he added, praising the dedication of NYISO’s staff.

NYISO proposes to increase its budget by 13 percent this year, its most substantial increase since at least 2019, in part to account for more staff. The funding boost would come from surcharges on the electricity market and would need to be approved by the organization’s stakeholders, which span a wide range of bodies in government and the private sector.

For the planning team specifically, NYISO said it has begun the process of hiring at least six more engineers and two more support staff, but admitted that finding people with the relevant skills can be tough in today’s highly competitive national market.

Struggling to Keep Up

State agencies, meanwhile, are facing their own staffing woes. In some cases, these linger from top-down budget cuts imposed more than a decade ago at the height of the financial crisis. New York’s 2010 and 2011 budgets led to mass public sector layoffs; the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) lost nearly 750 employees, or 20 percent of its staff, in just those two years, according to state budget records. DEC hiring began to tick upwards again in 2016, but its workforce remains roughly 10 percent smaller than it was before the financial crisis. 

This comes as the agency’s responsibilities have ballooned. The DEC is a key player in implementing the state’s landmark climate law, passed in 2019: Its commissioner co-chairs the state’s Climate Action Council, tasked with crafting the plan to meet the law’s emissions targets, and it is responsible for enforcing those emissions caps as they take effect. The agency also works with the state energy authority NYSERDA and the recently formed Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) on environmental review of renewable energy projects. 

And climate action is just one of the DEC’s many jobs. The agency is also charged with enforcing a slew of other environmental laws, including new clean water measures and cracking down on a growing roster of pollutants.

The expansion of DEC’s mission … raises the question of whether the agency has the staff and funding it needs to carry out its critically important work,” State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli wrote in a press release accompanying a 2021 report

That puts staff at the state’s chief environmental agency in a position familiar to many workplaces — that of doing more with less. 

Allison Considine, senior New York campaign representative at the Sierra Club, said understaffing is “less sexy” than many other climate fights, but nevertheless critical.

“If we don’t prioritize it, then I don’t know how they’re going to move projects along in a way that really holds that important stakeholder education consultation and still keeps things moving in a timely manner,” she said. The Sierra Club is calling on lawmakers to restore DEC staffing at least to pre-2008 levels. 

In a statement, spokesperson Haley Viccaro said the agency would continue to “adaptively manage staffing resources” and “evaluate the resources necessary” to implement the climate law.

Climate Action ‘Runs on People’

Another body vital to New York’s climate efforts, NYSERDA, has also complained of inadequate staffing. 

“Although staffing has incrementally increased over the past few years, it has not kept pace with the exponential increase in both workload and complexity,” the authority wrote in a July 29 letter to the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Staffing on the team within NYSERDA that administers the state’s large-scale renewables program has increased by 50 percent since 2018, to about 29 full-time staff, the authority reported. But the team’s responsibilities grew much faster over the same period: The number of projects it greenlights more than doubled, the dollar value of projects it manages has more than tripled, and the amount of energy the projects in its pipeline are expected to generate has nearly quadrupled.

All of those projects require a huge amount of coordination and expertise, in topics as wide-ranging as wind turbine technology and fishery ecosystem health. Given the work ahead to meet New York’s renewable buildout mandates, the authority predicts the gap between its staffing and its workload will further widen in the coming years. 

NYSERDA as a whole has just under 400 positions budgeted for the current fiscal year, adding nearly 50 people after three years when its staff stayed essentially flat.

A NYSERDA spokesperson said the authority was “not immune” to the difficulties of hiring and retaining staff during the pandemic but had adapted quickly and would continue to “regularly assess staffing” as it works to meet the state’s climate targets. Reynolds says the authority deserves credit for “stepping up” and demanding publicly to keep beefing up its staff.

The fastest growing arm of the state’s climate policy, relative to its small size, is ORES, the office created in 2020 to streamline the state’s renewable siting process. (NYSERDA focuses on procuring new clean energy, and ORES is charged with ensuring it’s built in the right place.)

The office took a little while to get off the ground: In its first year, it had just 9 staff and had to call on DEC and other employees to pitch in, a spokesperson told New York Focus. But since then, it’s grown to more than 30 and is still hiring, the spokesperson said, putting it on track to meet the staffing levels called for by the Sierra Club. 

As a result, ORES says it is well equipped to finish reviewing the 11 projects currently on its list within a year, provided the developers do their due diligence. (To date, the office has permitted seven projects.)

But hiring enough qualified people to make sure all those renewables get up and running in a timely way remains a major sticking point.

“If you don’t have people who have experience in moving a project from start to finish … of course things are going to move slower,” Considine said, noting building local support and navigating opposition as key roles of government staff.

“Renewable development, like everything else, runs on people,” she said.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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