The Partial Observer by Roger Caiazza
Zero Emissions Transition Realistic?
Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act proponents claim that existing technology is sufficient for the transition to the zero emissions electric grid by the 2040 target and that because wind and solar are free the transition will be affordable. However, the first annual Public Service Commission informational report on the implementation of the Climate Act released last month tells another story. It notes that in 2022 the costs associated with the Climate Act increased the monthly electric bills 7.6 percent for New York State Electric and Gas customers and 9.8 percent for Niagara Mohawk customers.
Authors of the Climate Act believed that New York’s electric grid can be powered by wind, solar, and hydro and that it can be done completely with currently available technologies. However, the PSC recently initiated an “Order initiating a process regarding the zero-emissions target” that will “identify innovative technologies to ensure reliability of a zero-emissions electric grid.” Because New York energy policy irrationally ignores the potential and value of nuclear energy, new resources are needed. The organizations responsible for the reliability of the New York electric system all say that additional clean-energy resources that do not have emissions and can be dispatched as necessary are needed.
The myth that converting to solar and wind resources will be cheaper than using fossil fuels is very persistent. The only way it can be perpetuated is if the difference between power and energy is not recognized. When someone claims that solar is cheaper than fossil fuel generation, they are referring to the power capacity (MW). Even if solar capacity is half the cost of fossil capacity, the cost for delivered energy from solar is much more. We pay for the electric energy (kWh) we use each month and we expect it to be available 24-7 throughout the year. In order to provide usable energy, additional things must be considered. On average, a well-designed solar facility can provide 20 percent of its possible potential energy in New York. A natural gas fired power plant can operate to produce at least 80 percent of its potential energy over a year. In order to produce the same amount of energy, that means that you need four times as much solar capacity. Even if the solar capacity cost is half the cost for the capacity, the energy cost is double simply due to this capacity factor difference. In addition, solar and wind facility capacity needs storage for periods when they are not available, ancillary transmission services which are not provided by wind and solar, and the zero-emissions resource described above. When the costs of all those resources are included, energy produced by solar and wind are much more expensive than fossil-fired resources.
The PSC informational report on the implementation of the Climate Act only considers ratepayer impacts. In 2022, the monthly bill adders for the Climate Act covered costs of $1.3 billion but an additional $43.8 billion in costs have been authorized but are not yet included in bills. This is just the start of the eventual ratepayer costs as more GHG emission reduction programs are deployed. In addition, it does not consider the costs for electrifying homes, businesses, and vehicles. A full accounting of costs of the Climate Act is overdue.
New York greenhouse gas emissions are less than one half of one percent of global emissions and global emissions have been increasing on average by more than one half of one percent per year since 1990. That may not mean we should not do something, but it does mean that we have time to determine how much the transition will cost, whether we can maintain current levels of reliability with an electric grid that depends on wind and solar, and determine all the environmental impacts of wind and solar resources at the scale necessary for the net-zero transition.
Born in Cooperstown and a graduate of Oneonta High School, Roger Caiazza holds a bachelor’s in meteorology from SUNY Oneonta and a master’s in meteorology from the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Before his retirement in 2018, he was a certified consulting meteorologist and worked in the air quality industry for more than 40 years. The goal of Caiazza’s blog, “Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York,” is to explain the importance of balancing risks and benefits of both sides of environmental issues.