New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that will “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda” and voted to release the Draft Scoping Plan late last year. After a two-month hiatus the Council finally got around to having a meeting to discuss the plan for 2022 on March 3, 2022 (recording here). This post describes my thoughts about the meeting and plan.
I have written extensively on implementation of the Climate Act because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability and affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. 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.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act establishes a “Net Zero” target by 2050. The Climate Act requires the Climate Action Council to “[e]valuate, using the best available economic models, emission estimation techniques and other scientific methods, the total potential costs and potential economic and non-economic benefits of the plan for reducing greenhouse gases, and make such evaluation publicly available” in the Scoping Plan. The integration analysis developed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants was used to develop the Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment on December 30, 2021. At that time, the Climate Action Council stated that the public comment period would extend through at least the end of April 2022 and would include a minimum of six public hearings. This meeting outlined their plans for 2022.
March 3, 2022 Meeting
The meeting followed the usual routine of all previous meetings. After the formal welcome, roll call, and consideration of the previous meeting minutes, the co-chairs take the floor to blame any recent unusual weather on climate change (slow couple of months because there were no examples this time), to brag about what a great job they are doing with the implementation process, highlight anything the Governor proposed related to the climate recently (in this case the State of the State annual address), and highlight any related project awards.
My primary interest was the overall goals and objectives discussion starting at 23:50 of the video. There was a discussion of the proposed 2022 activities & schedule, a debate about the outstanding topics that required further deliberation, an agreement about the decision-making process and a conversation regarding public engagement.
The activity and schedule overview discussion starting at 25:41 in the recording was disappointing. The proposed plan is for three phases. From the start of the year through the end of April they proposed to gather information. From May to August the information there will be a discussion and deliberation phase. Over the rest of the year the final scoping plan will be drafted and finalized. This is disappointing because there is no iterative component. There is no chance for stakeholders to ask questions and respond to their answers.
In addition, there is no opportunity for the Council to ask stakeholders about their comments. If, for example, the Council ever gets around to reading the comment I submitted on February 1 where I argue that the claims that the benefits are greater than the costs are wrong, I believe that claim should be addressed and not ignored. There was no indication in the discussions that this situation would ever arise which pretty much suggests to me that this process is just going through the motions and substantive issues raised in comments will simply be ignored. It that is not the case and they do respond to substantive issues like whether the benefits may not be greater than the costs, then I think I should be given the chance to rebut whatever hand-waving argument they contrive to claim I am wrong.
The next slide (25:41 in the recording) presented the plan for Council meetings and supporting activities) It is encouraging that the expert topical input includes the opportunity for experts to provide input and feedback on topics of interest and for representatives of key sectors and industries to provide targeted feedback on topics of interest. However, there is a problem because throughout the implementation process to date, only one side of the transition challenge has been heard. The Council members who spoke at the meeting are missing this point. I will discuss this concern more later.
Climate Justice Working Group feedback was the subject of the next slide (30:12 in the recording). In my opinion the Climate Action Council has placed an inappropriate level of focus on this feedback. There is a Public Service Commission mandate that should be the first priority. Public Service (PBS) CHAPTER 48, ARTICLE 4, § 66-p. Establishment of a renewable energy program (4) states:
The commission may temporarily suspend or modify the obligations under such program provided that the commission, after conducting a hearing as provided in section twenty of this chapter, makes a finding that the program impedes the provision of safe and adequate electric service; the program is likely to impair existing obligations and agreements; and/or that there is a significant increase in arrears or service disconnections that the commission determines is related to the program.
I interpret that to mean that the Climate Act has to meet the following obligations:
- It cannot impede the provision of safe and adequate electric service (i.e., reliability)
- It cannot impair existing obligations and agreements and I assume they mean existing contracts
- It cannot cause a significant increase in arrears or service disconnections that the commission determines is related to the program (i.e., affordability)
The Council’s focus on meeting the targets and placating the Climate Justice Working Group ignores these obligations. With all due respect to the Working Group, they have no affordability and reliability responsibilities so their priorities differ and could easily result in a Scoping Plan that does not address those obligations adequately. More importantly, reliability and affordability issues impact disadvantaged communities more than other communities so they should be their priority too.
