NYC’s controversial Big Clean-Energy Project has just been given the green light

New York State regulators on Thursday approved two massive transmission projects to transport clean electricity into New York City, raising hopes that the country’s largest city can begin to get meaningfully used to fossil fuels this decade.

At a hearing in Albany, five out of seven state public service commissioners voted in favor of a proposal to build power lines from hydroelectric dams in Quebec and New York’s solar and wind farms. Once completed, the two projects together are expected to reduce New York City’s demand for fossil fuels by 51%.

“Simply put, if we can not supply renewable energy to New York City, we can not reduce emissions from the fossil fuel fleet,” said Rory Christian, commission chairman and single nominee from New York City, at the hearing. “Should we delay and reconsider our approach at another time, we will most likely risk putting ourselves in the indispensable situation of paying more for future projects with less benefits.”

This final approval gives Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who is campaigning for a full term this year, a major climate victory as she is heading into a primary election that she currently prefers to win.

“New York continues to lead the nation with innovative green energy initiatives and has been an example to the rest of the world of how to confront the dangers of climate change, the existential threat of our time,” Hochul said in a statement. “Today’s decision is a big step forward.”

Clean Path New York, a 175-mile line from a transformer station in New York’s Delaware County to the borough of Queens, created some controversy, but posed greater risks as the project has not yet received permits and will only come online in 2027 at. the earliest. In contrast, Champlain Hudson Power Express, a 339-mile line from hydro dams in Canada to the Queens neighborhood of Astoria, created heated challenges from a cluttered alliance of environmentalists, gas-fired generators and indigenous groups.

The opposition cited concerns ranging from the cost to New York taxpayers and competition to New York’s energy companies to fears that Hydro-Québec, the state-owned utility behind the project, could prioritize Canadians in a disaster or repeat its dark history of seizing indigenous peoples. lands in Canada to build more dams and increase its electricity production.

A view of the Romaine River before entering the Hydro-Quebec hydroelectric dam Romaine 4 in the Côte-Nord administrative region of Quebec, Canada, on October 5, 2018. It is one of a handful of new dams that are under construction.

LARS HAGBERG via Getty Images

Critics also raised issues with the current contract, which does not oblige Hydro-Québec to sell the same amount of electricity to the city during the winter months, when demand for electricity is expected to peak at some point in the next few decades. Currently, New York City’s power demand increased during the summer, when air conditioning to ward off the suffocating heat peaks. As the city moves away from gas to heating, electric heat pumps are expected to cause demand to rise highest in the cold months.

But the company and economic analysts working for the state commission downplayed that concern, noting that the utility would have a financial incentive to make more money selling power when demand was high.

Yet intra-state regional rivalries came to the fore in the debate, with upstate commissioners arguing that New York City would receive virtually all the benefits, as taxpayers in the state’s poorer northern areas might see increases in their electricity bills.

Commissioner John Howard – the former chairman who was demoted after denying Hochul’s pressure to resign from the panel – said “this lack of proactive outreach is, to say the least, worrying.”

“Even today, we have heard time and time again that the vast majority of benefits from this proposal go to New York City,” Howard said.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. landlords to help pay for the project. hydro line. Another government agency, the Office of General Services, had also signaled that it would enter into an agreement to help pay for the project.

Commissioner Diane Burman said these commitments were not firm enough and therefore “disturbing and unacceptable.”

“I’m struggling to approve these contracts at a time when consumers across this state are already experiencing rising supply costs and record high inflation,” she said.

Ravenswood Generating Station, also known as the Big Allis, burns gas and fuel oil to produce electricity for Manhattan.  Residents of western Queens, where it is located, breathe more polluted air on average, and the area near the plant is known as
Ravenswood Generating Station, also known as the Big Allis, burns gas and fuel oil to produce electricity for Manhattan. Residents of western Queens, where it is located, breathe more polluted air on average, and the area near the facility is known as “Asthma Alley” due to the high incidence of breathing problems.

Education Images via Getty Images

But Commissioner Tracey Edwards – who, coming from Long Island, was the only other nominee representing the densely populated downstate region besides Christian – said the vote on the transmission projects only paved the way for approving more fossil fuel consumption in the state.

