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What's Wrong with Cuomo's Energy Plan?

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Wind farm in northern New York State by KQED

By Howie Hawkins* and Steve Breyman

New York State faces a fateful choice over its energy, environmental, and economic future.

It can chose a 21st century upgrade to clean energy and create a sustainable prosperity that protects our climate, cleans our air, and revives our economy. Or it can continue to rely on a 19th and 20th century fossil fueled energy system that will leave it battered by climate change, poisoned by pollution, and economically stagnant while other states and nations pass it by as they adopt the new sustainable technologies of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, New York's draft Energy Plan points backward to the fossil fueled past that leads to economic and environmental decline. The carbon emission reductions goal of the draft Energy Plan is far too little and too late.

The draft Energy Plan affirms Governor Paterson's 2009 Executive Order 24 committing New York to the consensus goal of the International Panel on Climate Change at that time of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 below 1990 levels. Even at that time, and reaffirmed by more recent scientific studies, this goal was insufficient to stay below the 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures that is seen as a tipping point where an irreversible acceleration of global warming would be triggered by the release of carbon and methane now sequestered under the frozen polar zones of the planet.

Climate scientists now say the industrially developed areas of the world like New York must cut emissions by between 6 percent per year (James Hansen et al) and 10 percent per year (Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows). If New York State is to do its part in averting climate calamity, it must commit to a goal of achieving a zero-carbon energy system, or better a negative carbon energy system (by sequestering in soils the carbon residues of biofuels), in between 10 years (at 10 percent reduction per year) and 17 years (at 6 percent reduction per year).

Fortunately, there's the recent peer-reviewed study by a team of Stanford and Cornell scientists, engineers, and economists that demonstrates the technological and economic feasibility of converting to New York State's all-purpose energy system to 100% carbon-free energy in 17 years (Mark Jacobson et al). This goal and this plan should be the starting point for a state Energy Plan.

This clean energy future would put New York on the cutting edge of the Third Industrial Revolution that is already unfolding. Using technologies that are commercially available today, we can move quickly from the coal, oil, and gas fired technologies of the First and Second Industrial revolutions -- and the pollution, sprawl, and centralized corporate and governmental power of those eras -- into the sustainable clean energy system of the future.

The clean energy future features electric power and heat from the solar- and gravity-derived sources (active solar, wind, ground-source heat, small hydro, wave, tidal). Every home, office, and factory will be a power plant (solar panels) with energy storage capacity (hydrogen fuel cells). All road and rail transportation will be powered by clean electricity. The whole system will be tied together by an interactive smart grid--an energy Internet. Producers and users will sell electricity when in surplus and buy when in need.

This distributed harvesting of solar energy and its derivatives will decentralize economic and political power away from the giant energy corporations and centralized governments of the fossil fuel era and back toward local homes, businesses, and governments. Our choice is between the concentrated, hierarchical power of the old hydrocarbon society and the decentralized, democratic power of the new solar society.

The economic impact of building this carbon-free energy system in New York State would be enormous. It would create millions of good paying jobs. The Jacobson study projects $600 billion in investments over 17 years, yielding 4.5 million construction jobs and 58,000 permanent jobs with payrolls of $314 billion ($18.5 billion per year) in wages and salaries during 17-year building phase and $5 billion per year for ongoing operations and maintenance. The savings in health care costs alone from the elimination of fossil fuel air pollution would cover the costs of building the energy system before accounting for electricity sales.

Unfortunately, the Energy Planning Board, mostly appointed by Governor Cuomo, has produced a draft plan that puts forward outdated recommendations that continue to rely on dirty coal, oil, and gas and unsafe nuclear. In fact, it projects burning more methane-leaking and carbon-spewing natural gas than current levels. It envisions new natural gas pipelines and other gas infrastructure that encourages fracking in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and, sooner or later, fracking in New York.

The Governor's plan would replace oil with natural gas for heating, a sideways move indicative of its lack of ambition. The clean energy alternative is ground-source heat, passive solar, and efficient electric heating.

Cuomo's plan locks New Yorkers into additional decades of expensive, unsafe nuclear electricity. Even though two of the state's nuclear plant's licenses expire in 2029, the draft Plan foresees higher levels of nuclear generation in 2030. If the Governor wants more nukes, he should say so. There's nary a word about transition assistance for workers and communities currently dependent on nuclear power stations.

The draft Plan pays lip service to the importance of energy affordability, but does not mandate that low-income ratepayers be protected against unaffordable gas and power bills.

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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