LLast year Texas built dozens of wind and solar farms – enough to power the states Delaware and Hawaii together. California built enough to power every house in San Francisco twice. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas have each built enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes.
New York built three wind and solar farms, enough to power a small city. In 2019 and 2020 it did not build any.
Still, it has committed to a faster green transition than almost any other state, pledging to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, more than double its current share. To meet that mandate, New York will need to build 100 times as many large-scale solar plants in the next five years as it did in the last decade. It needs to boost battery storage and multiply capacity by more than fifty times. It needs to build a brand new offshore wind industry that will turn plans on paper into one of the state’s largest sources of energy.
Overall, for the rest of this decade, New York will need to build wind, solar, and energy storage 10 times faster than last.
State energy officials insist they’re on the right track, noting that the new renewable energy they’ve already signed contracts for is enough to meet the 2030 target almost on its own. But these projects must be approved and built on time to overcome local resistance and other challenges that tend to delay large renewable projects. And the electricity they generate has to travel across the state via large new transmission lines that also need to be built.
All of which makes a shaky bet. But analysts say it could be possible if the state gets serious quickly. Here’s what it would take.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, Hundreds flocked to an Albany convention center for a conference held by the Alliance for Clean Energy NY, an influential coalition of renewable energy developers and green groups. Climate activists rubbed elbows with utility lobbyists, and lawmakers made the rounds as developers and regulators engaged in technical talks. Speakers welcomed the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act that will unlock tens of billions of dollars in clean energy investments for New York. Above all, however, they are angry about the hurdles that stand in the way of the expansion of renewable energies in the country and endanger its goals.
“Our climate goals must now become construction goals” said Anne Reynolds, the association’s executive director, in her opening remarks.
There are currently about half a dozen grid-scale renewable projects under construction across the state. Reynolds told the New York Focus that to reach 70 percent renewable energy, that number must double next year, double again in 2024, and continue at the same pace through 2030.
New York’s current power mix is often described as a “two-grid story.” North of the Hudson Valley, 85 percent of year-round electricity comes from a handful of hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, most of which were built more than half a century ago. Wind accounts for another 6 percent, with only a small portion coming from oil and gas.
But a lack of transmission lines from upstate to downstate means the opposite is true in the New York City metropolitan area. Since the shutdown of the last reactor at the Indian Point nuclear power plant last year, virtually all power has been shut off generated by fossil fuels.
This dependency on fossil fuels reflects what Pete Sikora, director of climate campaigns at advocacy group New York Communities for Change, calls a “lost decade” under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“For almost a decade, there was almost no development of wind and solar,” Sikora said. Instead, New York added thousands of megawatts worth of new gas plants. “And that happened as other states pushed ahead with renewable energy development.”
The exception to this is rooftop and community solar, which the grid operator doesn’t count as they are generated directly by the people who use them and not by a power producer selling their energy to the grid. Homeowners, businesses and community groups have installed 4,200 megawatts of solar panels since 2010, with Long Island at the helm.
In comparison, the state has added just three utility-scale solar farms totaling 77 megawatts in that time. It has contracts to build nearly 7,000 megawatts over the next five years and plans to increase that number.
We build the plane while we fly it.
And that’s just part of the picture. Overall, the state must increase its electricity generation capacity by 50 percent or more by 2030. By 2040, it needs to “leap to the next level,” as Reynolds puts it — roughly tripling its overall capacity even during the process Closure of numerous fossil fuel power plants.
READ MORE: Smokestacks tower over New York’s clean energy plan
This massive amount of renewable energy needed reflects a dual challenge: the electrification of buildings and transportation, which will increase overall electricity demand, and the “intermittent” nature of renewable energy, which depends on the weather. The heavy reliance on wind and sun means that significantly more capacity needs to be built up than is needed on an average day to ensure there is a reliable mix all year round.
This need for reliability has led to this energy company Pushing for a less-renewable approach, with more government support for nuclear, hydrogen or other technologies that could provide year-round zero-emission electricity.
