The 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 and the comment period for the Draft Scoping Plan that outlines how to meet that goal recently ended. Here I describe comments submitted by New York Energy and Climate Advocates.
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 submitted comments on the Plan and have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to that 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 the meet the goals to the Council. 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 tried to quantify the impact of the strategies. That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment at the end of 2021. The Climate Action Council states that it will revise the Draft Scoping Plan based on comments and other expert input in 2022 with the goal to finalize the Scoping Plan by the end of the year.
New York Energy and Climate Advocates
New York Energy & Climate Advocates (NYECA) is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization of scientists, engineers, environmentalists, business professionals, and advocates for social justice who understand the reality of climate change and the moral imperative for timely action employing effective solutions that work in the real world. Keith Schue, Technical Advisor, MS Electrical Engineering, and Leonard Rodberg, PhD Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies Queens College/CUNY, Co-Director Community Studies of New York, Inc. submitted an impressive set of comments.
The comments are organized into six sections:
- An unrealistic approach to a very real problem,
- System-level realities of grid decarbonization,
- Errors and oversights,
- Consequences of failure,
- Designing a decarbonization plan that works , and
The cover letter summarizes the comments:
We acknowledge the substantial effort which has gone into adoption of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), analysis that has been performed by NYSERDA, and numerous meetings that have been convened by the Climate Action Council and various working groups. We are also grateful for the public hearing process which has allowed interested parties to provide comment. However, our organization is deeply concerned that the scoping plan drafted by the Council will not meet the CLCPA’s aggressive goals. As we will demonstrate, the unrealistic and technically flawed plan which has been proposed sets New York up for failure with respect to its decarbonization objectives, ultimately perpetuating the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. In doing so, it also threatens to prolong the exposure of environmental justice communities to pollution, unduly burden ratepayers, and hurt the state economically.
Respectfully, our concern stems from the fact that NYSERDA and the Climate Action Council have cast aside important “tools in the toolbox”, thereby turning a difficult task into one that, from a practical standpoint, becomes impossible. No form of energy is without impact and the technical potential of some carbon-free sources are limited. However, addressing the climate crisis requires an unbiased, science-based review of all viable technologies without prejudice. The draft plan fails to do this.
As we discuss, by downplaying the value of New York’s reliable fleet of nuclear plants and ignoring the potential of expanding nuclear power in state (and to a lesser degree hydro), the draft is left contemplating implausible scenarios—constructs which rely on unrealistic amounts of intermittent generation, massive battery storage, and an unbelievable network of hydrogen-based firm backup capacity, comparable to the total capacity of fossil fuel plants in the state today. Further, by relying on substantial amounts of imported electricity, a dubious exchange of energy with other regions to meet real-time demand, and copious amounts of materials produced elsewhere in the world, the draft plan undermines claims that its proposed approach serves as a model of sustainability for the nation or world. Perhaps most concerning is that the draft scoping plan turns a blind eye to clear warnings of how the strategy it has put forth—as seen in both California and Germany—falls apart in practice, and the danger which that failure poses to New York’s environment, its economy, and energy security.
To be clear, we support the state’s goal of carbon-free electricity by 2040. We also believe that it is achievable—but not with the plan which has been proposed.
This article summarizes the sections of NYECA’s comments. The overall theme is that making nuclear power a significant contributor to New York’s total electricity portfolio will be the only credible way forward for decarbonization. The summaries are brief and I recommend checking out the document itself because the presentation was outstanding.
An unrealistic approach to a very real problem
The comments focus on the electric sector because “the burning of fossil fuels for electricity is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and because—as the Council and NYSERDA admit—successful decarbonization will require the beneficial electrification of other sectors, which in turn requires generating even more electricity.” This section describes the challenge by showing where the current electrical energy comes from and how much is needed. In the future the load is going to grow and all the energy generated using fossil fuels (around 40%) will have to be replaced by zero-emissions generating resources.
I liked the way the Draft Scoping Plan approach was described. They presented the following figure that shows the proposed deployment of generating resources.
