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Clean energy supporters split over how to achieve emissions goals

While many environmental groups cheer the policy, some oppose what they call a costly and unnecessary investment in nuclear power. (Provided photo — David Sommerstein / North Country Public Radio)

In 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo set one of the country’s most ambitious green energy goals when he signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

“Climate change is an undeniable scientific fact, period. To deny climate change is to deny reality,” Cuomo said at the signing ceremony.

The law created a Climate Action Council to steer policy and help meet the state’s goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2040. How that goal will be reached remains an open question.

A recent meeting of the Council’s Advisory Committee on Clean Power laid bare the disagreements that exist among climate hawks, particularly when it comes to the role of fossil fuels and nuclear power during the 20 year transition period.

However, there was broad support among both members of the committee and the general public for meeting the 2040 clean power goal.

Sarah Osgood chairs the subcommittee focusing on power generation and says retiring fossil fuels won’t be easy, but has to happen.

“There’s general agreement that fossil fuel-fired facilities should not be permitted to operate after 2040,” Osgood said to committee members over Zoom.

New York has a long way to go before achieving fully renewable generation though. Currently, just 27% of the state’s electricity is supplied by renewable sources, according to federal data.

To accelerate the move to green energy, some on the Climate Action Council want a ban on constructing any new fossil fuel facilities. The Sierra Club’s Lisa Dix was among the members supporting the moratorium proposal.

“Adding new fossils to our grid is going in the absolute wrong direction, in terms of how we’re getting that curve down,” Dix argued.

“It makes no sense to continue to scale and build out gas in the short term.”

However, other members were not on board.

John Reese, an executive with Eastern Generation, the operator of three gas-burning plants in New York City, said he supports the 2040 phase-out but not an immediate ban.

“To me adding a moratorium before we go through that process is giving up on the due process that we set up. A moratorium today doesn’t consider all the factors we need to consider.” Reese said.

“It forgets the substance and the complexity,” he added, equating that approach to the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the Reagan Era.

Regular New Yorkers were similarly split.

During public comments at a hearing earlier this month, members of the public were uniformly in agreement on the need to meet the 2040 goal, but not on how to actually do that.

The disagreement largely centered on how to best phase out natural gas, which currently represents 35% of New York’s electricity production.

Several commenters, including Eric Dawson with the community advocacy group Nuclear New York pushed the committee to phase out gas by expanding the role of nuclear power.

There are two major categories of technology: there’s technology that works today and technology that might work in the future,” Dawson argued.

“There’s nothing wrong with investing more money in [research and development] and tech that might work to improve batteries and solar panels and wind turbines, but all that cannot help us scale up zero emission electricity to the level we need today,” he added.

Others, like Amber Ruther with the Alliance for a Green Economy, ardently opposed the idea of expanding reliance on nuclear power.

“Nuclear energy is more expensive than utility-scale wind and solar, and its costs are only rising, while the costs of wind and solar are plummeting,” Ruther testified.

“Nuclear takes too long to build and it just doesn’t make economic sense anymore and creates radioactive waste which we have no viable plan to store safely for thousands of years,” she added.

Organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Atomic Energy Agency say nuclear power can be a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly, former IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said atomic power will be needed to achieve emission targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during their operation. emissions over their entire lifecycle are very low,” Amano told the audience of diplomats.

36% of New York’s electricity currently comes from nuclear, although that is soon set to drop.

Indian Point, the nuclear power plant just north of New York City, is set to close at the end of April 2021. In the short term it will be replaced by gas-burning generators.

The situation highlights one of the central challenges of the effort to decarbonize. Some climate advocates are arguing that despite the toxic waste it produces, nuclear is lesser of two evils due to its lower carbon footprint.

That view was embraced by Charlie Foyerman during his comments at the clean power hearing. The high school senior from Queens passionately argued that adding more gas to the grid would be a move in the wrong direction.

Foyerman said young New Yorkers are desperate for a solution.

“There’s a large number of students in my grade who really care about the environment,” he noted.

“My friends can’t envision a future where we decarbonize in time, a future of freedom, but they can imagine their family. It can’t come down to this. Where’s the justice?”

Whatever combination of energy sources the state opts for, the grid will need the ability to quickly adjust electricity production to meet demand throughout the day, called baseload in energy parlance.

The intermittent nature of wind and solar make those sources difficult to rely upon for baseload.

Demand for electricity typically peaks in the evening, as people arrive home from work and turn on lights, fire up home electronics, and prepare meals. Electricity production from renewables typically peaks during the day, when the sun is brightest.

Further adding to the challenge, electricity usage will increase dramatically in coming years as gasoline-powered cars and trucks are replaced by electric vehicles.

One popular idea for solving the baseload challenge is to develop large-scale battery storage facilities. This could allow excess, renewable-generated power produced during the day to be stored until peak demand in the evening.

However, that solution is still largely conceptual, presenting technical and financial hurdles.

Sarah Osgood, chair of the clean power committee and recently named Executive Director of the New York Climate Action Council, argued that although we do not have the answer, we cannot afford to delay the transition.

“Not all solutions are yet known and the transition requires innovative and holistic planning,” Osgood told committee members.

Solving the baseload challenge will be critical in determining whether or not New York, and the rest of the world, can successfully move to a zero-carbon future.

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