Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dereliction of Environmental Duty in New York

The following is an editorial by Gidon Eshel, environmental consultant and Research Professor of Environmental Physics at Bard College. 

As the Skelos-Silver spectacles unfold in Manhattan, Albany culture of pervasive, mostly legal corruption will be on prominent display. Given the rarity with which sanitizing light shines on this culture, an exhaustive examination seems appropriate. And few aspects of this culture deserve a closer examination than the crucial yet rarely discussed handling of the money-energy-environment confluence by the Cuomo administration.

Because of its aging, decrepit infrastructure, New York is by far the most prominent state currently in immediate need of rethinking its power delivery system. The century old model—relatively few power plants supplying virtually all customers via a highly centralized network we call “the grid”—is outdated. Modern alternatives that seamlessly integrate recent advances in hardware, network analysis, engineering, material science, and cyber security with novel business models that best accompany the new infrastructure are well overdue. States dominating the race to shape the necessary once-a-century conceptual leap will lead the future industry, and enjoy its windfalls. States opting instead to expand existing realities, in space or time, deprive their citizens of rare economic, environmental and power democratization opportunities.

The New York Public Service Commission (PSC), the Governor appointed body overseeing utilities, has indeed proposed several transmission projects. Key among those is an addition of about one gigawatt to existing north-south transmission along the Hudson Valley. Unfortunately, the proposal is deeply flawed. With no element that wasn’t commonplace in 1950, it systematically ignores any recent addition to the modern utility toolbox, thus expanding outdated realities in both space and time. While adding under 5 percent of typical downstate peak loads, the project also raises serious regional security and environmental concerns.

Most puzzling, the project is neither needed nor stands to deliver societal benefits. The PSC has offered two rationales for the project, neither even remotely persuasive.

First, the PSC invoked enhancing downstate reliance on upstate wind energy. Yet while upstate wind resources are pedestrian at best, they are superb off Long Island. If you are serious about wind, you go offshore (as Massachusetts is doing), and simultaneously minimize transmission losses because eastern populations are overwhelmingly coastal.

Second, the PSC cited congestion mitigation, the need to subsidize increased power costs during peak demand. This is illogical. Most times the grid capacity is only 50 to 60 percent tapped, with enormous capital idling nearly all the time only to accommodate a few hours a year of peak load. Congestion costs are therefore a simple market control limiting the inefficient use of a scarce resource, power during peak demand. They require no “mitigation.”

In pursuing nearly pure fossil based, decidedly 20th century unneeded project, New York is sadly turning its back on past accomplishments and foregoing leadership in the New Grid race, futilely clinging instead to the old model's last gasp. Absent course correction, New York’s energy efficiency will continue to slip, its choicest agricultural lands will be critically compromised, and state ratepayers will be saddled with upfront costs in the billions, and with hundreds of millions of additional annual operational costs. With energy research shunning the state, and meager energy modernization budgets shrinking (under 1.5 percent of the state budget and falling), New York's industry and budget crunched research universities will be reduced to idly watching their counterparts in states with more enlightened environmental leadership.

Whether standard Albany cronyism or simple incompetence, this is terrible for New York’s future. Yet notwithstanding fictional websites or languishing campaign promises, and despite New York’s national prominence—second to California alone in number of scientific papers, National Science Foundation grants, or patents granted, and the third highest GDP contributor—New York is already environmentally limping.

Wind plus solar account for 3.6 percent of total generation in New York to California’s 15 percent, and the percentage of New York households with Smart Meters, which allow customers to sell renewable power they generate to their utility, improving return on clean energy investment, is less than a third of California’s. Bleaker still is the share of “green” jobs in private sector employment. With neighboring Vermont and Pennsylvania leading nationally with 3 to 4 percent, New York‘s 1.7 percent is 39th, comfortably below Texas’ 2.1 percent. While in green jobs share in total employment New York fares better, its 3 percent is handily bested by Vermont’s 4.4 percent or even Idaho’s 3.7 percent.