NYSERDA Scenario 3 Electricity Generation Capacity (MW)
The comments explain:
As seen above, NYSERDA’s plan relies upon a very rapid and dramatic expansion of generation capacity and storage. Whereas NYSERDA predicts a doubling of demand between 2020 and 2050, the amount of carbon-free capacity to meet that demand—which translates into physical equipment that must be built and deployed—would need to increase nearly nine-fold. The fundamental reason for this is because the Climate Action Council’s draft plan relies overwhelmingly on underperforming resources with low capacity factors. The DC capacity factor of photovoltaic solar panels within upstate New York is only about 14%-16%. Likewise, onshore wind in the state has an average capacity of only 26% based on NYISO data.
Then this section describes the issues associated with the wind and solar resources projections:
NYSERDA’s assumptions about capacity factor and other flaws in the plan are discussed in the next section of these comments. However, even if one ignores those issues, at face value the agency’s own figures reveal that the scale and pace of deployment for solar, wind, and other necessary support infrastructure being contemplated defies reality, exceeding rates anywhere on the globe. Neither NYSERDA nor DEC attempt to quantify the physical impacts of such an endeavor, including the amount of land conversion involved, material requirements, transmission, or the logistics of supply chains and construction. Nevertheless, as discussed below, NYSERDA’s estimates of required capacity are sufficient to gauge whether the proposed plan passes the straight-face test. It does not.
I could not agree more. The rest of this section provides examples of the proposed deployment resources that are worth a look. It concludes: ”By relying overwhelmingly on low-capacity-factor intermittent sources, which in turn require massive amounts of storage, backup generation, and transmission, the proposed plan not only invites failure, but also puts New York’s economy and ratepayers at risk while maximizing harm to the environment.”
System-level realities of grid decarbonization
This section emphasizes the importance of having dispatchable resources available to keep the lights on. I have found it hard to make this complex concept user-friendly and I think the authors did a good job on it.
The section defines the required resource as ““Firm” generation, meaning baseload or dispatchable generation capable of delivering electricity whenever needed, is a primary component of every electric grid on Earth, whether it has a high-carbon, low-carbon, or zero-carbon content.” It goes on to show that the places that have successfully decarbonized have done so using nuclear power or hydropower, both sources of “firm” generation.
The comments then explain that grid instability is an issue with intermittent resources. As the penetration of these resources increases an entire additional layer of facilities and infrastructure to make, store, and transport energy is needed. This is the dispatchable, emissions-free resource (DEFR). The case is persuasively made that nuclear energy reduces costs for deep decarbonization programs.
The comments then use the findings of the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) Phase II Climate Change Impact and Resilience Study to highlight issues with the Draft Scoping Plan. My comments made the same point that “It is concerning that NYSERDA’s analysis differs so much from that of NYISO, the entity charged with maintaining the state’s electric grid. We believe NYSERDA must reconcile its work with NYISO’s Phase II report and provide a substantive explanation of differences to the Climate Action Council and public.” This section explains that “NYISO leaves no doubt about the difficulties created by relying so heavily upon intermittent sources” using three examples.
Errors and oversights
This section described six issues that describe specific errors, oversights, and omissions which prevent it from serving as dependable framework for the ultimate scoping plan. I hope that the Climate Action Council reads this section because it describes the problems well and they are issues that should be addressed in the revisions for the Final Scoping Plan. I believe that these issues are important and if the Council blows them off that it will prove that the public stakeholder process is no more than a token process to create the appearance of accepting public input pursuant to the Climate Act instead of an earnest attempt to incorporate public stakeholder recommendations.
The six issues described are:
- Dubious use of imports/exports
- Unrealistic capacity factors
- Necessary replacement of renewable infrastructure
- Inefficient backup generation
The first three all affect the projections of the resources needed. Imports are used as a resource that fills in where needed but the comments explain the weaknesses in their assumptions. The capacity factor is a measure of the availability of a generating resource and the Draft Scoping Plan assumes unrealistically high values. It is assumed that no renewable infrastructure constructed before 2050 needs to be replaced, but that is unrealistic. The end result from these issues is that the Draft Scoping Plan underestimates the resources needed and thus the costs. The comments also point out that wind turbines and solar panels are more susceptible to extreme weather than nuclear power plants so there is a huge risk incurred by depending predominantly upon them.