However, the state has yet to support such an approach. Wind and sun remain central, regardless of which path they take in the long term – not least because concrete goals for both technologies are already enshrined in law. A provision of the 2019 Climate Act requires the state to build 9 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, and do it from the ground up.
The state’s first offshore wind farm — the 130-megawatt South Fork Wind farm east of Long Island — is scheduled to be online by the end of 2023. From there, the industry plans to grow rapidly: four more wind farms are planned to be completed between 2024 and 2028, will inject more than 4 gigawatts of clean power into the lower power grid, making them a crucial pillar of the state’s clean energy transition power.
However, they will still leave New York less than halfway to the 2035 goal of 9 gigawatts. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is currently in the midst of its third offshore wind tender, which will bring the state closer to that goal, though the agency hasn’t said by how much.
Another key to the 2030 target is a controversial transmission line Approved April, which will transport 1,250 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectric power to New York City. The project – which dates back to 2010 – is now due for completion by early 2026 after encountering a new round of delays this fall.
THE STATE CLAIMS that these projects will significantly exceed the 70 percent target by the end of this decade. So far, NYSERDA says the projects it has signed will take it to 66 percent, and it plans to sign more deals in the coming years to bridge the gap.
However, a NYSERDA contract does not guarantee a successful project, let alone one completed on schedule. More than 10 percent of the projects awarded since 2004 have been canceled and many more have been delayed. Once a project has a contract, it still needs to be located and approved; it must be built; and it must be connected to the mains. Each of these steps opens the door to new challenges Agency understaffed to deficiencies in the supply chain to influential local opponents.
READ MORE: Understaffing threatens to slow New York climate plans
The state’s top three offshore wind farms are everyone constantly at least a year behind schedule.
A white paper guiding the renewable energy contracting process “assumes five years when we procure projects until they are online. And we’ve only seen that with our 20-megawatt solar array,” Abbey DeRocker, deputy director of the Large-Scale Renewable Energy Agency, said at the Clean Energy Conference. In other words, all but the smallest projects experience significant delays.
Some factors are not in the hands of the state. The harsh climate in New York, for example, makes it difficult to build solar parks in winter. But even there, regulation plays a role: If permits aren’t granted, winter weather can cause delays lasting months, said Stephane Desdunes, who leads grid-scale projects at EDF Renewables, currently the state’s largest solar developer.
And strict environmental and labor regulations make permitting more difficult than in much of the country, despite recent efforts streamline the process.
“We’ll probably have to go out in New York [third-party] Contractors a year earlier than other states just because of the way the permit is issued,” Desdunes said. “Basically, they’re asking you to come up with a near-final design three, four, five years in advance, which doesn’t really relate to reality, especially the way the technology is evolving.”
Some contractors also balk at an 1885 law known as the Scaffolding Act, which makes contractors fully liable for any injury caused by a trip or fall on their job sites. No other state has such a strict standard, and Desdunes cited it as a top cause of additional costs and headaches. (Criticism to quarrel Nor does the law make jobs safer.)
Then there’s work: Renewable energy developers rely on a relatively small pool of highly skilled electricians and other workers to build their projects. New York has just under 9,000 electrical engineers, a lower percentage per capita than many other states federal data. And there is fierce competition for their workforce.
“The state has done a good job of attracting business. But that means we’re going to be fighting amongst ourselves for this work,” Desdunes said, as well as with other industries like data centers. Desdunes stressed that despite the obstacles, industry is interested in building in the state.
“We see New York as a top market in North America,” he said.
The federal anti-inflation law should also help the state counteract and potentially release some of the current headwinds $70 billion in incentives for New York.
Take the IRA along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the CHIPS bill, “we’re talking about an industrial policy that we haven’t seen since the space race began,” said Harry Godfrey, executive director of trade group Advanced Energy Economy.
Still, that transformation will take time, and there’s not much left for New York to achieve its first major goals under the climate law.
“We build the plane the way we fly it,” Desdunes said.