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How doable are renewables in NYC?

Published July 1, 2020

As we navigate a historic time for public health, racial equity and environmental justice, the built environment sits front and center.

We must transform entrenched systems to address climate change, and New York City’s fossil-fuel-based electric grid is a prime example. But can a city of over eight million really switch to renewable power? Our 2020 conference, Unlocking the Grid: Getting Renewables to NYC, explored just that. Aiming to bridge the divide between skepticism and aspiration, experts across four panels discussed the advancements and impediments to NYC’s renewable future. 

Just over the horizon

The conference began with Urban Green CEO John Mandyck welcoming leaders from three key state agencies—Alicia Barton of NYSERDA (who recently left the agency), Gil Quiniones of New York Power Authority, and John Rhodes of the New York Public Service Commission—to discuss the policy landscape for renewable energy. At the state level, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act calls for a carbon-free electricity grid by 2040. But in New York City, Local Law 97 holds building owners accountable for carbon emissions from electricity use much sooner, starting in 2024. Combined with the ongoing closure of Indian Point nuclear facility (which will increase the carbon intensity of NYC’s grid), the pressure is on and stakes are high to green the grid.

Fortunately, codifying these ambitious goals into law sends a strong market signal to spur technological innovation and capital investment. As Barton described, “we already have a lot of offshore wind projects underway that will be completed by 2024, and more permits are in the pipeline. We’re talking about thousands of megawatts of green power flowing into the downstate grid—and it’s happening soon!” The green grid of the future is no longer just wishful thinking: it’s legally binding, enforceable as law, and not too many years away.

The sweet spot for energy development

Framed within this policy outlook, the next panel explored renewable energy generation from the perspective of three active developers. Julia Bovey of Equinor stressed that we’re living in a unique moment: innovative policies, market conditions, and capital investments are coming together to spur development. Moderator Doreen Harris, NYSERDA’s Vice President of Large-Scale Renewables (and now acting President and CEO of NYSERDA), echoed this sentiment by highlighting how New York has seen 69 projects since 2017, including several large offshore wind developments and solar projects across the state.

Each panelist gave a detailed look at their downstate projects. In 2023, Equinor will begin construction on Empire Wind, an 816 MW project located 15 miles south of Jones Beach. Representing just a portion of the available lease area, Bovey said Equinor is looking forward to NYSERDA’s next RFP and the opportunity to build out more connections to Zone J (the wonky term for NYC’s grid). Hugues Giradin of Boralex described their efforts to develop a robust portfolio, including 180 MW of new solar and a proposal for the 2020 offshore wind RFP. Christopher Hart of Atlantic Shores explained how their team is advancing a massive 2.5 GW offshore wind project off the New Jersey coast. Currently they have two vessels at sea studying the ocean floor and marine habitat of the lease area to inform development.

Across each of their projects, the panelists agreed that future generation will require aggregated power purchase agreements. To make big investments, developers need access to long-term contracts that individual buildings often can’t provide. Additionally, contracts and credits need to be integrated between the state and city to create a cohesive system. Beyond this financial and legislative infrastructure, offshore wind development also requires physical infrastructure including modern ports. Finally, development needs to be a stakeholder-driven process. As Bovey said, “it’s no accident that we have these huge renewable energy goals; they are the work of the labor community, the environmental justice community, the education leaders,” and projects must live up to those efforts and expectations by securing benefits at the local level.  

The trouble with transmission

Arguably the largest hurdle of bringing low-carbon electrons to NYC is transporting them. Moderated by Julie Tighe of the New York League of Conservation Voters, the third session explored the unique obstacles of transferring energy to NYC. Richard Dewey of NYISO, the independent operator tasked with maintaining grid reliability, described how New York State is a tale of two grids: the upstate grid operates mostly carbon-free right now, while the downstate grid relies almost exclusively on fossil fuels. The cause of this bottleneck is the limited number of pathways from upstate to downstate, especially when trying to keep energy transmission lines within existing right of ways (waterways, railroads, roadways, etc).

One project slated to begin construction in 2021 is the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE), a 333-mile buried transmission line aiming to deliver 1,000 MW of energy from existing Canadian hydropower dams to NYC. Donald Jessome, CEO of Transmission Developers Inc., described the benefits of the project, including a reliable baseload to supplement intermittent renewables, as well as bidirectional technology to send and store energy where it’s needed the most.

While New York’s policy landscape has spurred transmission development like the CHPE, Dewey and Jessome agreed more work must happen. Carbon pricing, for example, could be an effective market mechanism to drive renewable development. Legislators should also streamline the siting and permitting process to assist new projects. Additionally, developers will need to collaborate with stakeholders to make these projects successful. Federal and state governments, the local utility, indigenous communities and environmental groups all deserve a seat at the table to develop resilient and site-specific transmission solutions. 

The dream for distribution

The final session of the conference assessed distribution: what will more renewable energy and electrification mean for Con Edison’s local distribution grid (and New Yorkers’ utility bills)? The challenge, as described by moderator Charlotte Mathews of Sidewalk Labs, is keeping costs down while expanding the electric grid and maintaining reliability. Although the policy focus is on renewable generation, Damian Sciano of Con Edison explained that the local focus must shift to widespread electrification. Currently, NYC’s power demand peaks in the summer at 10,800 MW. But as electric vehicles come on the scene alongside electrified heating loads, peak demand will shift seasons and size, and the distribution system will have to adapt.

In a future with peak energy loads double or triple the current size, and power flowing in from intermittent sources, new battery and demand response technologies will be essential. John Gilbert of Rudin Management Company stressed the importance of real-time action, stating that “the more granular data we can grab, and the more we get to share that with our customers, the more efficiencies we can create.” However, the likelihood that buildings can front the cost for this kind of smart technology and battery storage is slim. Dan Steingart of Columbia University Electrochemical Energy Center pointed out that Con Edison may need to get the ball rolling with storage investments.

Resilient energy distribution and storage will require all hands on deck. In today’s commercial office buildings, owners control about 40 percent of the load, while tenants control the rest. The push towards electrification will be easier in commercial office spaces, but it will require cooperation and investment from tenants. Shockingly, as office spaces sit empty due to COVID-19, office building energy use is only down about 30 percent. So there is much work to be done: leases with unnecessary energy provisions should be reexamined, and buildings with leaky envelopes and oversized HVAC equipment must be retrofitted.

Although the exact process for tapping into future green electrons is still being determined, this is a moment for thoughtful consideration as we lay that groundwork. The future may seem unclear, but as Gil Quiniones remarked in the first panel, “people thought that solar will never be economic, wind will never be economic, storage is too expensive and far off. I’m not going to bet against the capacity of the U.S., and the energy of New York to really push the limits.” And John Gilbert reiterated this in closing the conference, “we’ve got this. We can figure this out.”

Further Reading

What’s next for efficiency and renewables (w/ Doreen Harris)

Acting president and CEO of NYSERDA Doreen Harris joins us to discuss the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.


What’s next for sustainable buildings in NYC? (w/ Ben Furnas)

Ben Furnas, Director of the NYC Mayor's Office of Climate and Sustainability, looks at the city's plans to lower emissions.