The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emission reductions to do “something” about climate change. This post describes a recent meeting of the Climate Action Council that is charged with developing a plan to meet the goals established in the Climate Act. In particular, I address the remarks made by the members of the Council relative to the public hearing comments.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. I have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to climate change risk because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability, impact affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, and will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. New York’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global GHG emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year. Moreover, the reductions 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 (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) 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”. They were assisted by Advisory Panels who developed and presented strategies to meet the goals. Those strategies were used to develop the Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants that quantified the impact of the strategies. That analysis was used to develop the Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment on December 30, 2021. Comments on the draft can be submitted until July 1, 2022.
I recently posted an article describing the composition, responsibilities and consideration requirement mandates in the Climate Act related to the Climate Action Council. Of particular relevance to this article is the requirement that “at large members shall include at all times individuals with expertise in issues relating to climate change mitigation and/or adaptation, such as environmental justice, labor, public health and regulated industries.” There are three aspects of the final Scoping Plan that have to be considered by the Climate Action Council according to the Climate Act. The Climate Act specifically states that the costs and benefits analysis must: “Evaluate, 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.” There also is a mandate to consider efforts at other jurisdictions: “The council shall identify existing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts at the federal, state, and local levels and may make recommendations regarding how such policies may improve the state’s efforts.” Finally, in, § 66-p. “Establishment of a renewable energy program” there is a safety valve: “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”.
Climate Action Council Discussion of Public Hearing Comments
The May 26, 2022 Climate Action Council meeting included an agenda item for Council members to describe their impressions of comments made at the public hearings I have prepared an overview summary of all the comments made during the Update on Public Hearings and Comments agenda item. It lists names, affiliations, and the time for the start of their comments for each speaker on the recording and my notes on the points they made.
The original schedule for the entire meeting only allocated 90 minutes. This agenda item alone took 75 minutes. The discussion started at 14:36 in the video recording. Every speaker went out of their way to laud the organization, format and logistics of the public hearings so I am not going to include that in my discussion of the comments.
Sarah Osgood, Director of the Climate Action Council, gave the update on the public hearings (15:25 of the recording). She noted that 700 people spoke at the hearings. In general, most were in support of the direction of the plan but she explained that there were more themes within that support. The themes that she mentioned were the importance of environmental justice and equity, requests for more financial incentives and concerns about lack of funding, concerns about potential job losses, affordability of electricity in the transition, the use of green hydrogen, and that speakers noted the importance of public awareness and community outreach campaigns. She said more people Downstate addressed public health impacts while reliability and EV implementation concerns were more of a concern Upstate. Finally, she said that there were requests for comment period extensions. That was a topic discussed later in the meeting. For the record, the Council has since extended the comment period until July 1.
I have one thought about her overview. I agree with the perception that most speakers were in support of the idea that we need to do something. That point was also made by many of the Council members when they described their perceptions. At the Syracuse meeting my breakdown of the speakers counted only twelve who voiced reservations or opposition; 26 supported of the Climate Act because of their concerns about climate change impacts; another 17 supporters supported it because they had an agenda beyond concerns about climate change impacts; and another four crony capitalists who showed up to support their business model.
While I agree that most speakers supported the direction of the plan, there were Council members that implied that those speakers were a representative sample of all New Yorkers. Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director, Environmental Advocates NY (starting at 40:16 of the recording) said “we heard from a lot of average New Yorkers at these hearings”. He went on to say the speakers represent the “can do spirit” of people and businesses who are ready to go with the clean energy economy. In my opinion those who want to participate in the clean energy economy were motivated to show up because they were aware of this effort whereas many New Yorkers still are not. In my breakdown of supporters nearly half have the ulterior motive trying to make money off this. This is the same group of folks that Osgood noted were requesting more financial incentives and had concerns about lack of funding. None of the people in this category represent “average” New Yorkers.
One aspect of the overview not mentioned by Osgood was the support of nuclear power. Dr. James Hanson is very well known for his climate change advocacy. According to Wikipedia his 1988 Congressional testimony on climate change helped raise broad awareness of global warming. He has also advocated action to avoid dangerous climate change. Speaking at 39:31 in the recording at the Albany meeting he said he was shocked by this plan, went on to explain that nuclear power is necessary going forward, and said it would not work out well if it was not given more emphasis. The nuclear support theme was mentioned by multiple speakers at most of the hearings I listened to. It is not clear whether not mentioning those speakers was an oversight.
