We need this stopping power.
Photo: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
New York City is one of the most progressive and climate-conscious municipalities in the United States. It is legally required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below their 2005 peak at the end of the decade. And yet, over the past year, NYC has dramatically extended its dependence on fossil fuels – thanks, in large part, to the efforts of environmentalists in the Empire State.
In 2019, when the city enacted its ambitious climate goals, the Indian Point nuclear power plant provided the bulk of its carbon-free electricity and 25% of its total output. The plant was profitable and met stringent Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety standards. Nonetheless, environmental groups had been fighting to shut it down for decades, arguing that its proximity to both New York and the Stamford-Peekskill fault line created an unacceptable risk of nuclear disaster. Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 strengthened their cause. In 2021, New York closed Indian Point. At the time, the environmental organization Riverkeeper claimed that Indian Point’s electricity could be completely replaced by renewable energy.
Alas, wind and solar power are neither plentiful enough in New York nor reliable enough to replace the emission-free power that Indian Point once produced. In May 2021, the first full month after the plant closed, carbon emissions from electricity generation in New York State increased by 37%. In New York, the share of fossil fuel producers in the electricity grid has increased to 90%.
Fortunately, the state has a plan to reverse this disastrous trend. Last fall, Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans for the construction of two new transmission lines, one bringing wind and solar electricity from upstate to New York, the other carrying hydroelectric power from Quebec. Together, the two transmission lines are expected to produce a reduction of 51% in the production of fossil fuels in the south of the state by 2030.
But a ragtag coalition, made up of natural gas producers and environmental organizations like Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, has a good chance of killing that plan.
In order to proceed with the transmission lines, the state must obtain approval from the New York Public Service Commission. And to do that, project proponents must establish that transmission lines are in the public interest. Their case does not lack solid arguments. For New York to meet its emissions reduction goals, it will need to phase out its dependence on gas-fired power plants. And in the absence of imminent technological breakthroughs, the state will not be able to drastically reduce gas power unless it has an alternative and reliable source of electricity. Wind and solar are excellent sources of energy. But due to storage limitations of existing batteries, they cannot be relied upon to generate power in all weather conditions. Natural gas, on the other hand, can provide electricity in all weathers. And it’s also easily dispatchable, meaning gas-fired power stations can be abruptly switched on and off at any time based on energy demand.
Hydroelectricity has the same properties. Yet it produces an infinitesimal fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions that natural gas-fired power plants produce. Thus, Canadian hydroelectricity is essential to New York’s decarbonization plans. If the Empire State can harness the excess electricity Quebec’s hydroelectric plants currently produce, it can build a mostly renewable energy grid without having to rely heavily on fossil fuels as a safety net. If it can not exploiting this resource, New York’s emissions reduction targets are likely to become pipe dream.
Beyond the project’s indispensability to New York’s climate goals, the transmission lines will also improve air quality and advance environmental justice for New York residents. New York’s current reliance on natural gas not only hinders its decarbonization goals, but also degrades the health of many of the city’s disadvantaged communities. “Here in West Queens we have ‘Asthma Alley,'” former city council member Costa Constantinides said. NY1 earlier this year, referring to high rates of respiratory problems in areas surrounding the borough’s fossil fuel power plants. By reducing the city’s use of gas-powered electricity, the new transmission line, Constantinides estimates, “will help transform us into a renewable line…allowing us to move forward.” still supplying the city’s electricity, but doing so in a way that is not costing our lungs.
Finally, state officials estimate that the project will ultimately make electricity cheaper for consumers, leading to a reduction in wholesale energy costs of 10-15% by 2030.
That said, transmission lines have a major political liability: a high initial price. The project is expected to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, which would be paid over 25 years. This means higher costs for a while; the state admits that some upstate customers could see their electric bills increase by 10% immediately. Since the two transmission lines will bring electricity to New York — do not to upstate residents – this rate hike is potentially incendiary. And powerful interest groups have been trying to stir up outrage over this since New York’s natural gas plants realize that hydropower poses a massive threat to their market share.
If the Public Service Commission faced a clear choice between advancing decarbonization, cleaner air and cheaper electricity in the long term or lowering the electricity bills of upstate New Yorkers the next year and pleasing some gas moguls, then the climate hawks might have the upper hand.
But anti-hydropower environmental groups threaten to tip the balance the other way. According to them, the hydroelectric transmission line would not really benefit the climate, but would like damage the ecosystems of the Hudson River.
Their argument rests on a fundamental assertion: that hydroelectricity is not really a low greenhouse gas emission energy source. Although hydroelectric dams generate clean energy when built, creating the reservoirs needed to operate them often involves flooding areas covered with plants and trees. As this organic matter decomposes, methane is released – which is no small problem since methane is 25 times better trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
But that assertion seems to be rooted less in careful reasoning than in a desire to erase the tension between Riverkeeper’s commitment to conservation and its avowed concerns about climate change. After all, the dams New York aims to operate were built decades ago, which means the methane emissions generated by their construction have already been released. In addition, hydroelectric dams built in cold climates like Quebec’s tend to generate far fewer methane emissions than those in warmer climates. And in any event, no serious analyst believes that New York’s power grid would contribute Continued methane into the atmosphere if it replaced gas power with hydroelectricity that Quebec already generates.
Environmentalists opposed to the hydroelectric transmission line also invoke the opposition from indigenous groups. It is true that First Nations in Canada have had legitimate grievances against Hydro-Quebec for decades and that some Aboriginal organizations oppose the transmission line. But others are among his strongest supporters. Indeed, the Mohawk tribe would be co-owners of a segment of the transmission line that crosses their lands; Mohawk Council Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer called the project a “game changer” for the tribe.
Project designers have also taken environmental concerns into account, consciously avoiding disturbance of the blue lupine flowers, on which the endangered Karner blue butterflies depend. As the the wall street journal reports, “Provisions have also been made to protect any bald eagle nests that may be present during construction and identify shagbark hickories large enough for the endangered Indiana bat to roost on. “
It is undoubtedly true that the transmission line will impose real costs on the ecosystems along its route. But these costs are an inherent feature of the green transition. Transforming the entire energy system that underpins industrial capitalism and minimizing disturbances to the natural environment are irreconcilable goals. And it’s Above all true if one commits to reducing nuclear power and relying heavily on wind and solar for power generation, as renewables are among the most land-intensive forms of power generation existing.
If you believe climate change is an existential crisis, you must be prepared to prioritize decarbonization over competing ideological goals. And if you want to be a climate realist, you can’t pretend that the current limits on renewables will go away, as long as we oppose the expansion of all competing forms of electricity generation. Unless or until we make massive advances in battery storage technology, we will need to anchor renewable grids with reliable energy sources. If we shut down nuclear power plants and block hydroelectric transmission lines, fossil fuels will fill the void.
Many environmental organizations understand this and have rallied around the governor’s energy agenda. But some did not. And given the myriad of other political obstacles to rapid decarbonization, the climate movement cannot afford a significant portion of its self-proclaimed membership to agitate against emissions reduction projects. If the emerging coalition of environmentalists and fossil fuel producers succeeds in pushing at the top carbon emissions in New York’s deep blue, the outlook for decarbonization nationwide will be awfully bleak.