The next slide addressed public input (33:27 in the recording). The Climate Action Council is required to hold six in-person hearings across the state but they proposed to add one more public hearing and two virtual public hearings. However, I am very disappointed with the proposed hearings approach because I think that substantive issues raised won’t get recognized. They apparently plan to follow the same approach to public input as was used for the advisory panels input. In particular, they plan on three-hour hearings and to limit speakers to two minutes which is insufficient time for anything meaningful. Instead it is about enough time for a speaker to say that they are in favor or not in favor of the plan. Ultimately this approach means the Council is simply going through the motions for the public input requirement of the Climate Act.
The concept that the Council would hold meetings to solicit expert input was a feature in the presentation. However, there was no recognition that the Council might want to invite speakers to participate in a Council meeting if their comments raised issues not addressed in the Draft Scoping Plan.
Another issue related to the public comments is how they will be handled. It was mentioned that there already have been over 1,000 comments submitted to the portal. The following slide says that “Council to consider the full set of public comments after the comment period closes” (discussed at 34:20 in the recording) but it is silly to wait to start to evaluate the comments until the end of the comment period. Clearly staff has to be organizing the comments and there was mention that the Council will have access to the NYSERDA web system to see the comments. I think that the comments should be publicly available after they are reviewed for acceptability and not held from the public until the end of the public comment period. The comments should be sorted regarding relevance to specific chapters, issues, or form submittals expressing generic support or lack of support.
The proposed schedule and meeting locations for the public hearings was discussed starting at 35:30 in the recording. Staff pointed out that adding other meeting locations beyond the six mandated in the Climate Act means that the comment period is going to be extended 30 days until the end of May. Nonetheless Council members suggested additional public hearings in Nassau/Queens, Yonkers/Westchester, Southern Tier and Mid-Hudson areas.
There was a long discussion about the timing, content, and format of the in-person and virtual meetings.
The next slide (1:12:55) discusses the Integration Analysis plans for 2022. The authors not that “priority topics can be addressed by focused sensitivity analysis”, but also mentions that there isn’t much time to able to do additional research based on feedback.
This reinforces my argument that the feedback from already submitted public comments and others submitted before the end of the public comment period should be evaluated and considered on an on-going basis. The slide says that the analyses needed will “need to be finalized within the second quarter of 2022”. Three potential areas of inquiry are mentioned in the slide:
- Continued assessment of impacts of electrification, heating system configuration, and magnitude of building shell efficiency investment on key output metrics (e.g., system peak, cost)
- Impacts of expanded uncertainty range of electric distribution system cost
- Further alignment of benefit cost framework with net GHG emissions accounting in Statewide GHG Emissions Report
While I don’t disagree with these areas of inquiry, I am disappointed that the words feasibility, reliability, and affordability are not mentioned. In my opinion the Draft Scoping Plan does not address those concepts adequately. The fact that they are not menti0ned suggests that the authors of the Draft Scoping Plan think they are covered.
The next slide (1:14:50) describing 2022 activities discusses the finalization of the Scoping Plan. It just fits the finalization into the schedule. After this slide was presented, there was an opportunity for comments and discussion (starting at 1:17:00). Carolyn Ryan pointed out the time to discuss public comments is going to be limited so it will be difficult to incorporate public comment. Sarah Osgood pointed out that there have been 1100 to 1200 comments submitted already. She said that they would be summarizing them as quickly as possible as they come in and consider how to present them to the Council for consideration. At 1:20:50 Gavin Donohue made the first mention of reliability. He said that he hoped that expert engagement would include this topic.
Topics and Process
According to the next slide (1:24:30), equity and climate justice “are overarching lenses to apply consistently to all topic areas”. That sums up the framework of Climate Act implementation as it stands. In any rational take on implementation, reliability and affordability should be the overarching lenses applied to all topic areas. Isn’t it obvious that this is the cornerstone to equity and climate justice because an unaffordable and unreliable energy system will impact those least able to pay the most? Incorporating those social justice issues as part of the need for an affordable and reliable system is the appropriate approach but I fear it is not on the agenda.