“We’re rightly concerned about the cost of doing things differently, but I think we have a commitment and a moral and health commitment to doing things differently,” she said. “I’m not comfortable continuing to spend taxpayers’ money on the same dirty fossil fuels if there’s an alternative ahead of us.”

Opponents of the Champlain Hudson line had called on commissioners to approve the Clean Path project but reject the Canadian agreement and reopen the tender process.

But a big part of Champlain Hudson’s appeal was that the project already had state and federal permits and could begin construction in a matter of weeks. If all goes according to plan, the line will begin driving hydropower into New York City in December 2025, two years earlier than Clean Path and probably many years before a new proposal.

Champlain Hudson also already had contracts in place, meaning it locked in pre-inflation prices rising worldwide. This means that any alternative would in all probability not only come online much later, but cost much more due to increased material prices.

Marco Padula, an economist at the state Department of Public Services, testified that approving both transmission lines “would be the way to go to maximize energy benefits for the state.”

“We can all be extremely proud today. New Yorkers have chosen Québec’s clean hydropower to supply 20% of the electricity needs of the largest city in the United States,” said Sophie Brochu, CEO of Hydro-Québec, in a statement. model for a just energy transition, is an eloquent example of how we can work together to decarbonize the northeastern United States. “

A handful of Québec’s 55 indigenous communities, totaling about 107,000 people, vehemently opposed Champlain Hudson, arguing that Hydro-Québec’s previous seizures of its land were an extension of European settlers’ genocide of Native Americans. Hudson Riverkeeper, an environmentalist in New York, reiterated their concerns, repeatedly calling the electricity that would flow on Champlain Hudson “blood energy” from “stolen” lands. The group also cited concerns about what building new dams would do to local ecosystems and food chains, particularly from mercury poisoning, which a Harvard University study suggested could come from flooding of previously arid woodlands.

However, the city’s contract with Hydro-Québec prevented the construction of new dams, although some new dams already under construction could qualify to sell electricity on the line. Research commissioned by the company found zero examples of mercury poisoning from its dams. And the company had entered into agreements with several First Nations communities to both own a stretch of Champlain Hudson’s transmission line in Canada and purchase additional power from a native-owned wind farm.

“We are rightly concerned about the cost of doing things differently, but I think we have a commitment and a moral and health obligation to do things differently.”

– New York Public Service Commissioner Tracey Edwards

There were also environmental arguments for approving the line. For decades, poor, mostly non-white neighborhoods on the western outskirts of Queens, where much of the city’s gas and oil-burning power plants are located, have been known as “Asthma Alley” due to the high number of breathing problems there. Costa Constantinides, a former member of the New York City Council of Astoria who represented these neighborhoods, called the state’s approval of the project “a great benefit to communities that have long had to bear the burden of fossil fuel production.”

“This is a big win for New York City,” Constantinides said after the hearing. “It is a payment for the renewable energy future we have been promised. We have a lot more to do. ”

Energy experts largely agree that building multiple transmission lines is crucial to decarbonising the U.S. power grid, because renewable energy such as wind and solar depend on optimal weather, and high-demand urban and industrial centers rarely have room to generate their own. electricity. Hydropower, like fossil fuels or nuclear reactors, can run 24/7 and come online quickly when demand rises, meaning its availability makes it easier for New York to add more intermittent renewable sources without risking power outages.

The state’s statutory climate target requires it to generate 70% of its electricity from renewable energy, including hydropower, by 2030, and eliminates emissions from the electricity sector completely by 2040.

Achieving this goal, Edwards said, required a reinterpretation of the commission’s 115-year-old mandate to look exclusively at the impact on taxpayers by approving new projects and abandoning a dependence on the “same old, same old” at a time when “we is running out of time. ” The lone black woman in the commission, she vividly compared the need to “evolve” to meet new challenges to climate change with the way the Civil Rights Act required fundamental changes to how government bureaucrats viewed their mandates to serve its citizens.

“Just think of what the air quality was and the emissions in 1907,” when the Public Service Commission was set up, she said.

“Sometimes we have to go past it, just like how the Civil Rights Act evolved. We have to develop with it, ”she added. With it required making difficult choices that moved the state in the direction it needs to go to cut emissions and local air pollution.

“Is it perfect? ​​Absolutely not,” Edwards said. “Do I think we will get better with time as these projects continue? Yes I do.”

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