The comments note that “Other than stating frequently that transmission improvements are needed, the draft scoping plan provides no substantive discussion of how much or what kind of new transmission infrastructure must be built”. The comments go on to note that the documentation for the Draft Scoping Plan “does not address major transmission upgrades and new corridor projects that will be necessary between zones, including long-range transmission to bring electricity downstate from upstate wind and solar projects, or into the state from outside New York”.
The particular curtailment problem described in these comments refers to periods of time when the output from wind and solar resources are greater than the power needed on the grid and has to be cut back to reduce stress on the grid. The comments explain that the NYISO has determined that in order reduce wasting this power more transmission has to be built. The Draft Scoping Plan “essentially ignores the problem and broadly assumes that all ‘excess’ electricity from renewables can be directed to the operation of electrolyzers for hydrogen production.” The problem is that they just assume that can be done and don’t prove it is feasible.
The final issue raised is inefficient backup generation. The comments note:
An issue often overlooked by energy models is the extent to which the inefficient “partnering” of intermittent sources with dispatchable generation affects emissions in a dynamic system. One cannot simply subtract new renewable generation on a watt-hour basis from prior fossil-fuel generation and assume that carbon-emissions decline proportionally.
The comments explain that relying on intermittent renewables may require partnering with simply-cycle generators that respond rapidly but are less efficient than combined-cycle plants, or running gas plants in “hot-standby”. In the real world, these techniques can erode the carbon-reducing benefits of having renewables in a system.
Consequences of failure
The main point of this section is that there is plenty of evidence that “demonstrate that decarbonization plans which are over reliant on intermittent generation are least reliable, least affordable, and most likely to fail.” In my comments I made the point that there is specific language in the Climate Act that requires the Council to consider what is happening at other jurisdictions. This section shows that in California and Germany where renewables have been promoted at the same time nuclear power is being phased out higher costs and lower reliability have resulted.
The comments go on to show that we are already seeing similar issues subsequent to the retirement of 2,100 MW of zero-emissions at Indian Point over the last several years. The following figure shows how the energy produced at Indian Point was mostly replaced with fossil fuels and net imports. The claim that renewable energy and efficiency has made up for the retirement is false.
New York Electricity Generation including Behind-the Meter Solar (TWh)
May 2019 – April 2020 / May 2020 – April 2021 / May 2021 – April 2022
The comments go on to show that emission rates have increased commiserate with the use of more fossil fuels. In addition, costs have gone up too. The conclusion to this section sums it up:
The inconvenient truth is that in the three years since adoption of the CLCPA, New York took an enormous step backwards on fighting climate change and environmental justice. We can expect the same to occur if the licenses of New York’s upstate nuclear plants are not renewed. New York should learn from past mistakes, not repeat them.
Designing a decarbonization plan that works
I agree with these comments that argue that the Draft Scoping Plan as proposed cannot realistically succeed. The NYECA plan emphasizes proven technology so it has a much better chance of success.
The following quote is a good summary:
Solar and wind pose two fundamental problems: (1) low energy density, which affects the sheer volume of materials, land, and infrastructure required to produce electricity; and (2) intermittency, which interferes with the delivery of energy when it is actually needed, making the integration of such sources into the grid increasingly difficult as more are deployed. The greatest mistake that New York can make is to underestimate the difficulty that these two factors present. An effective solution will be one that avoids them.
This section points out that “rather than assembling a multitude of intermittent low-capacity-factor generators plus massive battery storage in an effort to provide most of this aggregate continuous energy, a far more efficient use of generating capacity would be to incorporate a much smaller set of firm generators with high-capacity-factor that are capable of running continuously, or nearly so.” They go on to point out that nuclear and hydropower work well for this purpose.
Instead of relying on firm generation as merely “backup” to intermittent wind and solar, NYECA proposes making advanced nuclear power (in addition to existing nuclear and hydropower) the backbone of a reliable carbon-free electric grid. Wind, solar, and storage would also be part of their strategy, although at more modest, realistically achievable levels.
Their approach has two big advantages over the Draft Scoping Plan:
- “It avoids an excessive, unrealistic, and unwelcomed buildout of solar and wind, massive battery plants and imposing new transmission infrastructure—thereby saving farmland and nature”.
- “It avoids a tremendous amount of additional dispatchable zero-emission capacity for “backup” generation.”
