According to their press release on June 15, 2018 “National Grid, one of the nation’s largest investor-owned utilities, released the “Northeast 80×50 Pathway,” a blueprint for drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (“80×50”). The Pathway is the first of its kind in the Northeast.” This post is about the Pathway Forum on May 13, 2019 in Albany, NY.
Cutting to the chase, this forum was the public face of National Grid’s long-term business plan: electrify everything and be a white hat champion for once. Throw in public support by a corporation for New York’s ambitious clean energy plans to get political support and what is not to like for National Grid. This post will describe the agenda and then present my take on the discussions for the sessions I attended.
I attended the meeting because I wanted to be sure that there was at least one ratepayer from National Grid service territory that did not have a vested interest in the proposed energy system transformation. Most ratepayers do not have any idea how far reaching, how risky and how expensive this plan could be. I had hoped to be able to make a statement to that effect but there was no opportunity. I have been following clean energy initiatives since I retired. Before retirement from a non-regulated generating company, I was actively analyzing air quality regulations like this that could affect company operations. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
The agenda included an opening session with a Welcome Address by John Bruckner, President, National Grid New York and the “80×50 Keynote” by Rudolph Wynter – President & Chief Operating Officer, Transmission, Generation, Energy Procurement, and Capital Delivery, National Grid.
The first panel discussion was “Future of Transportation”. This panel focused on “the transportation challenge, what progress is underway and what remains to be done to achieve a deeply decarbonized transportation sector”. The moderator was a high-ranking National Grid manager and included three panelists: Adam Ruder – Program Manager, Clean Transportation, NYSERDA; Joseph Kruger – Director of Research and Strategy, Georgetown Climate Center; and Nick Nigro – Founder, Atlas Public Policy.
Panel 2 was entitled “Future of Heat” and focused on “the heating challenge, what progress is underway and what remains to be done to achieve a deeply decarbonized heating sector”. Another high-ranking manager from National Grid was the moderator. Panelists included William Jorgenson – Co-Founder and Counselor, Vanguard Renewables; Donovan Gordon – Director, Clean Heating and Cooling, NYSERDA; Howard Merson – Business Development Manager, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation; and Sharon Tomkins – Vice President, Customer Solutions and Strategy, Southern California Gas Company.
After a luncheon and lunch address by Alicia Barton, President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority the third panel discussion was “Customer Views on 80×50”.
This panel invited “a range of perspectives on the role of customers in achieving a deeply decarbonized energy system”. Another high ranking National Grid officer moderated a panel that included Richard Berkeley – Executive Director, Public Utility Law Project of New York; Dr. Debabrata Mukherjee – President and CEO, Finch Paper; Michael Mager – Partner, Couch White, LLP; and Matthew Enstice, President and CEO, Buffalo Niagara Medical Center.
The last panel discussion was to convene at 3:45PM and by that point I had enough of the meeting, presumed the last panel would not provide any new insights, and faced with a couple of hour drive, I left for home. Panel 4: Fireside Chat on the Future of Policy & Regulation was to hear from “policy thought leaders to react to what they’ve heard during the Forum, step forward and engage on the 80×50 challenge, and issue calls to stakeholders for specific actions/support”. Another high ranking manager from National Grid moderated the session with the following panelists: Dr. Kristina Johnson – Chancellor, State University of New York; Kevin Parker – Senator, New York Senate District 21; Ke Wei – Assistant Director for Infrastructure, New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency, Office of Sustainability; and Elizabeth Brooke Stein – Senior Manager, New York Clean Energy Lay and Policy, Environmental Defense Fund. The meeting was to end with concluding thoughts from John Bruckner.
Overall this was a well-staged dog and pony show. This elaborate forum was intended to further the cause that electrification wherever and whenever possible is necessary and that National Grid is just the company to do it. Attendees were all connected into the New York State clean energy agenda and most had a vested interest in its programs. I do not think that there is any question that the vast majority of consumers were unaware of the forum or of National Grid’s grand plan.
The panelists were picked to further the cause, not elicit thought. The panel for “Future of Transportation” exemplifies this approach. All three panelists are completely vested in transportation electrification. The Program Manager, Clean Transportation, NYSERDA certainly could not stray from the party line of Governor Cuomo. The Director of Research and Strategy from the Georgetown Climate Center represents the organization that facilitates the Transportation Climate Initiative. Nick Nigro is the Founder of Atlas Public Policy whose mission is to “equip businesses and policymakers to make strategic, informed decisions through the greater use of technology that aggregates publicly available information. Atlas arms our audience with the information necessary to encourage the use of new technologies and products along with changes in consumer behavior”. That sounds an awful lot like the consultants in Dilbert who will provide whatever answer they think any client with money wants to hear.
My take-away impression is that these three panelists actually think the only reason electric vehicles are not run away successes is because the auto industry is not marketing them well. I can assure the reader that most of my friends are not in the market for an electric vehicle because they know their short-comings are not consistent with their life style. Although the panelists acknowledged range anxiety was an issue they apparently believe the advantages of electric vehicles outweigh that consideration. Despite Mr. Nigro’s BS in electrical and computer engineering he claimed that bus electrification is a “no brainer”. I have talked about bus electrification with a public transit expert and he is not so enamored. For starters he mentioned that electric buses cost twice as much. He gave me a long explanation about the transmission resources necessary to re-charge several hundred buses and another long description of other implementation issues. To his credit Mr. Ruder from NYSERDA did concede that heating electric buses was an issue.
