To Meet Climate Mandate, New York Needs to Learn How to Build Clean Energy Again

After a decade of building virtually no large-scale renewables, New York is planning to build enough to power millions of homes over the next eight years. What will it take to pull it off?

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   November 21, 2022
To meet its clean energy requirements, New York needs to build 100 times as much large-scale solar in the next five years as it did in the last 10. | American Public Power Association

Last year, Texas built dozens of wind and solar farms — enough to power the states of Delaware and Hawaiʻi combined. California built enough to power every home in San Francisco, twice over. Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Kansas each built enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes.

New York built three wind and solar farms, about enough to power one small city. In 2019 and 2020, it built none.

Yet it has committed to a faster green transition than almost any other state, pledging to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, more than double their current share. To meet that mandate, New York needs to build 100 times as much large-scale solar in the next five years as it did in the last 10. It needs to kickstart battery storage, multiplying capacity more than fiftyfold. It needs to build a brand new offshore wind industry, turning plans on paper into one of the state’s largest sources of energy.

Altogether, New York will need to build wind, solar, and energy storage 10 times faster for the rest of this decade than it did in the last.

State energy officials insist they’re on track, noting that the new renewables they’ve already signed contracts for are enough to nearly meet the 2030 goal by themselves. But those projects need to be permitted and built on time, overcoming local opposition and other challenges that tend to delay big renewable projects. And the power they generate needs to be sent around the state via major new transmission lines that also have to get built.

All that makes for a shaky bet — but analysts say it’s possible, if the state gets serious fast. Here’s what it would take.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, hundreds flocked to an Albany convention center for a conference held by the Alliance for Clean Energy NY, an influential coalition of renewable developers and green groups. Climate activists brushed elbows with utility lobbyists, and lawmakers made the rounds as developers and regulators talked shop. Speakers hailed the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which will unlock tens of billions of dollars in clean energy investment for New York. But above all, they fretted about the hurdles standing in the way of the state’s renewable energy buildout, putting its targets at risk.

“Our climate goals must now become construction goals,” said Anne Reynolds, the association’s executive director, in her opening remarks.

Right now, there are about a half-dozen grid-scale renewable projects under construction across the state. Reynolds told New York Focus that to reach 70 percent renewable energy, that number will need to double next year, double again in 2024, and continue at that year’s pace through 2030.

New York’s current electric power mix is often described as a “tale of two grids.” North of the Hudson Valley, 85 percent of the power used throughout the year comes from a handful of hydroelectric and nuclear plants, most of them built more than half a century ago. Wind makes up another 6 percent, leaving just a small fraction coming from oil and gas.

But a lack of transmission lines from upstate to downstate means the reverse is true in the New York City metro area. Since the closure of the last reactor at the Indian Point nuclear plant last year, virtually all power downstate has been generated by fossil fuels.

That dependence on fossil fuels reflects what Pete Sikora, climate campaigns director at the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, calls a “lost decade” under former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“There was almost no development of wind and solar for almost a decade,” Sikora said. Instead, New York added thousands of megawatts’ worth of new gas plants. “And that happened when other states were rocketing forward on renewable energy development.”

The exception to this is rooftop and community solar, which the grid operator doesn’t count because it’s “behind the meter” — generated directly by the people who use it, rather than by a power producer selling energy into the grid. Homeowners, businesses, and community groups have installed 4,200 megawatts’ worth of solar panels since 2010, with Long Island leading the charge.

By comparison, the state has added just three utility-scale solar farms during that time, totaling 77 megawatts. It has contracts to build nearly 7,000 megawatts over the next five years, and is planning to increase that number.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”

—Stephane Desdunes, EDF Renewables

And that’s only one part of the picture. Altogether, the state needs to increase its power generation capacity by 50 percent or more between now and 2030. By 2040, it needs to make a “next-level jump,” in Reynolds’s words — roughly tripling its total capacity, even while shutting down scores of fossil fuel plants.

That vast amount of renewables needed reflects a twofold challenge: electrification of buildings and transportation, which will add to overall electric demand, and the “intermittent” nature of renewable power, which depends on the weather. Heavy reliance on wind and solar means building significantly more capacity than might be needed on an average day to ensure there’s a reliable mix throughout the year.

