Climate Action Council Lost Opportunities

The last several years I have spent an inordinate amount of time evaluating the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) and its legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050.  Over the past two years I have watched with disbelief as the folks charged with developing the framework for the transition used their positions to push their personal agendas at the expense of the people of New York.  Rather than addressing fundamental overarching issues, the Council has been bogged down arguing about emotional issues and details.  This post describes the lost opportunities for the Council to improve, correct, or clarify the Scoping Plan so that the transition to net-zero will result in an affordable and reliable energy system with minimal adverse environmental impacts.

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 Climate Act implementation plan and have written over 250 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good.  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 outline how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.”  The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies 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 is required to finalize the Scoping Plan by the end of the 2022. 

The meeting presentation for the 5 December 2022 Climate Action Council meeting described the remaining steps for 2022.  The meeting discussed any final desired revisions to the draft of the Final Scoping Plan.  One slide notes that the “Co-Chairs of the Council may make non-substantive, editorial or grammatical changes deemed necessary for clarity or accuracy of the Scoping Plan (e.g., correcting footnotes) prior to its publication”.  They plan to share the Executive Summary the week of December 5 and the final version of the Scoping Plan for voting will be circulated the week of December 12.  Voting is scheduled for December 19, 2022.  The final Scoping Plan will be submitted to the Governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the Temporary President of the Senate and made available to the public shortly after the voting meeting on December 19 on the Climate Act website.

In 2023 the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will promulgate enforceable regulations by the end of the year to ensure achievement of the Statewide GHG emission limits. That process will include public workshops and consultation with the Climate Action Council, the Environmental Justice Advisory Group, the Climate Justice Working Group, representatives of regulated entities, community organizations, environmental groups, health professionals, labor unions, municipal corporations, trade associations and other stakeholders.  At least two public hearings and a 120-day public comment period must be provided. Only after this extensive stakeholder process concludes is DEC authorized to propose the 2024 Implementing Regulations.

This is a very ambitious schedule and it will be hampered by the fact that the Scoping Plan is only a framework.  It does not include a feasibility analysis so it is not clear how regulations can be promulgated when the risks to reliability, affordability, and the environment are unknown.  Without that information a regulated schedule for transition components runs the risk of unacceptable impacts.  There are already obvious issues associated with the lack of an implementation plan.  Finally, the cumulative environmental impact statement mandated by state law has not been updated to incorporate the latest estimates of the resources necessary for the net-zero transition.  This post will address these three lost overarching opportunities for the Climate Action Council.

Climate Action Council

The Climate Act established the Climate Action Council to develop the Scoping Plan.  It consists of 22 members that were chosen by ideology not expertise.  There are 12 agency members and 10 at-large members: two non-agency representatives appointed by the Governor, three representatives appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one representative appointed by the minority leader of the Assembly, three representatives appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, and one representative appointed by the minority leader of the Senate.  The upcoming vote on the Scoping Plan must pass by a super majority of 15 votes.  Note that the Governor has 14 appointees on the Council: all the agency heads and two direct picks.

I am very disappointed by the response to comments.  The comment period ran from the beginning of the year to early July, but it was treated as an obligation not as an opportunity to improve, correct, or clarify the Scoping Plan.  If they were serious about addressing comments then the process would have been on-going from the start of the year.  Staff should have been reviewing comments as they came in and categorizing them.  For example, some comments addressed specific non-controversial problems such as typographical errors.  Others addressed specific methodological issues in the Integration Analysis.  Because those had a direct bearing on the veracity of the Draft Scoping Plan they should have been summarized and responses developed for Council review and consideration.  Instead, the staff presented the Council with summaries of the themes of the comments submitted.

The political theater of the public comment period included eleven Public Hearings where 700 people spoke.  Approximately 35,000 comments were received but around 25,000 comments were “potentially the same or substantially similar”, i.e., form letters.  That left on the order of 10,000 unique comments and it was obviously impossible for the Council members to read them all.   As a result, agency staff had to read, categorize, and summarize all the comments.  It appears that agency staff who were charged with reading them did not start in earnest until the end of the comment period so the very real issues associated with processing got short shrift.  Publicly all I saw was presentations to the Council that listed themes of the comments with very little specificity and it is not clear if other documentation was available to the Council.  There was clear bias in the theme presentations – anything inconsistent with narrative was disparaged, downplayed, or ignored.  No comments associated with Integration Analysis methodology or errors were discussed at any of the Climate Action Council meetings and it is not clear that the Council members are even aware that specifc integration analysis issues were raised. 

