By NOAH SHAW
While I was general counsel of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), I had the privilege of contributing to the multiple rounds of drafting and negotiation that culminated in New York State’s groundbreaking climate legislation – the law that ultimately became known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), and which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed this past summer. We spent countless hours and late nights with the state’s clean energy brain trust deep-diving into the law’s implications and possibilities, drafting and redrafting to ensure both boldness and the art of the possible. The law’s nation-leading ambition gives me hope for our state and as a model for others around the world. But, closer to home, and as a kid from Stony Creek, in Warren County, with deep roots inside the Adirondack Park’s blue line, the question of how the new law would affect the place I grew up and the people who live there loomed large.
The CLCPA calls for 100 percent “clean” (read: including nuclear) electricity by 2040, 70 percent “renewable” (read: not including nuclear) electricity by 2030, and an 85 percent across-the-state reduction in all greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels – including not just electricity generation but also transportation, buildings and other sectors. This will return the levels of climate-warming gas emissions to pre-industrial levels.
To get there, the law directs the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to make rules for how to drastically reduce emissions, forms a Climate Action Council to recommend the course, and ensures that disadvantaged communities will not be left behind. The CLCPA also sets the course for a massive build-out of renewable energy: nine gigawatts of offshore wind (about 30 percent of the total electricity needed for all of New York State, the world’s 13th largest economy); six GW of distributed solar (about three times where we are now); and three gigawatts of energy storage. The law’s standards are also spurring major improvements in building efficiency, grid and transmission updates, and electric vehicle adoption.
Five key takeaways
So what does all this mean for the Adirondacks? Here are five takeaways, though more will no doubt emerge in the decades of policymaking that this law kicks off.
First, the CLCPA outlines a so-called “carbon offset” program as a counter-weight to the 15 percent of emissions that may remain after all our other emissions-reducing actions are taken. These will likely come from hard-to-clean-up activities like aviation, agriculture, shipping and heavy industry. New York’s most valuable carbon offset resource, also known as a “sink,” is its forestland. This is good news for the Adirondack Forest Preserve, and potentially for landowners who could be compensated for the value of their “sink,” but no doubt will add a log or two to the fiery debates over the right mix of uses of Adirondack forest.
Second, the CLCPA requires Adirondack representatives and organizations to coordinate and advocate for common interests. A Climate Action Council chaired by the DEC commissioner and president of NYSERDA will recommend ways for the state to reach its emissions reduction goals, which recommendations must then be infused into the following State Energy Plan. The Energy Plan, in turn, has the force of law; that is, all state government agencies are required to ensure that their policies and funding further the goals in that plan. It is therefore paramount that the needs and priorities of the park and its communities be taken into account in this council’s recommendations.
Third, the CLCPA means renewable energy projects are likely coming to the park, and we have to get that right. More and more solar in particular will almost assuredly be slated for inside the blue line as communities demand more clean energy, and the Adirondacks should not miss out on the economic benefits of local project development. This means that the Adirondack Park Agency needs – in close consultation with the state’s experts at NYSERDA and DEC – to implement construction guidelines that make sense, both in terms of getting good projects built and protecting the natural resources that make the Adirondacks so special.
Fourth, the CLCPA added a new piece to the “biomass” puzzle. The CLCPA does not include biomass – that is, burning wood chips to generate electricity – in its definition of renewable energy. That means large-scale biomass facilities won’t get state support in the same way solar and wind do. However, burning wood pellets in high-efficiency boilers for heating homes and businesses is still on the table – and, indeed, may be a cleaner alternative for many Adirondackers who otherwise would be burning oil or propane to stay warm. This question will likely be taken up by the DEC in its regulations to even further reduce emissions. If past is prologue, the discussions about whether “biomass” is a good idea will continue to be heated.
And last, the CLCPA drives home the need to get electric vehicles and charging infrastructure built in the park. For Adirondackers like my mom who drove nearly 40 miles each way to work, and for so many others who rely upon their trucks as essential tools for their trades, vehicles and their costs are paramount considerations in daily life. To reach the CLCPA’s goals, electric cars, trucks and buses have to become the norm. Prices keep coming down and mile ranges keep improving, but the charging infrastructure has to be there. If the state has not soon implemented measures like the multi-state Transportation Climate Initiative’s cap-and-trade program, the Climate Action Council should make recommendations for how to fund this massive infrastructure expansion.
The CLCPA sets bold, as they say, “30,000-foot” goals. And the standards set out in the statute will, in my estimation, improve both our lives and those of the generations to come – even at 5,344-foot (the height of Mount Marcy) and below. But this law is just the beginning of the work needed to slow our climate-destructive practices and preserve places like the Adirondack Park and their economies. The CLCPA provides the trail map, but many of its routes are yet to be scouted and cut. As those pathways are defined through the Climate Action Council, on the DEC’s dockets, and through other forums, the needs and priorities of the Adirondack Park, its land, and its more than 130,000 residents, must be front and center.
Noah Shaw is co-chair of the renewable energy practice at the law firm Hodgson Russ, former general counsel of NYSERDA, and a native of Stony Creek, Warren County. He lives in Ballston Spa.