The remainder of the section fleshes out details of their decarbonization strategy, including an example of how the total amount installed capacity in the future could be significantly reduced by deploying advanced nuclear power starting in the 2030’s instead of industrial-scale solar. Further information about issues associated with trying to use hydrogen, biogas and carbon sequestration are included. Finally, there is a very nice summary of the current state of nuclear technology options available, life-cycle impacts of nuclear compared to other generating technologies, and safety and human health. I think it is a very persuasive argument that not only should existing nuclear be included in the Final Scoping Plan but that it should also include new nuclear.
There are six recommendations in these comments. I will briefly summarize them below but strongly recommend reading the comments themselves.
- “Remove prejudicial bias against zero-carbon solutions” explains why it is important to eliminate the bias against nuclear power that is present in the Draft Scoping Plan.
- “Consider Alternative Scenarios with greater role for firm carbon-free generation, including the comprehensive analysis of impacts” makes the point that when all the impacts and costs are considered that nuclear deserves a bigger role in the Final Scoping Plan.
- “Provide explicit support for sustaining existing firm carbon-free resources, including nuclear power” is a direct response to the irrational demands of some members of the Council to shut down existing nuclear.
- “Invest in new technology, including nuclear power” suggests that given the promise of new technology, including nuclear that additional funding is entirely appropriate.
- “Establish an effective structure for climate action” recommends that adjustments to the membership of the Council be made because of parochial biases of some of its members preclude a fair treatment of these recommendations. The comments also recommend improvements to the process moving forward
- Evaluation of Environmental Impacts and Mitigation recommends a better assessment of cumulative environmental impacts and specific mitigation measures to limit the sprawl of wind and solar projects.
One of the advantages of these comments is that they are consistent with the zero-emissions mandate of the Climate Act. I personally don’t think that getting to “zero” emissions is a good thing because it adds so much cost, complexity, and risk that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.
In order to be consistent with the Climate Act insistence on “zero” emissions these comments preclude the use of natural gas. I started working for the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation in 1981 and I found a spreadsheet that lists the 1984 emissions for the four generating plants at Dunkirk, Buffalo, Oswego, and Albany. In that year the totals from those four plants were: sulfur dioxide emissions totaled 136,684 tons at a rate of 2.0 lb per mmBtu, nitrogen oxide emissions totaled 37,221 tons at a rate of 0.56 lb per mmBtu and carbon dioxide emissions totaled 12,530,220 tons at a rate of 187 lb per mmBtu. In 2021 the statewide total emissions were sulfur dioxide emissions totaled 1,570 tons at a rate of 0.01 lb per mmBtu, nitrogen oxide emissions totaled 8,718 tons at a rate of 0.04 lb per mmBtu and carbon dioxide emissions totaled 28,550,157 tons at a rate of 118 lb per mmBtu. Those reductions occurred because coal and residual oil generation has been replaced by natural gas generation. I submit that those reductions are close enough to zero that all the wind, solar, energy storage, and zero-emissions dispatchable resource infrastructure necessary to go to zero are unwarranted.
If it were up to me, the pragmatic future energy system would go all in for natural gas with one important restriction. Natural gas has so many unique and useful characteristics that make it so valuable that using it for baseload electricity production is inappropriate. Thankfully there are two proven technologies that have zero emissions that can be used for that purpose. Of course, I am talking about nuclear and hydro. I should also point out that until such time that someone can show me the health impacts associated with the observed reductions in emissions and ambient air quality that occurred over my career are proportional to the projected impacts used to demonize natural gas, then I remain unconvinced that eliminating natural gas use is warranted.
NYECA comments make a convincing case that the proposed plans have serious issues. They explain why a system that relies on wind, solar, and energy storage and excludes nuclear as a major component hasn’t worked elsewhere and won’t work here. Fatal flaws in the Draft Scoping Plan recommendations and documentation are described. However, they do present an alternative consistent with the Climate Act targets that addresses many of those problems using proven technology. The NYECA comments conclude: “If New York’s Climate Action Council is serious about decarbonizing the electricity sector in the next seventeen years, it will embrace “firm” carbon-free power, not just as “backup” to a bloated buildout of underperforming intermittent generators, but as a significant contributor of energy to the state’s electric portfolio.” I agree completely with that conclusion.