Another recurring theme in this panel discussion was all the money available from the VW settlement. Mr. Nigro said the settlement resources were “huge”. According to DEC this money will cover a variety of projects including a statewide replacement for 100 or more all-electric transit buses. I found a reference that said that there were 44,000 publicly owned buses in New York in 2011. Huge or not the settlement is not going to have much of an impact on rolling over the bus fleets to electric.
The “Future of Heat” panel was interesting. I was worried that National Grid would be advocating air source heat pumps but I was pleasantly surprised that their angle is for renewable natural gas. For example, Vanguard Renewables is a company that specializes in dairy farm anaerobic digesters that produce methane that can be put into the existing natural gas network. National Grid enticed Sharon Tomkins to come from Southern California to play up the renewable gas angle. Her company is exploring a process to combine hydrogen and water to create methane. Given that these approaches address dispatchability and storage concerns it makes sense to me to explore them. However, I doubt that the “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” crowd will accept that approach because renewable gas is a gateway to fracked gas.
The NYSERDA Director, Clean Heating and Cooling talked up ground-source heat pumps. NYSERDA has a $26.5 million dollar rebate program for this technology. The rebate is available on a first-come, first-served basis for large systems and small systems. Small systems installed in single family residences and use 10 or less tons of cooling capacity are eligible for rebates of $1,500 per ton of cooling capacity. Assuming six tons per home that is a $9,000 rebate for each home. If the entire $26.5 million is used for small systems in new homes that will be enough for just under 3,000 homes. According to new home source dot com New York has a “huge real estate market with 8,077 new homes for sale”. Unfortunately the NYSERDA rebates will only be enough for around 36% of those new homes.
The panel on “Customer Views on 80×50” was interesting and was as close as anything in the forum to a reality slap to National Grid. Richard Berkeley from the Public Utility Law Project of New York and Michael Mager, a Partner in the Couch White law firm, both represent consumers and had the same concern: no one has given them the costs of their plans for the reductions proposed. Both pointed out that costs could make or break their support for it. The President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Center apparently was asked to come to the meeting for appearance sake because I did not get the impression that he was aware of the possibilities and pitfalls of the clean energy options being discussed.
The final speaker, Dr. Debabrata Mukherjee, President and CEO of Finch Paper explained how his company has been trying to do the right thing. They use renewable energy as much as possible and they have extensive energy efficiency programs but they compete in an international market so there is a limit to how much they can afford to do and remain in business in New York. When asked what his company needed he said the one thing they could use to reduce costs was to have a firm supply of natural gas in the winter when they have to have it. I was sitting at a table with people who I have never seen before but it did not take long to figure out that they were all advocates for anything but fossil fuels. When Dr. Mukherjee explained his need for fossil fuel there was palpable indignation at the table that he could possibly think that additional fossil fuel infrastructure was necessary. I think that they thought there was another option. Frankly I came real close to lecturing them that the most likely alternative option is to shut down and move elsewhere. Here is a company doing everything they can to meet the standards of New York State and it is not enough for these people. I really think they want to shut down everything and make the state a park.
My ultimate problem for this effort is energy innumeracy epitomized by the naïve belief that the conversion to a fossil free society will be easy and cheap. This disconnect from reality is constantly repeated by the advocates and crony capitalists, publicized by a complicit media and cheered by progressive politicians.
National Grid came out with their 80×50 policy last year. That is so old news now with advocates arguing not only for a 100% reduction but now they want an even sooner deadline. As a result, I don’t think this plan is enough to satisfy Governor Cuomo’s ambitions or the environmental advocates who attend these conferences. Although National Grid may hate to admit it, the reality is that they know that their 80×50 goal is going to lead to consumer pain but I think they believe they can hide behind the virtue signaling from the rabid advocates and politicians catering to that base when the bills come due. The reality is more likely that those supporters will turn on them and say if only they had done the plan right and if only they had committed to even more reductions then it would have worked without excessive costs.
The fact is that these clean energy goals are doomed to failure simply because of physics. It is all about the energy density needed to run a modern society. Fossil fuels are difficult to replace because wind, solar and batteries have nowhere near the energy density necessary. Moreover, renewable solar and wind projects cannot provide required electric system stability needs associated with voltage, frequency and synchronization control, regulating margin needed for rapid load changes, load ramping capabilities needed for large grid operation nor can they provide spinning and standby reserves for unexpected load changes. Only dispatchable and reliable fossil and hydro plants can provide all these functions while nuclear can provide some aspects of these requirements. Energy storage batteries can also provide some of these requirements but those costs are rarely included by advocates of “clean and green” energy. Wind and solar resources can be integrated into the existing system easily up to some point but the 80% reduction goal will undoubtedly exceed the threshold where electric system stability needs must be addressed. Absent a magical solution the 100% goal is a major technological challenge and will be very expensive because as the control efficiency increases the control cost per unit of reduction increases exponentially.
One last observation. In my opinion, a major problem with the electric industry in New York today is ownership by absentee landlords. For example, National Grid is based in London and its management is no longer connected in any real sort of way with its customers. In the old days management lived locally and corporate actions affected family, friends and neighbors. When there was a problem managers were personally affected and responded quickly. That certainly is no longer the case. Couple that detachment with a New York Administration that has intimidated not only all the state agencies but most of the businesses in the state to further the political agenda of the Governor at the expense of all other considerations and National Grid’s plan is simply going with the flow. I do not believe that they are not unaware of the technological and cost implications of their plan but because they are not members of the community they don’t care.