Three topics were discussed that “require more deliberation” starting at 1:27:02. All of these issues were raised by members of the Climate Action Council. In order to meet the Climate Act mandates the natural gas system has to be replaced and this is the first topic. Some Council members have interpreted the law to preclude the use of combustion entirely so the “potential applications of advanced fuels” topic addresses this issue. If it is not necessary to consider technological feasibility then adding another layer of untried technology at the scale necessary may be appropriate but someday, someone has to point out that eliminating combustions has risks. Chapter 17, Economy-Wide Strategies of the Draft Scoping Plan addresses comprehensive policies that price GHG emissions.
In the process for supporting council decision-making slide (starting at 1:30:33) several suggestions were made. Given that there are unresolved issues even before the public comment period started a process is an obvious need. There is no question that additional input and support to the Council are needed. During the meeting they talked about subgroups developing recommendations for particular topics. My concern is that the topics chosen will be based on the biases of Council members rather than on the feasibility of the proposed transition without adverse impacts on reliability and affordability.
Starting at 1:47:00 the three identified topics were discussed in detail. This particular discussion was so relevant that I am going to make it the subject of another post.
The last substantive slide (2:46:20 in the recording) addressed the decision-making process itself and particularly how they will address “consensus”. I think the statement “Consensus requires that there has been a good faith effort to find a package of recommendations that meets the most important interests of Council members” sums up my over-arching concern about the Council. In particular the interests of some of the more vocal Council members are ideological rather than logical. I keep mentioning affordability and reliability feasibility concerns because those ideologues are ignoring those critical concerns. Given that every other jurisdiction that has tried to implement some similar transition to emissions-free energy systems has run into problems with affordability and reliability ignoring them in this instance is a recipe for disaster. Of course, when that happens it will be somebody else’s fault.
There are some over-arching points to be made regarding the 2022 Climate Action Council plans for this year. The first issue is logistical. The outlined plan does not place enough emphasis on starting to address comments received as soon as possible. I believe the process of summarizing, categorizing, and disseminating comments should start immediately so that the Council can determine if there are substantive issues that need to be addressed. If the Council makes it clear that the sooner a substantive issue is raised, the more time they will have to address it, then I think stakeholders will realize it is in their best interests to get comments in as soon as possible rather than waiting until the comment period closes.
I was disappointed that reliability and affordability were not at the top of the list of issues that need to be addressed in 2022. It appears that climate justice and disadvantaged communities are higher priorities despite the massive impacts of higher costs and unreliable power on those least able to afford higher costs and blackouts. That point of emphasis reinforced my concern that for many on the Council the green energy transition is more about political pandering to specific voting blocs than addressing climate change in a rational way.
Finally, the Council appears to be tone deaf to the need to hear both sides of substantive issues. For example, Dennis Elsenbeck at 1:44:58 bias notes that we “use the word bias all the time”. He goes on to argue that there is bias in this entire process but then claims that “You deal with bias by having an unbiased facilitator”. In the discussion of combustion avoidance his suggestion is that the Council should hear from experts like Plug Power on the topic of fuel cells. According to their website, Plug Power is the “leading provider of clean hydrogen and zero-emission fuel cell solutions that are both cost-effective and reliable”. There is zero chance that any presentation they give to the Council is going to suggest in any way, shape, or form that fuel cells are not the answer with no downsides. If all the presentations to the Council are from subject matter experts that have a bias towards their technology, then an unbiased facilitator will not be needed because there is only one side presented. It is time to open up the discussion and make sure that the pros and cons of all implementation topics are heard. For example, at 29:40, Sarah Osgood mentioned having a presentation on district heating systems. If this is done then they should not invite just the advocates for those systems but people who can describe potential issues with this approach.
The scope and schedule of the Climate Act transition to a “zero-emissions” energy system is so daunting that a full accounting of the risks to reliability and affordability cannot hope to be adequately addressed in the time frame available. Nonetheless, I had hoped that the Council would consider the inconvenient issues as well as the convenient issues. The plan for the electric system transition relies on technology that does not exist. Any responsible implementation plan would incorporate specific technological and cost conditions in the schedule for this massive transition to ensure that the technology needed is available before the existing system is dismantled. The Integration Analysis has not confronted this reality and the Council appears blissfully unaware of this risk The public comment period is supposed to afford stakeholders the opportunity to raise concerns about the viability of the proposed plan relative to issues like this. However, the plans outlined at this meeting suggest that the public comment requirement will be treated as a formality rather than an opportunity for meaningful issues to be raised and considered. I do not see how this will end well.