That need for reliability has led power companies to push for a less renewables-heavy approach, with more state support for nuclear, hydrogen, or other technologies that could provide year-round, zero-emissions power.

The state has yet to endorse such an approach, however. Wind and solar remain central regardless of which path it takes in the longer term — not least because specific targets for the two technologies have already been written into law. One provision of the 2019 climate law requires the state to build nine gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, starting from scratch.

The state’s first offshore wind farm — the 130-megawatt South Fork Wind, east of Long Island — is due to come online by the end of 2023. From there on, the industry plans to scale up fast: Four more wind farms, scheduled to be completed between 2024 and 2028, will add more than four gigawatts of clean power to the downstate grid, making them a crucial pillar of the state’s clean energy transition.

They will still leave New York less than halfway to the 2035 target of nine gigawatts, though. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is currently in the midst of its third offshore wind solicitation, which will bring the state closer to that target, though the authority did not specify by how much.

Also key to the 2030 target is a controversial transmission line approved in April, which will transport 1,250 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to New York City. The project — which dates back to 2010 — is now due to be completed by early 2026, after running into a fresh round of delays this fall.

The state maintains that these projects will bring it comfortably past the 70 percent target by the end of this decade. As of now, NYSERDA says the projects it has contracted will bring it to 66 percent, and it plans to sign more contracts over the coming years to close the gap.

But a NYSERDA contract does not guarantee a successful project, let alone one completed on time. More than 10 percent of the projects awarded contracts since 2004 have been canceled, and many more have been delayed. Once a project has a contract, it still needs to be sited and permitted; it needs to be built; and it needs to be plugged into the grid. Each of those steps opens the door to new challenges, from agency understaffing to supply chain snags to influential local opponents.

The state’s first three offshore wind farms are each running at least a year behind schedule.

A white paper guiding the renewables contracting process “assumed five years from when we procure projects to when they’re online. And we’ve observed that only for our 20 megawatt solar so far,” said Abbey DeRocker, NYSERDA’s assistant director for large-scale renewables, at the clean energy conference. In other words, all but the smallest projects are running into significant delays.

Some factors are out of the state’s hands. New York’s harsh climate makes it difficult to build solar farms in the winter, for example. But even there, regulation plays a role: If permits don’t line up, winter weather can translate to months of delays, said Stephane Desdunes, who directs grid-scale projects at EDF Renewables, currently the largest solar developer in the state.

And tight environmental and labor regulations make permitting more arduous than in much of the country, despite recent efforts to streamline the process.

Abbey DeRocker of NYSERDA (left), Stephane Desdunes of EDF Renewables (second left), and others at a panel. | ACE NY

“We probably in New York need to go out to [third-party] contractors a year earlier than we do in other states, just because of the way the permit is done,” Desdunes said. “They basically are asking you to give an almost-final design three, four, or five years ahead of time, which is not really connected with reality, especially the way technology is going.”

Some contractors also bristle at an 1885 law known as the Scaffold Law, which makes construction companies fully liable for any injuries from trips or falls on their sites. No other state has such a strict standard, and Desdunes cited it as a key source of added costs and headache. (Critics argue the law doesn’t actually make workplaces any safer, to boot.)

Then there’s labor: Renewable developers depend on a relatively small pool of highly trained electricians and other workers to build their projects. New York has just under 9,000 electrical engineers, a lower share per capita than many other states, according to federal data. And there’s stiff competition to secure their labor.

“The state has done a good job of attracting business. But that means we’re going to be fighting amongst ourselves for that labor,” as well as with other industries like data centers, Desdunes said. He stressed that the industry is keen to build in the state despite the obstacles.

“We see New York as a top, top market in North America,” Desdunes said.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act should also help the state counter some of the current headwinds, unlocking potentially $70 billion in incentives for New York.

Taking the IRA together with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the CHIPS Act, “we’re talking about industrial policy we haven’t seen since the beginning of the space race,” said Harry Godfrey, a managing director at the trade group Advanced Energy Economy.

Still, that transformation will take time, and New York doesn’t have much left to meet its first big targets under the climate law.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Desdunes 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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