Shared renewables come to New York

In New York City, most of us live in apart­ments, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to pow­er our homes from our own set of solar pan­els. But that’s about to change. Susan­na De Mar­ti­no explains:

On July 16th, the New York State Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion approved a land­mark set of rules to give renters, low income res­i­dents, and peo­ple who don’t have access to a building’s rooftop a way to ben­e­fit from solar ener­gy. The state’s new Shared Renew­ables Pro­gram will encour­age devel­op­ment of shared solar gar­dens, which can be used to meet con­sumers’ ener­gy needs through a net meter­ing sys­tem. Cus­tomers par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram will get a cred­it on their util­i­ty bill when ener­gy is pro­duced from solar pan­els they are sub­scribed to—even if those pan­els aren’t on their own roofs.

The new pro­gram is part of an over­all ener­gy strat­e­gy, titled Reform­ing the Ener­gy Vision (REV), that aims to trans­form the way pow­er is pro­duced and dis­trib­ut­ed across the state, by adding renew­able sources and mak­ing a more resilient, decen­tral­ized elec­tri­cal grid.

Solar One recent­ly held a cel­e­bra­tion of the Shared Renew­ables Pro­gram with lead­ers involved in the new poli­cies includ­ing Audrey Zibel­man, the Chair of the New York State Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, John Rhodes, the Pres­i­dent and CEO of NYSERDA, New York State Assem­bly­wom­an Amy Paulin, and New York State Sen­a­tor Kev­in Park­er.

Speak­ers at the event empha­sized the impor­tance of build­ing an elec­tri­cal sys­tem that is more afford­able and effi­cient and gives cus­tomers more con­trol, and not­ed that the Shared Renew­ables pro­gram is a big step in that direc­tion. Accord­ing to Ryan Chavez, the Infra­struc­ture Coor­di­na­tor of UPROSE (a com­mu­ni­ty health and resilien­cy orga­ni­za­tion based in Sun­set Park, Brook­lyn) “low income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are on the front line of cli­mate cri­sis. They con­tribute least to the prob­lem and receive most of the bur­dens.” Chavez praised the impact of the Shared Renew­ables Pro­gram for low-income com­mu­ni­ties like Sun­set Park.

Richard Kauff­man, the Chair­man of Ener­gy and Finance for New York in the Cuo­mo Admin­is­tra­tion, also praised the program—and the Cuo­mo administration’s gen­er­al larg­er push for solar power—by empha­siz­ing the num­bers: solar growth is up 300% from 2011 to 2014 in New York State, and has cre­at­ed 7,500 jobs.

Pro­vid­ing eas­ier access to solar pow­er for apart­ment dwellers and retail busi­ness­es is like­ly to speed the growth of solar instal­la­tions in the five bor­oughs. In the indus­try jour­nal Util­i­ty Dive, pro­po­nent Sean Gar­ren points out that “New York City is a shin­ing exam­ple of peo­ple who would want to go solar but can’t put it on their roof.”

The New York State government’s moves toward solar ener­gy are also part of a broad­er polit­i­cal trend focus­ing on solar/renewable pow­er as a poll-friend­ly respon­se to the nation’s ener­gy woes. Hillary Clinton’s recent­ly unveiled envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy for her 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid focus­es on solar pow­er, and sup­port for renew­able ener­gy is grow­ing among inde­pen­dents and some Repub­li­cans as well.

Vice President Biden and President Obama visit a solar installation in Denver, 2/09. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Vice Pres­i­dent Biden and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma vis­it a solar instal­la­tion in Den­ver in 2009. White House Pho­to by Pete Souza

The grow­ing inter­est in solar is a good sign that politi­cians and the pub­lic are begin­ning to face up to the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge of cli­mate change. But to put the­se new plans in con­text, the huge task of replac­ing fos­sil fuels at ade­quate speed is explained by cli­mate jour­nal­ist Eric Holthaus in a Slate piece cri­tiquing the Clin­ton campaign’s pro­pos­al:

