By Cayte Bosler
As temperatures heat up so is the debate around how New York can best keep its cool in the face of climate change. The state relies heavily on natural gas to heat and cool households and buildings, the leading contributor to greenhouse gasses for the state, according to New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Hotter summers mean more air conditioners plug into a dirty grid which keeps the state locked into a vicious cycle. Higher temperatures, higher electricity bills and higher climate risks have brought New York residents to a boiling point. That’s why residents are eager to understand exactly how the state’s climate plan intends to dial down greenhouse gas emissions while addressing affordability and equity.
Tasked with this, the Climate Action Council is presenting their framework to the public to deliver the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act signed into law in 2019 across the state. The net-zero emission goals to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and the rest by 2040 means a transformation of how the grid operates. A draft of the statewide scoping plan to get there was released Dec. 31. The 22-member council has been holding public hearings to garner feedback before delivering their final report. On May 11, a range of people from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx to the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks joined a virtual hearing with two-minute slots allotted for testimony. The council is accepting public comments on the draft online through June 10.
Most everyone agreed on the need for the state to adapt to climate change, but disagreements surfaced. Questions rose over threats to biodiversity known as ecocide, affordable energy access and over which communities were expected to pay the price of hosting new energy infrastructure. The council can’t meet its commitments without cutting natural gas use, the state’s leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions pumping into the air from transportation, but the bulk is from buildings. To that end, the New York City Council voted in 2021 to ban fossil fuel hookups in buildings for heat, hot water and kitchen stoves for new construction no later than 2027.
Temperatures aren’t the only thing on the rise this summer. Electricity bills are expected to increase anywhere from 4% to as high as 15% in the New England region, according to the Energy Information Association, the highest they’ve been since 2008 mainly driven by the chaos in the market caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Affordability is top of mind for energy analysts who are also concerned for the short and long-term reliability of the grid during peak demand as much of the country seeks to transition off of fossil fuels and to intermittent sources like wind and solar. Renewables require battery storage technologies that are not yet implemented at scale.
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, spoke at the top of the meeting about his overarching concern of affordability of energy and reliability of the grid for the rural parts of the communities he represents as natural gas phases out. His points were echoed by individuals at the hearing who identified themselves as representing natural gas interests. The cited increased costs to the average household for retrofits like electric heat pumps or electric stoves. Palmesano also emphasized the environmental degradation and well documented human rights abuses associated with the rare mineral mining needed for renewable technology supply chains and asked for more transparency from the council on these factors. He called for extending the public comment period through at least the end of summer.
Others appealed for a moratorium on all existing and proposed natural gas development, citing environmental pollution and public health reasons like soaring rates of asthma.
The plan calls for massive investments in wind and solar projects and battery storage to replace the state’s reliance on gas. Proponents of industrializing renewable energy projects focus on the possible technological advances for grid-scale battery storage to solve the intermittency issues of wind and sun power. A couple individuals said they feared the loss of electricity during harsh winter conditions citing reliability issues with the current technologies.
Renewable energy infrastructure requires large tracts of land which can gut and disrupt animal habitats, kill birds and bats and add noise pollution to natural landscapes for nearby residents. Extraction materials mined for these technologies continue to scar lands around the world. By far, renewable energy electricity uses far more land than fossil fuel systems, according to analysis by Brookings, a nonprofit public policy organization based in DC. This was a repeated concern in public comments, meaning development of renewable projects could face similar local opposition to fossil fuel projects throughout the state, with a few such conflicts already underway.
Kate Kremer, vice president of Save Ontario Shores (SOS), a citizens group opposing the large-scale wind turbine project in Yates and Somerset, addressed the industrialization of small towns in pursuit of renewable energy projects.
“Industrial wind projects are very divisive and cause serious rifts in communities,” Kremer said in a press release from SOS. “Our towns are largely agricultural.”
Renewable projects exploit forests, animals and water, Kremer said, and add hard to bear noise to rural communities.
Other speakers raised concerns about the harm to the environment from this new wave of planned energy projects for wildlife calling for more clarification in the plan on effects to biodiversity and mitigation strategies to ensure protection of habitats. Mustafa Saidudda, staff scientist at EarthJustice, addressed the need to conserve forests for their benefit to the carbon cycle and sought additional assurance in the plan that plant communities would not be sacrificed for energy development.
A repeated concern surrounded the bitcoin industry that moved into Plattsburgh to the chagrin of town residents who see the consequences of the colossal electricity use needed to mine bitcoins as outweighing any economic benefit – the industry supplies very few jobs.
The final plan is expected to be released by the council at the end of 2022.