Another theme concerned negative comments. For example, Co-Chair of the Council Basil Seggos, Commissioner, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation discussed his thoughts starting at 19:50 of the recording. He brought up the subject of public engagement. He admitted that when they got out into public that they gained a better appreciation of the scale of the challenge. He said it was tough to communicate the challenges and went on to say there is lots of “misinformation and misunderstanding but also lots of excitement and support”. Raya Salter, Lead Policy Organizer, NY Renews (speaking at 37:27 of the recording) claimed that there are two lobbying groups: paid advocacy community and the paid misinformation community. She said there were well-funded efforts to spread the misinformation and that there is no voice challenging it. My perception of these comments is that they both believe that anyone who disagrees is wrong and must be shut up because they are all paid shills of the evil fossil fuel industry. In the following I will address several of the examples of claimed mis-information and misunderstanding.
Clean Energy Worker Transition
Paul Shepson, Dean, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University (starting at 22:05 of the recording) picked up on the misunderstanding and misinformation label in his comments. He was the first to disparage the speakers who were worried about loss of livelihood. He said that they were misinformed because they apparently think that job impacts would be immediate. He went on to say that the transition will be gradual, giving lots of people lots of time to adjust, re-train and so on. His attitude is personally disappointing to me. The fact is that they will have plenty of time to change their careers. No appreciation that changing careers means starting over, very likely in a job that will never pay as well as they are paid now. For an academic shielded from job security issues through tenure for much of his career to dismiss their concerns as a misunderstanding is tone-deaf and insulting.
Another example of claimed misinformation was that commenters were making disparaging remarks about heat pumps for heating electrification. I think Council members also were aware of the public relations campaign that has raised awareness about their residential heating electrification plans. Robert Howarth, Professor, Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell (starting at 32:52 of the recording) said that another area for misinformation is heating electrification using heat pumps. He has one and loses no opportunity to say that heat pumps work in cold climates because his does. He said that “Anyone who says otherwise is just misinforming”. He went on to say that there are forces out there that are working to counter our messages with misinformation. Robert Rodriguez, Acting Secretary of State, New York State Department of State (starting at 43:25 of the recording) also addressed this topic. He said that the Council has to communicate directly with homeowners and rate payers about what this means. He claimed that the misinformation campaign listed four different numbers for home electrification and was using hyperbole about the impacts to scare senior citizens.
I spent a lot of time delving into the Integration Analysis for my comments and am pretty comfortable saying that I know more about what is specifically in the Integration Analysis and the Draft Scoping Plan about residential heating electrification than just about anyone on the Climate Action Council. Last month I described what I had picked out of those documents in an interview on Capital Tonight:
Ground source heat pumps are more effective in cold weather than air source heat pumps, but they are also more expensive. For example, according to the draft scoping plan device cost estimates, an air source heat pump will cost about $14,678, plus another $1,140 for the electric resistance backup.
Installation for a ground source heat pump is much more involved and could cost a homeowner $34,082, according to Caiazza.
If you invest in a basic shell to insulate your home, the cost would be $6,409. The cost of a deep shell would be upwards of $45,136.
According to Caiazza, the price range for heat pumps, installation and supplemental heat could be between $22,227 and $79,218, using the scoping plan’s estimates.
I want to make a specific point about the Rodriguez claim that four different cost estimates for home electrification means it has to be misinformation. There are two types of heat pumps and two levels of building shell improvements in the Integration Analysis. As a result, there are four cost estimates in the Draft Scoping Plan. My reading is that depending on where you live you could have a comfortable home with the cheaper air source heat pump and a basic building shell in some areas of the state like Long Island but in the coldest areas like Lake Placid, you might need to go with the more expensive ground source heat pump and the more expensive deep building shell. However, the Draft Scoping Plan does not explain what is expected of homeowners but the implication is clear that you need to improve your building shell when you install a heat pump. Dr. Howarth may be right when he says that the technology to make it work is available but I have never heard him mention building shell upgrades are required. Furthermore, no one associated with the Climate Act has ever admitted that the cost savings from the efficiency improvements for the heat pump and building shell improvements are not enough to offset the conversion costs for a natural gas fired home, see for example this research. There are savings for propane and fuel oil but not natural gas.
