New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) doesn’t like second place. Not satisfied with launching the most ambitious initiative for whole scale overhaul of the utility sector through Reforming the Energy Vision, Cuomo is starting his third term with a bang, by announcing a carbon-neutral electricity supply by 2040 as one of his legislative priorities.
The ambitious governor unveiled this goal as one of many in his “2019 Justice Agenda” at a speech at Hunter College today. And while the speech covered many topics, including racism, economic justice and equality rights for minorities, Cuomo specifically addressed his desire for the state to lead on clean energy, stating that “New York must be the most progressive state in the nation moving to renewables.”
Unlike many Republican politicians who may embrace renewable energy for price, employment, and local economic development reasons, Cuomo’s push for clean energy is clearly inspired by climate change, per his words:
Extreme weather is a reality. It is obvious across the globe. It is obvious to anyone with a television set. The consequences of our delay are a matter of life and death, if not for us then for our children. This is not an issue of present inconvenience. It is an issue of future viability. We know what we must do. Now we have to have the vision, the courage, and the competence to do it.
And while such statements might be more easily dismissed when uttered by other political leaders, Governor Cuomo has shown that when he wants something done, it usually gets done.
One-upping California (and Hawaii and Washington)
Governor Cuomo’s bold statement can be seen in light of cascading calls being made by different political leaders to decarbonize electricity in their cities and states.
While the exact definition is not clear (more on that later), Cuomo’s call to move to 100% “carbon-neutral” electricity by 2040 is a more aggressive timeline than has been set in any state to date. Hawaii has put in place a requirement for 100% renewable electricity by 2045 and California has mandate for the electricity supply to be zero-carbon by that date, but if adopted New York’s target would be five years sooner.
It is also five years sooner than Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s (D) call for 100% clean electricity, but ten years later than Inslee wants the Pacific Northwest state to move to “carbon-neutral” electricity. And unlike California and Hawaii, Inslee and Cuomo are merely stating goals at the beginning of a legislative process.
The only other state-level jurisdiction in the United States to move towards a policy this ambitious is Washington DC. The city council in the nation’s capitol has voted once to approve 100% renewable energy by 2032, but must vote again tomorrow before this plan can go to the mayor.
The Green New Deal
The speech began by invoking the memory of former President and former New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and the need for bold action and experimentation in a time of crisis.
And in the speech, Cuomo not only talks about job creation and the state’s success in raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, but also stated that “New York will launch the Green New Deal”, a reference both to FDR and the call by Sunrise Movement to create a committee for a Green New Deal, which at last count was backed by 35 Democratic members of the U.S. Congress.
Following the promotion of pro-coal U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Green New Deal may be dead in the water at the federal level for the foreseeable future. However, Cuomo’s speech shows that the vision could live on at the state level.
There were no specifics given to explain exactly what Cuomo means by uttering that phrase, except the 100% carbon-neutral goal. But as political phrasing, it is a way to put his administration in front of the ambitious call for a combined clean energy, job creation and economic justice agenda. As such, Cuomo may be getting ready to use the Sunrise Movement’s phrasing just as FDR used Huey Long’s call for the creation of redistributive social programs as the basis for the Second New Deal in the Great Depression, and managed to “steal Huey’s thunder” in the process.
The speech did not make explicit what carbon-neutral means, and here we must return to Washington Governor Inslee’s approach to reach carbon-neutral electricity by 2030 and zero-carbon electricity by 2045.
In both cases, what is likely being declared by “carbon neutral” is for the state to generate a volume of electricity equivalent to its current demand from renewable energy, nuclear power and/or other non-CO2 emitting forms of generation. This is likely to also mean that the state can export clean power and import power from fossil-fuel fired generation, and it is also unclear if this would allow exports from fossil-fired generation to other states.
Nuclear generation could definitely play a role in New York State. While the state is set to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City next year, under the Cuomo Administration it has also created a system of zero-emissions credits (ZECs) to support the continued operation of upstate nuclear power plants, including the Nine Mile Point and Ginna plants. At 49 and 48 years old are some of the oldest operating nuclear plants still running in the United States.
Applause from solar advocates
Solar advocates cheered Cuomo’s move, with Vote Solar calling for the 100% by 2040 goal to be paired with a goal for one million solar homes in the state, which has been endorsed by state legislators. “This new commitment is powerful, and we need a good near-term plan for achieving it,” stated Vote Solar Senior Director for the Northeast Sean Garren.
“We must make immediate progress to help families struggling to pay their bills, communities desperate for clean air and water, and an economy needing new jobs and investment today. Powering one million New York homes with solar would deliver just that – immediately accelerating the growth of local clean energy, good jobs, and savings on high electric bills for New York families, businesses and municipalities.”
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) also called for a strong role for solar in these plans. “We look forward to working with the Cuomo Administration to craft the near-term plan for reaching this long-term goal,” stated SEIA VP of State Affairs Sean Gallagher.
“Specific examples include doubling down on solar and committing to obtaining 6 gigawatts of solar by 2023, establishing strong policies in the ongoing Value of Distributed Energy Resources case and bringing more large-scale solar to New York.”