New York's energy system is making a complex, tense, and urgent shift away from fossil fuels toward cleaner, renewable sources of power. That's the official line, anyway. And the shift is supposed to accelerate over the next few years.
A new state policy requires utilities to get half of their electricity from renewables such as wind, solar, and hydropower by 2030. That's supposed to climb to 80 percent by 2050. The point is to reduce the state's carbon emissions and lessen its role in climate change.
And yet two new natural gas power plants are currently under construction, as are some pipeline upgrades. And state regulatory agencies are reviewing several applications for projects that would add to New York's fossil fuel transportation and storage capacity.
But environmentalists and climate activists, as well as some lawmakers and residents of communities affected by the projects are pushing back. They're working as a loose coalition, and their collective goal is to get Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration to halt the expansion of New York's fossil fuel infrastructure.
"I'm really happy that he's taken a stance on fracking and rejected some major permits for pipelines and processing places," says Katie Fittipaldi of Pittsford. "I think it makes sense for him to kind of continue his commitment in this way."
Fittipaldi is one of more than 1,000 people who signed a letter drafted by Ithaca environmentalist Walter Hang, which asks Cuomo to impose a statewide moratorium on permits and regulatory approvals for any fossil fuel projects. The letter also asks the governor to invest more in large-scale energy efficiency efforts, including insulation, weatherization, and retrofit programs.
Efficiency programs are the most effective and least expensive way to ensure adequate electricity supplies and to swiftly transition away from fossil fuels, Hang says. It's clear that despite big talk about switching to renewables, that the state has made little progress over decades because it keeps allowing fossil fuel infrastructure to be built, he says.
Case in point: Competitive Power Ventures has started construction on a 650 megawatt natural gas plant in Orange County, and Cricket Valley Energy plans to start building its 1,000 megawatt natural gas plant later this year; the plant will be located in Dover, right along the Connecticut border.
Both projects already have their crucial federal and state regulatory approvals, although CPV is still waiting on additional approvals to tie into the Millennium natural gas pipeline and a New York Power Authority electricity transmission line.
Critics say that the gas and the plants aren't needed, though the federal and state utility regulators which approved them concluded otherwise. The real problem is the state's power grid, which needs transmission, technology, and efficiency upgrades, critics say.
"There's not a demonstrable need for this additional energy," says Travis Proulx, a spokesperson for Environmental Advocates of New York.
Dominion Transmission developed its New Market Project to meet the needs of National Grid, which provides electric and natural gas services to homes and businesses in some parts of the state. Demand for power is growing, says Frank Mack, a spokesperson for Dominion.
The proposed New Market Project deals with an existing Dominion pipeline, which enters New York in Steuben County, arcs northeast to the Mohawk Valley, and continues east through Albany. The company wants to build two new compressor stations along the pipeline and expand an existing one. The compressors would boost gas pressure in the pipeline, effectively increasing its capacity.
The state is reviewing the proposal, which some environmental groups see as the most pressing fossil fuel project in the state. On August 3, the state Department of Environmental Conservation extended the public comment period on the project through September 12. (http://www.dec.ny.gov/enb/20160803_not0.html)
Some residents who live close to the project area oppose New Market over concerns about noise and air quality, since the compressor turbines are powered by natural gas, says Lisa Marshall of Ithaca, an organizer with the climate action group Mothers Out Front. She's concerned about those impacts and wants to help residents stop the project.
But she's also concerned about the bigger picture: climate change. New York has set goals for renewable energy use and carbon emission reduction and it needs to follow through, she says. New Market, along with other pipeline and power plant projects, will just enable continued, unfettered use of a fossil fuel, she says.
Similar concerns surround other pipeline projects, such as the Northern Access Project in Erie and Niagara counties. The project includes a new natural gas processing facility, in addition to compressor upgrades and a new pipeline.
Environmental groups and community members have helped halt or delay some fossil fuel projects, such as the Constitution pipeline and an oil train facility in Albany.
"The people of New York don't want to be the gas station for the entire Northeast," Marshall says. "We want significant investment in renewables."
The state's new renewable energy policy received a lot of attention for its provisions to prop up struggling Upstate nuclear power plants. Cuomo and the State Department of Public Service, the agency that drafted the policy, say that the plants provide large amounts of zero-emissions energy and play a crucial role in the state's transition to renewables.
The policy's renewable energy requirements are aggressive. And that opens up questions about how, and whether, the utilities will meet them, since just under a quarter of the state's power currently comes from renewables.
New York has always had a strong renewable resource in hydropower, which has steadily provided about 18 percent of the state's electricity. And renewables on the whole produce more of New York's electricity than they did 15 years ago.
Wind power generates 3 percent of the state's electricity now, compared to its virtually nonexistent contribution in 2000, according to an annual report from the New York Independent Systems Operator, the organization that operates New York's power grid.
Solar's contribution is growing, too, but it still isn't producing substantial amounts of electricity for the grid.
But the amount of electricity produced by natural gas-fired power plants has grown, too. The state got 57 percent of its electricity from the plants last year, compared to 47 percent in 2000.
Natural gas, while cleaner than coal, still emits carbon dioxide when burned. The fuel is also known to leak into the atmosphere during extraction and transportation, and its main component, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas.
Environmentalists and climate activists caution that if the state keeps approving natural gas projects, New York will be stuck with fossil fuels.
"You build a new gas power plant and you're going to be burning gas for the next 40 years," Marshall, of Mothers Out Front, says. "There's absolutely no way you're going to build a brand new power plant and then say, "'Oh yes, let's stop burning gas.'"