I am just going to raise a couple of questions for this topic because it deserves its own post. Paul Shepson Dean, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University Mis-representation at 23:39 of the recording said:
Mis-representation I see as on going. One of you mentioned the word reliability. I think the word reliability is very intentionally presented as a way of expressing the improper idea that renewable energy will not be reliable. I don’t accept that will be the case. In fact, it cannot be the case for the CLCPA that installation of renewable energy, the conversion to renewable energy, will be unreliable. It cannot be.
Robert Howarth, Professor, Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell (starting at 32:52 of the recording) picked up on that theme. He said that fear and confusion is based on mis-information but we have information to counter that and help ease the fears. He stated that he thought reliability is one of those issues: “Clearly one can run a 100% renewable grid with reliability”.
I was so taken aback by Shepson’s comment that I dashed off an email to him. (Not surprisingly he never responded.) I called his attention to one of my recent posts. He dismissed the difficulties of a transition to a renewable resource but the fact is that the Council has not listened to the reliability experts at the New York Independent System Operator or the New York State Reliability Council. My article highlighted two quotes from a recent NYISO presentation: “Significant uncertainty is related to cost / availability of Dispatchable Emissions Free Resource IDEFR) technologies, as well as regulatory definition of ‘zero-emissions’ compliant technologies” and “Some scenarios do not represent realistic system performance but are helpful in identifying directional impacts and sensitivity to key variables”. That is as close as a technical report can come to saying this won’t work as you can get without actually saying it. Furthermore, during the presentation discussion the point was made that the capacity projected numbers indicate an enormous amount of generation is needed to replace the shutdown of fossil-fired generation and implement the transition. That result was described as just “stunning”. Someone asked whether anyone on the Council is looking at what this means. These experts are clearly worried about the enormous resources that have to be built to meet to transition the New York electric grid to a net-zero.
Here are questions for these academics who consider themselves experts on the reliability of the zero-emissions electric grid. Firstly, name a single jurisdiction that has successfully entirely converted their electric grid away from fossil fuels by using wind and solar renewables. Secondly, name a single jurisdiction that has started the transition to an electric grid that relies on wind and solar that has not seen a marked increase in costs. Thirdly, explain how the Scoping Plan’s electric grid plans will prevent the electric market reliability issues seen in Australia on June 13, 2022.
Voices of Reason
I would be remiss to not point out the rational comments from a couple of the Council members. Rose Harvey, Senior Fellow for Parks and Open Space, Regional Plan Association (starting at 46:52 of the recording) pointed out that information labeled as misleading might not be misinformation. She said these topics are so complex that it is easy to not understand everything. She admitted she doesn’t understand everything Council members are saying. I think that is a key admission. Some of the more vocal Council members talk a good game but there is no indication that they have the background and experience to have an educated opinion on some of the topics they so confidently talk about. A little more humility and a lot more reliance on subject matter experts would markedly improve the quality of the final Scoping Plan.
Dennis Eisenbach, President, Viridi Parente (51:09 of the recording) felt it was necessary to speak up because he said he was “starting to get concerned about some of the comments made by some Council members”. He said that: “It is almost like we are dismissing critical input maybe because we don’t agree with it or doesn’t flow naturally in what we are trying to do with the scoping plan document so that concerns me a little bit.” He suggested that “If there are issues that are out there brought up by the public or whoever brought them up that kind of like create a misunderstanding or misleading premise let’s develop a frequently asked questions section of our plan”. He concluded: “I don’t want us to be in a position that we are determining what is valid and what is not valid from the eyes of the individuals trying to provide input because if you want to shut down input this is a good way of doing it”. It is well worth listening to all his comments.
I am very concerned about the majority of comments made about the speakers at the public hearings. For one thing, the natural tendency to focus on those speakers whose views align with your own definitely colored the summary descriptions. There was no recognition that speakers only had two minutes to speak and that might be the reason there were so few dissenting topics. Finally, the suggestion that the speakers were a representative sample of average New Yorkers may lead to the conclusion that they have overwhelming support. However, there is no reason to believe that the distribution of comments made represents the feelings of even a fraction of New Yorkers. In my opinion the Council needs to get out into the average New Yorker’s world and strike up conversations about particular aspects of the Scoping Plant that directly affect people. I have found that when I tell people the plan is to switch to electric heat the most frequent response is “what am I supposed to do when the electricity goes out?”. Average New Yorkers have figured out that natural gas, fuel oil and propane heating system fuels are much less likely to have outages than the electric “fuel” proposed. How do Council members propose to respond to that?
