NY governor signs into law most ambitious climate plan in the US

Cuomo commits state to massive new investment in solar and wind technology, while dramatically reducing fossil fuel use.

    Former Vice President Al Gore joins New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, Thursday, July 18, 2019, at Fordham University in New York [Richard Drew/The Associated Press]
    Former Vice President Al Gore joins New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, Thursday, July 18, 2019, at Fordham University in New York [Richard Drew/The Associated Press]

    Solar panels on every roof; parking meters that double as car chargers; wind turbines towering above farm fields and ocean waves; cars, homes and factories converted to run on electricity from renewable sources.

    That is the vision of a new law signed on Thursday by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo - after passing through the state senate a month ago - sets the nation's most aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions.

    Intended to unleash dramatic shifts over the next 30 years, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CCPA) requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and offset the remaining 15 percent with measures such as planting forests and capturing carbon for storage underground.

    The CCPA calls for all the state's electricity to come from renewable, carbon-free sources such as solar, wind and hydropower. Transportation and heating systems for buildings would also run on clean electricity rather than oil and gas.

    "For the future of humanity and our planet, we need to move off fossil fuels towards a renewable economy," said a statement from NY Renews, a coalition of environmental groups. "And we hope we can inspire other states to follow our lead on bold climate action."

    'Most ambitious'

    A new 22-member New York State Climate Action Council will have three years to come up with a "scoping plan" to recommend mandates, regulations, incentives and other measures.

    The law will require utilities to get 70 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Last year, just 26.4 percent came from renewables, according to a report by New York Independent System Operator, the nonprofit corporation that runs the state's power grid.

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    "The legislation is going to shape the way we live, work, and play going forward," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

    Massive wind farms will play a key role in the transition. Cuomo announced on Thursday that Norway-based Equinor will develop one farm, Empire Wind, generating power for New York City east of the Rockaways. A joint venture of Connecticut-based Eversource Energy and Orsted A/S, a Danish company, will develop another, off the far eastern coast of Long Island.

    Combined, the two farms will have a 1,700-megawatt capacity, enough to power one million homes, Cuomo said at the signing, where he was joined by former US Vice President Al Gore.

    "This is the most ambitious, the most well-crafted legislation in the country," Gore said.

    'Enormously costly'

    But while the goals are clear, many details on how to achieve them have yet to be determined. It is far from clear how much the transformation will cost, and whether it is technically feasible. Some critics call the plan impractical.

    "It would require massive deployment of both onshore and offshore wind, which is going to be enormously costly," said Robert Bryce, an energy specialist at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank. "You already have local opposition to onshore wind that has stymied the state's ability to build any new capacity."

    The act calls for 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035. It also calls for 6,000 megawatts of solar capacity by 2025 - five times the current amount. To provide power when the wind dies down and the sun is hiding, the CCPA includes 3,000 megawatts of energy storage capacity by 2030.

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    Ken Girardin, a policy analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a spinoff of the Manhattan Institute, calculates the offshore wind buildout will cost more than $48bn upfront and one billion dollars in annual operating cost. At least 56sq miles (145sq km) of solar panels would be needed to hit the 2025 goal of 6,000 megawatts of solar capacity, Girardin said.

    But he said the costs of wind and solar installations have been dropping. "It's much more economical to build large amounts of wind and solar energy than even three or four years ago," Girardin added.

    The Climate Action Council will likely draft for new building codes to increase energy efficiency. It could also require heating and cooling systems to use electric heat pumps that transfer heat between indoors and outdoors.

    The state may create new incentives to retrofit existing homes and buildings, to follow on the heels of the aggressive climate bill passed by the New York City Council this spring - which would require hefty fines for landlords who do not comply with retrofitting requirements.

    Since transportation makes up a third of the state's emissions, the climate council will likely push for greater mass transit and an accelerated shift to electric vehicles, which the state now promotes with rebates and investments in charging infrastructure.

    'A heavy lift'

    Mark Jacobson, an energy expert at Stanford University, led a 2013 study outlining how New York could transition to 100-percent renewable energy by 2030. It envisioned 4,020 onshore wind turbines spread across 1.5 percent of the state's land area - 818sq miles (2,119sq km). And solar farms would cover 463sq miles (1,199sq km).

    About a third less land area would be required with today's improved technology, he said, but the buildout would still be staggering - especially in a state where land is expensive and local opposition has stymied such projects.

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    New transmission lines, which also generate local opposition, would be needed to connect new wind and solar projects to the electrical grid.

    "It's definitely going to cost ratepayers a lot more for reliable electricity," said Gavin Donohue, president of Independent Power Producers of New York, whose members produce three-quarters of the state's electricity. He said the efficient, low-emission natural gas plants built in the last 10 years are needed to keep the lights on.

    "To say we're not going to have any fossil fuel by 2050 is preposterous," Donohue said. "Are we not going to have airplanes or gas-fueled cars? Is everyone going to have to retrofit their houses?"

    Other Democratic-led states besides New York have passed laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to the Trump administration's efforts to roll back regulations on power plants and vehicles. While the Empire State is the sixth to mandate 100-percent renewable energy sources in coming decades, after Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and California, its plan aims to get there first.

    "It's one of the strongest climate change laws in the world," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "It's a heavy lift, but not as difficult as coping with the effects of severe climate change if action is not taken."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies