When New York enacted a landmark climate law in 2019, it was hailed as a model for how to cut planet-warming pollution. But four years later, the state is at serious risk of missing its near-term clean energy and climate targets.
Emissions have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, driven in part by a resurgence of power plant pollution. At least a quarter of planned renewable projects in the state are threatened by inflation and rising interest rates. And some environmentalists are questioning Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) commitment to the state’s climate goals after she vetoed a bill that would enable an offshore wind project to connect to New York’s power grid on Long Island.
“We need to start moving forward on these agendas very quickly,” said Raya Salter, an environmental justice advocate who sits on the state’s Climate Action Council. “We need this environmental program to be taken seriously and aggressively by this administration.”
New York’s struggles illustrate the challenges facing liberal states as they race to green their economies. Spurred by increasing natural disasters and mounting political appetite for climate action, left-leaning states in recent years have established increasingly ambitious emissions targets. New York enacted a law in 2019 that requires emissions to fall 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050. The remaining 15 percent would be offset, making the state carbon neutral.
Reaching those targets was daunting even in the best of times. New York cut emissions by roughly 20 percent between 1990 and 2021, according to EPA data. But now the state finds itself with little more than six years to cut the remaining 20 percent amid a deteriorating economic environment.
The Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snarled global supply chains, sending inflation soaring and prompting a series of interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve. The result has been skyrocketing costs for new clean energy infrastructure — further complicating a transition that already faced technical challenges such as how to quickly permit and connect new renewable facilities to the grid.
The impact of those developments was on display earlier this month, when New York utility regulators unanimously rejected a request by renewable developers to adjust their power contracts to account for inflation. The decision jeopardizes the future of renewable projects that were supposed to supply 24 percent of the state’s power in 2030, with developers saying they needed higher prices to proceed with their projects. Renewables currently account for 27 percent of New York’s electricity supplies, a figure that needs to rise to 70 percent by the end of the decade under state law.
Analysts said the struggle of renewables threatens New York’s wider climate ambitions, which rest on the idea of converting cars, building heating and cooking from fossil fuels to electricity. New York’s overall emissions now exceed pre-pandemic levels, driven by rising power plant and transportation emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions stood at 170 million tons in 2019, fell to a pandemic-induced low of 143 million tons in 2020 and rebounded to 177 million tons last year, according to the Rhodium Group, a consulting firm that specializes in climate policy.
“This is an important moment to test the ambition of these leadership states,” said John Larsen, a partner at the Rhodium Group. “They are going to need to think quickly about how they reset things if this is how they want to meet those goals.”
New York officials say they are committed to greening the state’s economy. Hochul is expected Tuesday to announce contracts for a new round of renewable projects. They include three offshore wind projects with a combined capacity of 4 gigawatts, as well as 22 onshore renewable projects with 2.4 GW of capacity. Together, the projects are expected to provide 12 percent of what New York needs to meet its 2030 electricity target.
Hochul remains devoted to “making bold commitments to reach our climate goals,” Katy Zielinski, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement.
‘We’ve got a plan’
The growing frequency of extreme weather events, such as a downpour that saw 8 inches of rain fall on parts of New York City during a single day last month, means the state has no choice but to invest in clean energy, said New York Public Service Commission Chair Rory Christian.
He argued the move also makes economic sense. Renewables like wind and solar have no fuel costs, which helps stabilize energy prices. And even if the state wasn’t contemplating a shift away from fossil fuels, it would be required to invest substantially to maintain its existing infrastructure. Energy projects of all types are facing inflationary pressure, he noted.
But Christian said renewables developers’ request to amend existing power contracts would have set a dangerous precedent for the state.
“This is the kind of thing [where] you do it once, you will be doing it again, over and over and over again,” he said in an interview. “So to protect the ratepayers, to make sure we could actually reach our various goals, that was the basis behind the commission action.”
Christian said he hoped some developers would continue with their projects in the wake of the commission’s decision, but he made clear that the state stands ready to advance new renewable developments if the projects already in the works decide to cancel.
“We had a global pandemic and a war; lots of things can happen to disrupt a project,” he said. “But we’ve got a plan. We’re executing on that plan, and we’re doubling down on what we have to do to get done.”
New York nevertheless faces an uphill battle. In the past, the state relied on the retirement of old coal, oil and gas plants to drive its emission reductions. New York’s power sector emissions fell from 57 million tons in 2000 to 30 million last year, a decline of 46 percent, according to EPA data.
But the problem is that there are fewer old dirty plants to close. New York’s last coal plant shut down in 2020, and in a further blow to its climate ambitions, the state lost a significant source of zero-emission power when the Indian Point nuclear station shut down the following year.
Renewables have struggled to fill the gaps. New York has added almost 2 GW of onshore wind, solar and batteries since 2019, 17th-most among states and behind the likes of Florida, Illinois and Nevada, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. The result has been a 23 percent rebound in power plant emissions during that time, according to EPA data.
The state has made moves to speed up renewable energy development in recent years with initiatives such as the formation of an office of renewable energy siting. Yet challenges persist with permitting and connecting projects to the grid.
‘Serious NIMBY opposition’
In Long Beach, a community along the southern shore of Long Island, the City Council objected to Equinor ASA’s plan to permit a transmission line for its Empire Wind II project through a park. Those objections prompted Equinor to lobby for a bill from the state Assembly allowing it to expedite permitting of the line. The bill passed after considerable debate.
But in a veto issued Friday, Hochul shot down the measure, saying, “It is incumbent on renewable energy developers to cultivate and maintain strong ties to their host communities throughout the planning, siting and operation of all large-scale projects.”
The decision drew fire from Equinor, which said it sent “another troubling sign to renewable energy developers,” as well as from environmentalists.
Chris Casey, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said New York’s climate and clean energy targets may be “impossible to achieve” in the wake of Hochul’s veto and the PSC decision. He said it was imperative for New York to quickly sign contracts for new renewable developments “so New Yorkers can get to work building our clean energy future, to clean the air, reduce climate pollution, and enable the zero-emission electrification of our vehicles and buildings.”
Others offered mixed reviews of the state’s actions.
The PSC’s decision was understandable given the precedent it would set, said Daniel Zarrilli, who led climate policy for New York City under former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). But he questioned Hochul’s veto, saying, “It seems like it’s playing into some serious NIMBY opposition on Long Island. We’re not going to hit targets if we can’t find good ways to overcome that.”
A failure in one part of the state’s climate agenda can have implications elsewhere. When New York City passed a fossil fuel phase-out in large commercial buildings in 2021, it included a provision that allowed landlords to comply with part of their obligations by buying renewable energy credits from projects directly connected to the city, Zarrilli noted.
Offshore wind projects are uniquely suited to aid the city because they are relatively easy to plug into. Renewables built in upstate New York, by contrast, face significant transmission congestion getting into the city.
“I would just assume that if there was going to be a complication coming from Long Island, that the state government would want to step in and make sure that goes right before it gets into the veto point,” said Zarrilli, who now works as a special adviser on climate and sustainability at Columbia University.
Environmentalists who have met with state officials in recent weeks said they were encouraged by the conversations, saying the Hochul administration appeared committed to fulfilling its climate plans.
“But we need to see projects actually be delivered,” said Julie Tighe, who leads the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Having a clean grid is the linchpin of our buildings and transportation plans, and we’re further behind on those.”
This story also appears in Energywire.