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Study: Now Is the Time to Cash In and Transform New York’s Dirty Downstate Energy Grid

Is this the year New York state finally starts building big energy projects again?

(Hell Gate)

Upstate New York has a few things going for it—beautiful mountains, gorgeous lakes, delicious produce, and undergirding all that natural abundance, mostly renewable energy. Many of the dams that create the reservoirs that quench New York City's endless thirst for juice also act as hydroelectric dams under the auspices of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the state's public power energy provider. Upstate, the lampposts glow bright, for cheap. Downstate? It's a different story. 

For decades, the New York Power Authority hasn't built out its own downstate power generation plants, preferring to allow the private sector to power New York City. That's partly created what the city has now: a ridiculously dirty and expensive electricity grid, where energy company shareholders are the first priority, instead of the consumers. What's cheaper (dirty, frail infrastructure), is usually what has ended up getting built to fill New York's needs. 

The NYPA has also gotten into the dirty energy game in the city, owning or contracting with a series of gas-powered peaker plants, mostly placed in low-income neighborhoods. With the City now committed to a carbon-free 2040, New York's mostly investor-owned utilities have only gotten the state to 4 percent renewable energy, meaning a lot needs to be done in the next fifteen years. So is now the time for New York's public power authority to get back into the building game? 

For the past three legislative sessions, clean energy advocates have called on the state legislature to pass the Build Public Renewable Acts (BPRA), which would authorize the NYPA to once again build and own public power projects, specifically, renewable energy projects—and to drastically speed up New York's transition to renewable power. The current iteration of the bill would drastically increase the authority's production capacity, and get rid of all of its own carbon-spewing plants by 2030.

Now, a new study released today (and commissioned by the very same groups pushing the BPRA) shows that economically and environmentally, this all makes a lot of sense, especially after the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivizes public power authorities getting in on the clean power generation game. 

"What this study found is that we're missing out on over a billion dollars in IRA cash, and if we would have passed it last year, we could be taking advantage of it right now," said Lee Ziesche with the Public Power NY Coalition.

The study found that with the help of the IRA, the NYPA would now be eligible for tax credits to help build out its renewable energy portfolio and shutter its gas-powered plants. The NYPA would do that through building out a mix of wind, solar, and battery-storage projects that would keep New York humming along without having to dirty the air. 

"It's been clear this transition needed to happen from a climate sense, for a long time. From a moral sense, especially on behalf of communities that are being harmed, and this last final argument, that it would somehow be too expensive, it now makes perfect financial sense too, and there's no reason we shouldn't do this in New York," said Ziesche.

Last year, the BPRA stalled out in the assembly after passing the state senate, and this year, Governor Kathy Hochul included a version of the BPRA in her budget, but without certain labor provisions, board reforms, and a mandate to build (instead of just authorization), that clean energy advocates want to see included. However, Hochul's version would allow the NYPA to finally begin to use its high-credit rating to its advantage, financing new renewable projects. 

With some form of the BPRA already in the governor's budget, advocates believe that the budget is likely where the BPRA will be eventually passed. The State Senate's version already includes a more robust version, while all eyes are back on the Assembly. Both bodies are expected to release their budget proposals this week, and then their leadership will hammer through a final deal with Hochul over the next few weeks. 

But even BPRA-lite and other climate provisions are already having an impact on the governance of the NYPA. Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente, Jr., who was on NYPA's six-member board, resigned from it last month, in a bizarre letter that somehow tied the state's green energy transition to bail reform. With such people like that having overseen New York's public power for the past few decades, Ziesche says it's clear the time is right for change. 

"They completely believe the free market can solve this problem and are really in denial about the reality of the state's totally unaffordable energy situation." 

Some links to start your dreary, wet Monday: 

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