I think that the Hochul Administration decided early on to treat stakeholder comments only as an obligation.  At one of the Council meetings, it was stated that all comments would be “acknowledged” and they promised to make the comments available to the public.  During the last attempt to develop a New York Climate Plan the State provided a copy of all the comments and a response to each one of them.  I am sure that the State will argue that they were overwhelmed by 10,000 unique comments but on the other hand they are proposing to completely change the energy system of the state and commit New Yorkers to higher costs and significant reliability risks.  I thought that they would do something similar to the previous program but there is no sign that is the case.  The comments are not even publicly available at the same time the revised draft of the Scoping Plan has been finalized.  It is a slap in the face to all the people who submitted comments that it appears that there will be no acknowledgement of their concerns until the Scoping Plan is completed.  What better way to say “we don’t care and you don’t matter.”

Lost Opportunities

Regrettably, the Climate Action Council actions over the last 12 months have concentrated on specific political narratives.  The Hochul Administration’s narrative is appeasement of the constituencies that view as their political base.  For example, in the presentations on comments received, specific comments raised by the Climate Justice Working Group were addressed.  There was no similar acknowledgement of comments from the New York Independent System Operator on the vitally important electric grid.  The revisions to the Draft Scoping Plan appear to be more reflective of the issues raised by the ideologues on the Council than anything submitted by stakeholders.  The staff presentations describing stakeholder comments were quick to acknowledge numbers that supported the ideological narrative and were quicker to disparage anything that did not even if there were many comments making the point.

The result is that the focus of the Council has been on specifics, and only parts of the specifics, but not overarching issues.  This section will describe the lost opportunities for my three major concerns: reliability, affordability, and environmental impacts.

Reliability

One of the more frustrating aspects of the last year is the presumption of expertise by some Climate Action Council members who have no relevant background or experience on topics on which they confidently preach.  Astoundingly, when it comes to electric grid reliability, they have gone so far to state anyone who disagrees with them is a mis-informer.   For example, Paul Shepson, Dean, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, (starting at 23:39 of the 26 May 2022 Council meeting 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 the same issue.  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”, although he did admit it had to be done carefully. 

Two quotes from a recent New York Independent System Operator presentation directly contradict them: “Significant uncertainty is related to cost / availability of Dispatchable Emissions Free Resource (DEFR) 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”.  I have explained that is as close as a technical report can come to saying this won’t work as you can get without actually saying it.  For more information about the required but currently unavailable DEFR technologies see my DEFR page.

The recently released NYISO 2021-2040 System Resource Outlook also warns:

DEFRs that provide sustained on-demand power and system stability will be essential to meeting policy objectives while maintaining a reliable electric grid. While essential to the grid of the future, such DEFR technologies are not commercially viable today. DEFRs will require committed public and private investment in research and development efforts to identify the most efficient and cost-effective technologies with a view towards the development and eventual adoption of commercially viable resources. The development and construction lead times necessary for these technologies may extend beyond policy target dates.

I recently gave a presentation describing my skeptical concerns about the Climate Act.  I wrote it as if I were trying to persuade folks like Shepson and Howarth that there are legitimate reliability concerns.  In my blog post summary of that presentation, I described the basics of the electric grid making the point that our electric grid system has taken decades to reach the current reliability levels using resources that can be dispatched as needed.  A system that relies on wind and solar needs DEFR to provide the operators with an option to match load when it is needed the most.  I believe that all the experts who are responsible for electric reliability are concerned that a plan that relies on any technology that is not commercially viable today to replace resources by 2040 has significant inherent risks. 

I am disappointed that the Hochul Administration did not make it clear that debating reliability arguments were beyond the scope of the Council.  They should have accepted the input of the organizations responsible for electric grid reliability that warn there are issues.  Rather than debating whether there are risks, the Climate Action Council should have been discussing what they should be doing about that risk.  The biggest question is whether any reduction in reliability standards is acceptable in order to meet the Climate Act transition to net-zero targets.  Most of the expert concern revolves around the aggressive schedule.  The Council should have discussed whether a conditional schedule based on the availability of DEFR might be necessary and made recommendations for the criteria that should be used to determine whether that is necessary.

Affordability

If the Hochul Administration would bother to ask the public about the Climate Act I suspect the first question that the public wants answered is how much is this going to cost?  It is amazing that the only information provided to the Council and public was the claim that the costs of inaction are greater than the costs of action based on various versions of the following figure.  There is no documentation for the expected specific costs and emission reductions of the control strategies proposed so very little meaningful critiques are possible. The Council should have demanded better documentation than what was provided.

My comments eviscerating their claim that the costs of inaction are greater than the costs of action is the most egregious example of irresponsible replies to stakeholder comments.  I made verbal comments at the Syracuse Draft Scoping Plan public hearing on April 26 and submitted written comments that explained why the costs of inaction are greater than the costs of action claim based on this figure are misleading and inaccurate.  I followed up later with a more detailed explanation in another submitted written comment. There is no way that the reviewers of the written comments or the members of the Council that were present at the Syracuse can say that they were not aware of my comments.