I applaud Rose Harvey for stating the obvious fact that it is impossible for all Council members to be experts in all aspects of the enormous scope of the Scoping Plan. Unfortunately, that leads to a lack of understanding of the caveats and conditions of many of the claims made. At the top of my list of examples of this problem is the cost benefit analysis. I am pretty sure that the majority of the Council don’t understand that the claim “The cost of inaction exceeds the cost of action by more than $90 billion” includes the caveat that the benefits are “relative to the Reference Case”. The authors of the Draft Scoping Plan and the leadership of the Council have completely neglected explaining the implications and ramifications of that condition. Based on my analyses this claim that the benefits out-weigh the costs is incorrect. There are other similar claims in the Draft Scoping Plan that do not explain the implications of the caveats and conditions used.
I think that the emphasis on misinformation and misunderstanding by vocal members of the Council is hypocritical. Ostensibly the public comment period is to ask for full representation of the issues. The impression I got was that regardless of your expertise if you are on the wrong side of the majority plan you are deemed wrong and dismissed out of hand. That’s insulting and should be beneath those enabling it. The Council leadership should take the comments of Dennis Eisenbach to heart and follow his advice: “I don’t want us to be in a position that we are determining what is valid and what is not valid from the eyes of the individuals trying to provide input because if you want to shut down input this is a good way of doing it”.
My biggest concern is reliability and that comes from working in the electric generating industry for over 40 years. However, I am only a professional not an expert. There is a clear need to respect the opinion of professionals who are experts in the area of reliability rather than the dismissive conclusions of academics from other disciplines entirely. Confronting this issue openly and transparently with the organizations and their experts is a critical need that does not appear to be on the docket for the Climate Action Council. A little more humility on the part of certain Council members and a lot more reliance on subject matter experts would markedly improve the quality of the final Scoping Plan.
In the overview of the Climate Act above I described four Climate Act mandates for the Council. Instead of focusing on how the public perceives specific issues like reliability and heat pumps, the Council should be considering how to address those mandates in their review of the Draft Scoping Plan.
The Climate Act has always been more about political theater than truly trying to address climate change while maintaining current standards of affordability, reliability, and environmental protections. This extends to the membership of the Climate Action Council. The political definition for Council qualifications, “at large members shall include at all times individuals with expertise in issues relating to climate change mitigation and/or adaptation, such as environmental justice, labor, public health and regulated industries” gave lip service to expertise but ending up naming at large members by affinity group associations. With all due respect to the agency heads the technical expertise necessary to meaningfully contribute to the development of the Scoping Plan was not a qualification criterion for those positions. That has led the Climate Action Council astray because members cannot be experts in all the aspects of the energy transition.
The Climate Act specifically states that the costs and benefits analysis must: “Evaluate, 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.” The Council has not but should address this requirement by defining what will meet this requirement. In my opinion in order to fulfill this obligation, the Final Scoping Plan must describe all control measures, assumptions used, the expected costs for those measures and the expected emission reductions for the Reference Case, the Advisory Panel scenario and the three mitigation scenarios.
There also is a mandate to consider efforts at other jurisdictions: “The council shall identify existing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts at the federal, state, and local levels and may make recommendations regarding how such policies may improve the state’s efforts.” As I write this there is an electric grid market issue that may lead to widespread load shedding and blackouts in Australia. The ultimate problem is a hostile environment for dispatchable power generators has led to a shortage when wind and solar resources are low. The Council should consider how similar energy transition programs have affected reliability and affordability so that the Climate Act transition does not have similar problems.
Finally, there are members of the Climate Action Council who believe that the energy transition must proceed no matter what because the law says so. However, New York Public Service Law § 66-p. “Establishment of a renewable energy program” includes a safety valve condition: “(4) 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”. The Council should be defining the provisions for safe and adequate electric service, impairing existing obligations, and increase in arrears or service disconnections. Those conditions should be established up front, implementation plans should be evaluated against those criteria, and then tracked during implementation to see if they are being maintained.