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The future is clear – creating a net-zero circular economy powered by renewable energy.

Author: John S Szalasny | Sierra Club Niagara Group Executive Committee Member

In June, the New York State legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a multi-faceted bill which mandates that the state go totally carbon-neutral by 2050. Although the final bill was not the legislation supported for years by environmental and social justice groups (social justice initiatives were removed in the final bill, i.e., the just transition retraining of employees transitioning from fossil fuels jobs and training initiatives for low income, climate-vulnerable communities), the CCLPA is still being hailed as a model for other states to transition away from carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

With an ultimate goal of creating a net-zero circular economy powered by renewable energy, the CLCPA will be required to source a minimum of 70% of its electrical power from renewable energy sources by 2030 and 100% by 2040. Although the numbers seem daunting, New York is starting with an advantage compared to other states. The state is already on its way to retiring its remaining coal generating electric plants by 2020. In addition, according to a New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) 2018 report, the state is already sourcing 60% of its electricity from carbon-free generating sources (they include nuclear power as a carbon-free source).

There are still major hurdles to overcome in the quest for carbon-neutrality by 2050. In addition to the issues with nuclear power (more on that later), even in states totally dependent on fossil-fuel power generation, electricity is the easiest sector to turn carbon-neutral. And it is only about one third of the current national CO2 footprint. Transportation and heating of buildings make up the bulk of the CO2 emissions.

Transportation and heating of buildings make up the bulk of the CO2 emissions.

The transportation sector is poised to be the next to be electrified. Starting with Volvo’s full line of Electric Vehicles (EV) or hybrids, all major automobile manufacturers have pledged a full line of EVs by 2023. Despite the rollback of emissions and fuel economy standards by the Federal Government, most manufacturers have pledged to continue to meet the higher standards previously set by the Obama White House and continue to be used as the California emissions standards (which are also used by New York and 12 other states). In addition, the global marketplace has similar mandates.   After making the research and development investment to create the more efficient vehicle, it is unlikely that auto manufacturers will make a separate, less efficient vehicle for half of the US population. If EV advertisements during the Super Bowl are any indication, it looks like the car companies are becoming serious about making the transition to an electric fleet.

The days of EV range anxiety are becoming passé.

The days of EV range anxiety are becoming passé. 200+ mile battery range is already available in multiple models. Across the country, the electric charging infrastructure is being built out. In New York, Governor Cuomo has pledged to accelerate the growth of EV adoption in the state and to provide the financial support for the installation of charging stations, including building charging stations at all rest areas along the NYS Thruway.

The heating (and cooling) sector will be the harder piece of the puzzle. Since heating is a long-term investment, it will take many years to move millions of users from oil and gas heating. Homes with natural gas also use the fuel for their stoves and hot water heating. Although the state has done a number of initiatives to decrease the use of fossil fuels (weatherization/insulation programs, adding geothermal to the list of renewables available for tax credits), more needs to be done to move homes and businesses off fossil fuels. One current glaring omission in the state portfolio that it does not mandate the heating and cooling of any new construction is carbon free. California has done this by requiring all new builds in the state are equipped with solar panels.

Which brings us back to the electric sector. As stated earlier, nuclear power is currently counted in the 60% non-carbon electric generation figure. There are two issues (not counting the nuclear waste) with counting on nuclear as a long-range solution to meet the decarbonization goals for electricity. First, the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, about 30 miles from New York City, is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2021.   Since it supplies about 25% of the power to New York City, this will leave a huge gap in not only the non-carbon sources, but the total in-state electric generation total needed to meet demand. Since the wind turbines scheduled to be built off the southern shores of Long Island are supposed to allow oil power generators on Long Island to be decommissioned, the first round of wind turbines will be at best, an even swap of non-carbon sources, but a net loss of generated power.

The issue with nuclear power is that the plants are aging and costly to run.

The second issue with nuclear power is that the plants are aging and costly to run. We are currently in the third year of a 12 year/$8 billion subsidy to allow the two remaining plants to operate. The state has not done any studies to show that their closure (both of which are beyond their designed life span) would increase the use of carbon-fueled electric facilities. Watchdogs have also noted that the subsidies will only delay the transition to renewable energy. In addition, with the prices of wind and solar going below all other forms of new power generation, and able to be built at a much quicker rate than the carbon or nuclear alternatives, using the subsidy on renewable energy would have a greater return on investment.

Meeting the 70% non-carbon electric power goal by 2030 will still be a challenge if the state does not improve the Article 10 process. Article 10 reviews and approves large-scale power projects in the state. Since its inception in 2013, over 40 projects have started the process (which should take 2-3 years), and only TWO projects have been approved.   With the change from a Governor’s pledge to the legally binding mandate of the CLCPA, the rate of approved projects needs to improve greatly.

Two bills being proposed by local legislators is extremely troubling.

That is why two bills being proposed by local legislators is extremely troubling. The first, the “Opposition to Construction of Wind Turbine Farm on Lake Erie” would ban the consideration of wind turbines proposed in Lake Erie. This is being proposed in the Erie County Legislature Energy and Environment subcommittee and sponsored by County Executive candidate Lynne Dixon. Since the county does not have jurisdiction over the off-shore approval beyond 1500 feet of shore (and that technically is the jurisdiction of the town), this appears to be a challenge to the environmentally-friendly Poloncarz administration – the same administration that has already met the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Climate Accord. Worse yet, the resolution looks a lot like the law that Chris Collins proposed on a federal level in 2016 (right down to the reference to the Niagara Falls Air Force Base – it has been an Air Reserve Station since 2017) that died a quick death in his own subcommittee.

The second, is state legislation proposed by New York State Assembly members Angelo J. Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, and Mike Norris, R-Lockport (both NO votes on the CLCPA), are co-sponsoring a bill that would amend Article 10 of the Public Service Law to require a local referendum for large-scale energy projects in New York State.  Instead of streamlining the process, this Assembly bill would extend the process by months, discouraging investment and new projects.

If that wasn’t bad enough, this week, Erie Community College is allowing State Senator Robert Ortt, R-Lockport to hold an anti-wind energy event (well outside of his district) that is trumpeting up pseudo-science and nocebo effects (attributing illnesses to unrelated factors) that has been disproven in multiple studies as well as for his anti-wind bill in 2016.

If we do not reduce our emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2030, our planet will likely be locked into a cycle of ever-increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and with the inability to cope with rapid changes, mass extinction of species.

Scientists are in agreement that we need to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. If we do not reduce our emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2030, our planet will likely be locked into a cycle of ever-increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and with the inability to cope with rapid changes, mass extinction of species. Ensuring the future of life on this planet should not be a partisan issue.  It’s no longer an issue that someone else will fix. With our changing climate, we need all of our local elected officials to be part of the solution and not the roadblock that stalls needed action until it is too late.

Lead image: Photo by Bob Blob

Written by BRo Guest Authors

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