I am sure that they were ignored because they destroy the narrative.  The claim is misleading because the values shown are relative to the Reference Case rather than a Business-as-usual case that is usually used in these analyses.  The Reference Case includes the Statewide zero-emissions vehicle mandate among other things because it is “already implemented.”  Does anyone really believe that the zero-emissions vehicle mandate is anything but a necessary component of the Climate Act costs?  Excluding that program alone means that $700 billion in costs are not included in the costs for the Climate Act shown in the figure.  Furthermore, the benefits incorrectly count the societal benefits of avoided carbon emissions multiple times.  The claimed $235 to $250 billion in those benefits should be no more than $60 billion. If just those two “tricks” are corrected then the costs far exceed the benefits.

Obviously, this is a basic underlying presumption of the Draft Scoping Plan that the Council should have discussed.  My claims should have been described and the authors of the Integration Analysis should have been held accountable to explain why they did what they did and why they disagree with my arguments.  Only then could the Council discuss and decide whether this claim is appropriate. 

There is a bigger problem however.  Every jurisdiction that has tried to implement a similar transition plan has seen significant price increases of electricity.  The Climate Act Council should have discussed affordability.  If the costs exceed some threshold, then I believe there should be a response.  It is up to the Council to define that affordability threshold. The NY REV Energy Affordability Policy intends to limit energy costs to no more than 6% of income as per the 2016 order from the Public Service Commission. The Council should have determined where the State stands with respect to this metric now. I have tried multiple times to find where the state stands relative to this or any other energy poverty metric but have been unable to find it.  The Council should have demanded that this metric be made readily available so that it can be tracked as the transition plan progresses.  Then their discussion could have turned to the “what if” question if the metric gets worse what should be done.

I am also disappointed that the Council did not work with the Climate Justice Working Group on the topic of affordability for those least able to afford energy price increases.  For all the social justice concerns addressed why wasn’t prevention of regressive energy price increases a priority.  The poor will be hit hardest by any energy price increase and there was nary a peep of concern.  There should have been a push to provide the energy poverty metric determined by census tract so that any disproportionate impacts on disadvantaged communities could be tracked and addressed.

Environmental Impacts

The complete lack of concern relative to the cumulative environmental impacts of the massive amounts of wind, solar, and energy storage required for the net-zero transition is another disappointment. On September 17, 2020 the Final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) for the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was released.   I estimated that the Draft Scoping Plan calls for at least 497 more onshore wind turbines, 493 more offshore wind turbines and 602 more square miles covered with solar equipment than was considered in that cumulative impact statement.  In addition, the environmental impacts of battery energy storage were not addressed and it is impossible to project the impacts of the environmental impacts of the dispatchable emissions-free resource that it included in the capacity projections because a technology has not been specified.  I commented that an updated impact statement that addresses all these issues is necessary but this topic was not mentioned as a theme at Council meetings.

The Climate Action Council should have considered whether thresholds for unacceptable cumulative environmental impacts are appropriate.  I believe that without addressing this problem that it is likely that the environmental impacts from the massive wind and solar resource developments will have far worse impacts than anything that can be ascribed to climate change caused by New York emissions but this issue was never discussed.  For example, I project that at least 216 Bald Eagles could be killed every year when there are 9,445 MW of on-shore wind.  There were 426 occupied bald eagle nest sites in New York in 2017.  I am not a wildlife biologist but those numbers indicate to me that there will be major threats to the survivability of Bald Eagles in New York.  I recommended that the Final Scoping Plan include proposed thresholds for unacceptable environmental impacts like this but the comment was never mentioned as a theme at the Council meetings.

There is another environmental impact aspect that I think the Council should have addressed.  I have written enough articles on solar siting issues that I have setup a page that summarizes them all.  I became aware of the particular issues of utility-scale solar development on agriculture after I had a couple of people contact my blog describing issues that they had and suggested that I look into the issue.  The problems that they raised are real, the solutions are available, but in the rush to develop as many renewable resources as quickly as possible, the Hochul Administration has dropped the ball on responsible utility-scale solar development.  Given the massive amount of projected utility-scale solar generation capacity required to meet Climate Act goals the rush to develop solar projects could easily lead to the permanent loss of significant amounts of prime farmland that will hurt farming communities and endanger Climate Act strategies to sequester carbon in soil. 

