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Commentary: Reliability vs. renewables is a false choice for New York

The following commentary was written by Stephan Roundtree Jr., Northeast regional director for the national solar advocacy nonprofit Vote Solar. See our commentary guidelines for more information.


New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) laid a strong foundation for climate action in 2019. Now, in 2021, proceedings set up directly pursuant to the law, and environment-adjacent proceedings already in flight, are being forced to grapple with two of the law’s key requirements: that any state actions or decisions must be consistent with the mandated decarbonization schedule, and that they must not disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities. 

Given that 2021 has already felt like a tipping point in the disruption of our global climate, decisions that hasten decarbonization should feel like foregone conclusions. But in New York, that is far from the case. 

A central choicepoint in the debate is the reliability of the power grid with or without fossil power plants, like the Danskammer gas-fired plant located in the Hudson Valley community of Newburgh. The plant’s “repowering” retrofit and expansion plan is currently being considered by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

While the permits remain under consideration, the issue of reliability has come to a head — the state’s Climate Action Council (CAC) recently called on a panel of experts to report on various aspects of electric system reliability to get as clear a picture of the issue as possible. While the intermittency of renewables like solar and wind has been a talking point for clean energy detractors for years, recent evidence and practical experience is clear: new fossil gas just isn’t necessary for a reliable grid.  

Modeling from Vibrant Clean Energy, sponsored by Vote Solar, concluded that a robust suite of distributed resources was not only as reliable as large-scale fossil fuel plants, but also dramatically less expensive over time. 

Current efforts in New York City to comply with DEC’s so-called “peaker rule” to shut down the dirtiest peaker plants have spurred utility Con Edison to seek renewables and transmission-based solutions that further back up our research. Con Edison has been granted approval from the Department of Public Service to alleviate the reliability concerns of decommissioning NYC-based peaker power plants by building transmission lines and local renewables alone. It’s a cost-effective and cleaner strategy that works. 

Being cost-effective says nothing of the various tangible, local benefits that distributed solar and batteries also provide for communities. Worsening storms and heat means more opportunities for stress on the system, which local renewables and batteries can buffer like a wetland absorbs stormwater. 

If the Danskammer expansion is approved, it would imply that the state (in this case DEC) is taking a fatally lax stance on the law. It would set a harmful precedent that any decision that does not by itself completely preclude the state from meeting climate mandates is permissible. This implementation strategy could only result in total failure. 

More reasonable interpretation would answer the question: does this help or hurt efforts to rapidly decarbonize? By this standard, repowering Danskammer is clearly a step in the wrong direction, in a time where one misstep will only hasten climate catastrophe. 

To top off the analysis, a repowering would almost certainly run afoul of the climate law’s mandate to avoid harming disadvantaged communities. Situating a gas plant in the overburdened community of Newburgh, as well as neighboring Peekskill, clearly fails the test. On Aug. 4, over 50 activist kayakers (and a sloop!) took to the Hudson to urge DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos and exposed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to deny the permits for Danskammer. It’s the only reasonable action. There are better, readily available alternatives that are consistent with the world we need — the world that CLCPA dared to describe.

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