ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday called for an aggressive effort to support new renewable energy projects and transmission lines to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuel plants.
Cuomo described it as a way to deal with climate change and create new jobs in a post-Covid era.
In his third State of the State speech this week, which at times sounded like the “Energy Highway” promises he made in his second year in office in 2012, Cuomo said this new effort could create 50,000 jobs and power 6 million homes in the state with green energy. The governor's speech angered some in Orleans County, where he wants a big solar facility to be built over some community opposition.
Cuomo officials said the new effort is far more comprehensive than the 2012 program, which focused on bringing all forms of energy from upstate to power-hungry downstate; the new plan is green-energy focused, expands storage capacity of renewable energy produced upstate, develops a green energy workforce and encourages New York-based renewable manufacturing.
“Our planet is in crisis,’’ Cuomo said in a relatively brief speech that served as his third of four entries to his 2021 State of the State message. Like the previous two on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday’s speech was done virtually without the usual crowd of lawmakers, lobbyists and political supporters who cheer him on.
“Nature is telling us ‘do something or I will,’ ’’ Cuomo said.
The cost of his plans remains unclear for ratepayers, who will have to pay for many of the ideas, such as long transmission lines to bring solar and wind power from northern New York and Long Island to New York City and its suburbs.
“Today’s speech by Governor Cuomo laid out in stark terms the immense challenges New York faces due to a warming climate and was clear-eyed about the extent of change needed to overcome those challenges,’’ said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY. He said his coalition looks forward to hearing from Cuomo about other efforts to battle climate change, such as electrifying transportation and addressing building efficiency standards.
The governor ticked off a number of major projects that will occur, including new green energy power facilities, a wind turbine manufacturing plant at the Port of Albany, massive offshore wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean, three “green energy” transmission lines in the eastern part of the state and a facility on Long Island to train thousands of future workers for the wind and solar industries.
The governor mentioned two projects in Western New York. One: a 20-mile transmission line from the hydrofacility in Niagara Falls to Elma that he says will maximize “renewable energy output” at Niagara Falls.
The other: a 200 megawatt solar project in Orleans County. He did not elaborate, but Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, said Cuomo is disregarding opposition by residents and some local officials who don't want large industrial projects that have been proposed in the past year there.
“Along with disrupting and destroying the quality of life where these projects are places, they also raise energy costs for local businesses and families,’’ Ortt said. He said “Democrats in Albany are intent on silencing the voices of our community so that they may fulfill socialists’ desires for a Green New Deal.”
The governor’s environment-focused speech did not touch on a number of issues. He made no mention of reliability issues associated with wind and solar energy. He said the state is moving ahead with battery systems to store renewable energy, but he did not discuss the high costs of such systems or that there are limits as to how long they can store energy.
The governor also made no mention of natural gas, or what the state might do to help communities with the loss of fossil fuel plants in the future. Cuomo did not single out Canada by name, but he talked about the need for New York to “stop relying on other countries” to fuel the state’s power needs. Canada today is a major supplier of hydropower for helping light homes and run businesses in New York.
The environment speech was also silent on the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. That was the borrowing he proposed last January, passed by lawmakers in April but then scuttled in July by Cuomo under the weight of Covid’s then-worsening impact on the economy and state’s finances.
The bond act, which would have been the state’s largest had it proceeded and been approved by voters statewide last November, called for pumping money into various environmental restoration projects, including flood mitigation efforts, fish and wildlife habitat improvements, programs to preserve open spaces and additional recreational areas and a catch-all category that Cuomo called preparing “New York for the impact of climate change.” Environmentalists and many lawmakers have been urging Cuomo to renew the bond act plan so voters could consider it this fall in a referendum.
Many details of the more vague plans Cuomo has laid out so far this week will be better flushed out when he proposes his 2021 state budget plan. He has to release that plan by next Tuesday.
In 2012, Cuomo proposed the New York State Energy Highway initiative, which was to be a major reworking of the state’s energy system as a way to fuel economic growth, improve reliability of energy flowing to homes and businesses and protecting the state’s environment.
On Wednesday, Cuomo said too many people around the world have been talking for too long about moving to a green energy-based economy.
“But people can’t agree on the means,’’ he said.
The Democratic governor said his plan is based on four concepts:
- Build enough projects to generate enough green energy to supply the state’s needs;
- Have New York’s power needs be met by suppliers from within the state’s borders;
- Build transmission lines to move green-produced energy to the markets where they are needed most, which is the New York City area in this state’s case;
- Train a workforce and have the research and development capacity to have New York’s green energy companies “compete and win on the global” stage.
As of midday Wednesday, according to real-time data on the website of the New York Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s electric grid, wind was producing only 2.9% of the state’s energy and solar was lumped into a category of other renewable sources that was producing just 1.6% of the state’s energy.
Cuomo spoke of a $26 billion public/private effort to build nearly 100 renewable energy projects. Sixty-eight of them have already been started, he noted, checking off a number of projects in upstate and downstate. A wind turbine manufacturing plant Cuomo said will be located along the Hudson River in Albany will produce 150 of the 450-foot-tall turbines each year.
“This will help stimulate the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic while leading the way to the new green energy economy,’’ Cuomo said.
For much of it to work, though, the state’s ailing energy transmission system must be improved.
“It’s a necessity,’’ Cuomo said, adding, “Enough talk. It’s time for us to act now.’’
He said the state is opening a competitive bidding process to build three new green energy transmission projects, two starting in the North Country that will bring power to downstate.
“We must replace fossil fuel power with clean energy power. There is no ifs ands or buts about it, and now is the time to do it,’’ Cuomo said.
Some environmental groups were the first out of the box with praise for Cuomo’s speech. Cuomo, said the Nature Conservancy, “continued his leadership on clean energy and the environment.”
New Yorkers for Clean Water & Jobs, whose members include Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Western New York Environmental Alliance, said: "With the ongoing pandemic and the escalating climate crisis, now is the time to build a green economy and invest in environmental programs. We can restart the economy, improve public health, safeguard clean water, tackle climate change and connect New Yorkers to the great outdoors."
The Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents a range of hydro, oil, wind, natural gas, solar, nuclear and other power plants, supported Cuomo’s speech for heavily relying on the private sector to make many of his ideas come to life.
“It is encouraging to hear a commitment from the governor that permitting and construction of renewable energy facilities will be expedited so we can move toward achieving our share climate goals. This is about New York jobs, New York taxes and helping New York communities,’’ said Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the power producers’ trade group.
Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State, noted the opportunities and challenges of the state's green energy goals.
"Importantly, the state needs to assure that the cost of these massive energy investments do not adversely impact the availability and price of energy. The (Cuomo) administration and legislature need to commit to workable project review standards and reasonable labor criteria, as well as an improved business climate for manufacturing and construction, in order to assure these important goals are realized,'' he said.