I submitted a comment to the Council in March calling for a moratorium on utility-scale solar siting in March but that too has been ignored.  Since I started tracking solar development project approvals last year, a total of five applications have been approved for a total of 1,120 MW.  The total project areas cover 14,812 acres and the project footprints total 5,728 acres.  Despite the best efforts of Department of Agriculture and Market staff to prevent the loss of Prime Farmland, these projects were approved and the prime area lost for farming in these projects totals 3,920 acres or 26% of the combined project areas.  This is bad enough but all three Draft Scoping Plan mitigation scenarios call for over 40,000 MW of solar development so imagine how much more prime farmland will be lost if nothing changes.  The Climate Action Council should have addressed this issue and decided whether responsible solar siting guidelines similar to the policy option roadmap for the proposed 10 GW of distributed solar development should be instated.  As a result of Hochul Administration inaction there will be significant and irreplaceable loss of prime farmland and damage to farming communities across the state.

There is another aspect of this that the Council should have addressed.  The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (AGM) “discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use”.  With respect to utility-scale renewable energy projects, “The Department’s goal is for projects to limit the conversion of agricultural areas within the Project Areas, to no more than 10% of soils classified by the Department’s NYS Agricultural Land Classification mineral soil groups 1-4, generally Prime Farmland soils, which represent the State’s most productive farmland”.  The latest solar development permit application that was approved included this response to AGM concerns:

In addition, no statutory or regulatory support is cited for AGM’s proposed 10% or less Prime Farmland soil conversion “goal” that “the production of food is more essential than the generation of [renewable] electricity,” or that soil classifications 1-4 should be avoided, even if it means interfering with the development of a renewable facility contracted to sell renewable energy credits to NYSERDA. The Certificate Conditions conserve and protect agricultural lands; it is the responsibility of AGM, and not private solar developers, to encourage the development of farming. That charge cannot be used to thwart the renewable energy goals of the State.

While Council members spent time arguing over their personal agenda issues out-of-state developers are coming into the State throwing up as much renewable energy as possible completely disregarding the New York regulatory agencies charged with protecting the State’s larger issues.  The Hochul Administration has apparently placed renewable development as the highest priority without any assessment of the impacts identified by its regulatory agencies.  The Council should have discussed whether the agencies will be allowed to do their jobs and protect the interests of the state as a whole or will be muzzled and ignored all in the name of the Climate Act.

There is one final point that I raised in comments that the Council has apparently never addressed.  New York’s contribution to global emissions of greenhouse gases is too small to expect that there will be any measurable improvement to the alleged effects of climate change on New York.  Moreover, as shown in the following graph New York’s emissions have been consistently less than the global increase in emissions since the early 1990’s.  I found that New York’s emissions are less than one half of one percent of global emissions and that the average increase in global emissions is greater than one half of one percent.  In other words, even if we eliminate our emissions the increase in global emissions will be replace them in less than a year.  Considering this information, Why is not a conditional and measured transition approach warranted?  Why didn’t the Council consider these tradeoffs.

Conclusion

 I spent a lot of time preparing comments on the Draft Scoping Plan trying to improve, correct, and clarify it so that the transition to net-zero will more likely result in an affordable and reliable energy system with minimal adverse environmental impacts.  I have seen absolutely no sign that the Hochul Administration ever had any intention of making changes to the Scoping Plan framework for the future energy system based on comments that ran contrary to their politically driven agenda.  There are no indications that any of my comments made it past the agency staff screening step to reach the Climate Action Council membership for consideration.

The Climate Action Council revisions to the Draft Scoping Plan has focused on details and ignored overarching issues.  If the Council were truly doing its job, they would be working with the New York Independent System Operator and the New York State Reliability Council to determine if the current reliability standards are adequate or must modified for the future electric grid.  If the Hochul Administration was truly worried about disadvantaged communities they would have required the Council to recommend an energy poverty metric and would have set up a clear and transparent tracking system for it at the census tract level.  If Co-Chair of the Council and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos took his responsibility for the environment seriously, he would have had a cumulative environmental impact statement completed that addressed the Integration Analysis projected renewable resource development levels and had the Council discuss environmental impact acceptability thresholds.  If Co-Chair of the Climate Action Council and President of the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority Doreen Harris wanted her organization to provide objective information and analysis, the issues I raised relative to the misleading and inaccurate cost benefit analysis would have been addressed by the Council. If Council member and Commissioner of the Department of Ag and Markets Richard Ball truly cared about New York farms he would have demanded a responsible solar siting policy for utility-scale solar development that protects prime farmland.

The Hochul Administration’s treatment of the stakeholder comments has been an insult to anyone who took the time to develop comments.  This does not portend well for the public consultation process mandated for next year.  Unfortunately, the ultimate issue is that if the zero-emissions electric grid plan is inadequate because the Council ignored critical issues raised by stakeholders, people will freeze to death in the dark.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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