These failings are not an accident, but a collaborative executive-legislative environmental surrender. The employment benefits of energy efficiency and environmental legislation add economic dimensions to this refusal to lead.

Given these failures, and with Albany subject to rare scrutiny, key questions beg for answers.

Why is New York so firmly behind a project that lacks any cogent rationale, that is devoid of any technical merit or novelty, that is environmentally ruinous, and that offers nothing more than an ephemeral life support for a dying model? If a two billion dollar deal is about to be sealed on our behalf, a deal that harms ratepayers in New York but handsomely benefits a few utilities that would rather extort than renew, why are the considerations that led to the deal shrouded in such secrecy? What mechanisms, if any, are there to ensure that designs and bids are selected based on merit alone? And more broadly, with its almost unparalleled human and fiscal capital, and with the enormous industrial business opportunities national environmental leadership confers, why is New York under Cuomo insisting on steadily degrading environmental performance while actively avoiding the national environmental leadership with which the state human capital is so eminently consistent?

With Albany culture firmly on the defense, the coming months may offer some answers.

Click here to make your comment to the Public Service Commission.


  1. clearly, the nys government is married to special interests that cling to the 20th century model.

    what everyone misses, including this paper, is that upstate new york has a huge amount of hydropower right here in the albany region. once upon a time, over 150 years ago, factories in troy and the region ran on hydro power.

    there is more hydro power here thant here is at Niagra Falls. once electric trolleys criss crossed all of columbia county and albany powered by hydro electric plants like the one at Stuyvesant Falls. We had light rail 120 years ago. right here !!

    todays modern world is in the dark ages compared to what the region was in the 19th century - an industrial base run by free power.

  2. Dear K. Kay, thank you for the comment. This is Gidon, the author of the original piece on which you commented.

    You are raising an interesting point, but one with which I will have to respectfully take issue.

    First is the financial aspect of large dams. When you work out carefully the details, not based on skewed, self-serving official reports but on reality instead, you see more often than not essentially an impossibility to even break even financially, let alone make a profit. For a relatively recent, solid analysis of this see

    Then there is the more important aspect (at least in my book), that of overall, long-term environmental consequences. The issue is too multi-faceted and too nuanced in many ways to do justice to here. Suffice is to look at some examples, e.g.,

    What these guys are saying is subtle and at times tricky. But their paper nicely highlights the Faustian tradeoff that dam building is; what do Hudson River communities prefer: healthy shad and salmon runs? Those are inconsistent with damming. Or maybe let shad and salmon be damned, let us enjoy the carbon-neutral electric power?

    But even if you choose that rather shortsighted latter view - is this electricity carbon-neutral? Not if you include the greenhouse gas emissions associated with baking the concrete used for construction.

    And even this point has a counterpoint, alternative construction methods that reduce upfront emissions (which bolsters YOUR point), see, e.g.,

    In summary - a complex, not the least bit straightforward issue.

    Thanks and all the best, Gidon

  3. dear gidon,

    while i understand the trade-offs, i think the climate change is worse than damming rivers. i think that shad cannot be eaten now because of pollution from pcbs etc. anyway. we have already destroyed that food source.

    in our area, dams were not huge and less environmentally harmful. whole towns were employed around cotton mills run by our waterfalls.
    light rail did exist in an extensive network.

    one could take a trolley from old chatham to hudson or to albany. and the trains ran often. it seems hard to believe, but look up the old train lines.

    america today is a car culture run on oil and gasoline. but many cities have enormous traffic problems due to an overabundance of cars. look at albany. the northway at rush hour is blocked and suffers from gridlock. this is true everywhere you go in heavily populated areas in the USA.

    hydropower, or hydro and wind, and solar, coupled with walking cities where cars are not the key means of transit are the solutions to this festering problem. we just happen to live in an area where there is a huge amount of hydro lying unutilized.

    i doubt i will live to see a world that was runs on safe energy but the history right here shows us that it once existed.