Although solar often gets top billing in polit­i­cal announce­ments like Clinton’s, it still rep­re­sents less than 1 per­cent of our elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, so it will take tremen­dous growth for many years for it to provide a mean­ing­ful off­set to fos­sil fuels. Despite its sex­i­ness, solar is among the most expen­sive ways to decrease our country’s car­bon foot­print. A far bet­ter near-term choice is wind pow­er, but both wind and solar begin to have anoth­er prob­lem at scales at or above that which Clin­ton is dis­cussing: Since solar pan­els and wind tur­bines can’t cur­rent­ly work at full capac­i­ty 24 hours a day, they require huge advances in ener­gy stor­age and grid capac­i­ty, as well.

Some think that lim­it­ing ener­gy solu­tions to renew­able sources only—like wind and solar—may be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. A detailed Moth­er Jones piece, “Why We Need Nuclear Pow­er,” looks at the pros and cons of our ener­gy choic­es. The key issue with plan­ning an ener­gy sys­tem based entirely—or mostly—on renew­ables is ener­gy stor­age for times when the sun isn’t shin­ing or there isn’t wind.

Stor­age meth­ods are cost­ly to build and need to have huge capac­i­ty in a renew­able-only scheme; soon, we would would need enough ener­gy stor­age to run our soci­ety, since solv­ing cli­mate change also means switch­ing to elec­tric­i­ty for every pur­pose now rely­ing on fos­sil fuel, includ­ing pow­er­ing our trans­port and pro­vid­ing build­ing heat. Accord­ing to Armond Cohen, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Clean Air Task force, “What peo­ple real­ly miss about stor­age is it’s not just a dai­ly stor­age prob­lem. Wind and solar avail­abil­i­ty around the world, from week to week and mon­th to mon­th, can vary up to a fac­tor of five or six.”

Until the prob­lem of stor­age is solved—by build­ing stor­age meth­ods and a new pow­er grid com­pat­i­ble with all-renew­able energy—solar and wind will have to fall back on nat­u­ral gas tur­bines when ener­gy pro­duc­tion is low. Many cli­ma­tol­o­gists stress, there­fore, the impor­tance of mul­ti­ple options when build­ing a no-car­bon ener­gy sys­tem. Nuclear has advan­tages: for exam­ple, its capac­i­ty fac­tor (mean­ing how much a gen­er­at­ing plant deliv­ers of its max­i­mum capac­i­ty) in 2014 was 91.8, while wind and solar’s capac­i­ty fac­tors are less than half as large. And nuclear pow­er runs 24/7, 365 days a year.

New, very tall wind tur­bines reach stead­ier wind at a high­er alti­tude and may soon achieve 65% capac­i­ty, which would be a big step for­ward. But as shown in a piece from the Nuclear Ener­gy Insti­tute, in 2014 America’s nuclear plants still gen­er­at­ed more than dou­ble the clean ener­gy pro­vid­ed by wind and solar com­bined.

How much car­bon-free ener­gy does the world need? Nathan Lewis, a solar ener­gy researcher at the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, esti­mates the equiv­a­lent of 10,000 nuclear reac­tors as the min­i­mum to pow­er the glob­al econ­o­my in 2050, at which point we should be almost entire­ly off of burn­ing fos­sil fuel in order to pre­vent the worst effects of cli­mate change. The world, at present, has 439 reac­tors. More than 80% of the world’s ener­gy still comes from fos­sil fuels, and ener­gy demand is grow­ing.



Nuclear pow­er faces strong social resis­tance because of rare but fright­en­ing acci­dents, though build­ing pow­er plants is safer now than ever before, and nuclear plants have a sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er land-use foot­print than the mas­sive amount of solar pan­els that would be nec­es­sary for all renew­able ener­gy. But polit­i­cal real­i­ties have given solar today’s moment in the sun with politi­cians.


