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New York’s Climate Goals Had a Really Bad Week

For a plan where everything had to go right, a whole lot has suddenly gone wrong.

Governor Hochul Announces Start of Construction of New York’s First Offshore Wind Project. (Governor Kathy Hochul)

Even if everything went according to plan, New York's climate goals were ambitious. In 2019, the state had committed to getting 70 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. For the most part, that renewable energy shift would have to happen downstate (upstate New York is already heavily powered by renewables thanks to its mix of hydroelectricity and nuclear power). 

So to hit that massive increase in renewable energy by 2030, New York City and its surrounding areas would have to get off of fossil fuels in a hurry. That hasn't happened yet—the state has been stuck at just under 30 percent renewable energy for the past several years. But a bunch of upcoming projects—two new power lines, and several massive offshore wind farms—are supposed to change all of that. And while the upstate power lines are going (mostly) according to schedule, the wind farms are in trouble, thanks to a game of chicken between regulators and private energy companies and a Democrat-backed veto courtesy of Governor Kathy Hochul. 

Last week, Governor Hochul struck a victory for NIMBYs everywhere when she vetoed a bill that would allow the company Equinor, the developers behind the Empire Wind wind farm off the coast of Long Island, to bypass local opposition to an underground power cable that would have to run through the town of Long Beach. Now, the company will need to lobby town officials to allow them to lay the cable, and the state legislature might now need to also approve the installation of the cable during next year's legislative session. New York Democratic State Chairman Jay Jacobs praised the veto, telling Newsday, "I see Republicans trying to take credit—that's ridiculous. This demonstrates it's Democrats that get things done." (Locals were concerned about "electromagnetic" interference from the power line, impacts on marine life, and the visual impact of a power substation.) One offshore wind proponent described Hochul's veto as "another nail in the coffin of the Empire Wind project." 

And then there's the economic headwinds buffeting wind farm companies. For months, the state's wind farm contractors like Orster, Elinor, and BP have been asking state regulators to allow them to charge customers more for electricity, citing rising costs due to inflation. Some of them have even floated the idea of pulling out of contracts because they wouldn't be able to profit enough to make the projects worthwhile. Last week, state regulators denied the companies' request—and now there's a real chance that some of these companies will cancel upcoming projects, forcing the state to put them back out for bid once again. 

While in the long term that might save New York's ratepayers a lot of money, if that were to happen, it would be a serious setback to the state's renewable energy timeline. 

"I'm not surprised that the regulators didn't want to be a blank check to the offshore wind industry," said Daniel Zarrilli, the special advisor for climate and sustainability at Columbia University, and a chief climate policy advisor for former Mayor Bill de Blasio. "It's complicated though, because we need every bit of clean energy we can get our hands on, and given the status of the offshore wind industry right now…we just can't afford the delay."

Zarrilli hopes that if the state puts the wind power farms out for rebidding, it will have more ironclad language regarding expenses and the circumstances under which a company can just walk away from a project, and that companies will do a better job explaining benefits to local communities. 

So what's actually getting done here besides letting the planet burn and giving into the tin-hat NIMBY caucus? Well, we'll find out in the next few months, as New York puts out more solicitations for wind power and the currently contracted companies, like those behind Empire Wind, will decide if they actually want to move forward now that they can't bilk ratepayers. 

One tool in New York's pocket that it hasn't used yet is the Build Public Renewables Act, which emboldens the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build its own renewable energy if private developers cannot act fast enough to meet New York's energy goals. 

But right now, that doesn't seem to be the case—with NYPA still run by a chairman who has deeply opposed the BPRA, the state seems content to let private companies dither over whether they should go ahead and actually do what they promised to. And meanwhile, the hour grows ever later for New York's renewable energy goals.

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