As Susan­na De Martino’s report points out, the chal­lenge of cli­mate change is ulti­mate­ly about how we pro­duce and use ener­gy. David Ropeik, who stud­ies how risk is per­ceived, marks the EPA’s Clean Pow­er Plan as a new sign that the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion has irrev­o­ca­bly moved for­ward into a pro­duc­tive phase focus­ing on solu­tions. The Shared Renew­ables Pro­gram also shows sig­nif­i­cant pro­gress can be made quick­ly.

But in terms of cli­mate and impacts, we’re on nature’s timetable, not our own, and not that of the polit­i­cal sys­tem.

In the same mon­th the Cuo­mo Admin­is­tra­tion announced the Shared Renew­ables Pro­gram, aimed at reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions, the admin­is­tra­tion also announced plans for a $4 bil­lion over­haul of LaGuardia Air­port. The over­haul would mod­ern­ize the over­crowd­ed ter­mi­nals and facil­i­tate entry to New York by air for decades to come. The unmen­tioned price tag of mod­ern­iz­ing LaGuardia: air trav­el is among the fastest grow­ing sec­tors of car­bon emis­sions in the glob­al econ­o­my.

New York City, the des­ti­na­tion served by LaGuardia, may need cli­mate to sta­bi­lize at or below 2°C to be safe over com­ing decades, but the 2°C tar­get is already viewed as very chal­leng­ing to achieve — unless we fig­ure out a way to pre­cip­i­tous­ly drop glob­al car­bon emis­sions.

Light­ing off tons of avi­a­tion fuel while accel­er­at­ing off a run­way at LaGuardia is not a process that assures the future of New York City; the heat gen­er­at­ed by the engine on take­off is sur­passed with­in months by the sec­ondary heat­ing from green­house effects of the gas­es released. Over years and decades, the con­tin­ued dai­ly heat­ing from the insu­lat­ing effect of the gas­es from a sin­gle LaGuardia take­off will incre­men­tal­ly add to sea lev­el rise, both through direct expan­sion of the warmer oceans, and through the melt­ing of polar ice sheets. The net result of our cumu­la­tive fos­sil fuel use is a map of New York that looks like this, con­di­tions that are expect­ed to be eco­nom­i­cal­ly cat­a­stroph­ic for New York State.

Future posts on City Atlas will explore solu­tions that could make New York City and New York State bet­ter pre­pared for a zero car­bon future. To use the $4 bil­lion LaGuardia over­haul as an case study for new ideas: per­haps $3 bil­lion could ren­o­vate the air­port, and $1 bil­lion could launch a con­sor­tium at Brook­lyn Navy Yard tasked with posi­tion­ing New York once again as one of the world’s lead­ing ship­build­ing and pas­sen­ger ports. New York City will remain an inter­na­tion­al des­ti­na­tion; tourism is cen­tral to the econ­o­my, and a mul­ti­cul­tur­al city needs access to the world for its own cit­i­zens. Re-cre­at­ing low-car­bon inter­con­ti­nen­tal trav­el by ship, for those who can afford the time and can step back from the car­bon inten­si­ty of air trav­el, could be one way to insure the con­tin­ued pros­per­i­ty of the city, and estab­lish New York as again a lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter for new tech­nol­o­gy. We have a big chal­lenge, and we have to get used to think­ing big. Per­haps it’s bet­ter in the long run to ditch our third air­port entire­ly, build zero car­bon ships, and not rely on build­ing new lev­ees around the city as a ques­tion­able attempt to hold back the sea.

Three short videos below give expert per­spec­tives on the sit­u­a­tion:

  • The dif­fi­cul­ty of achiev­ing the 2°C tar­get with­out abrupt decar­boniza­tion, begin­ning imme­di­ate­ly.
  • The nature of glob­al ener­gy demand, which for now is still con­cen­trat­ed in wealthy coun­tries.
  • A review of ideas for how a low car­bon soci­ety might work.

Ange­la Druck­man — Low Car­bon Fun: Lifestyles in a Low Emis­sions Soci­ety from tyn­dall­cen­tre on Vimeo.