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New York's Leaders Position State to Be National Model for Embracing Clean Energy

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Under President Obama's newly released plan to cut carbon emissions -- he's targeted a 30-percent decrease below 2005 levels by 2030 -- each state has a specific goal to meet and flexibility in how to achieve it. New York's goal is among the most ambitious. While most states fall in the 15- to 30-percent range in terms of reductions, the Empire State must achieve a 44-percent drop.

This is a high hurdle. New York only receives three percent of its power from coal-fired plants -- the dirtiest fossil fuel -- meaning it will have to look to other energy-saving measures to hit its mark. But it's also a great opportunity, one that could make the state a national leader in embracing 21st-century technology and energy-saving strategies essential for combating climate change.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has assembled a team of agency leaders that strongly position New York to meet this challenge, including Richard Kauffman, chair of the state's Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Audrey Zibelman, chair of its Public Service Commission (PSC).

Dubbed New York's "Energy Czar," Mr. Kauffman is responsible for all of the state's energy and utility authorities, including the PSC. Prior to leading NYSERDA, he held senior-level roles in the public and private sector, from the U.S. Department of Energy to global financial institutions. Ms. Zibelman, an international expert in Smart Grid innovation who works closely with Mr. Kauffman, is overseeing the PSC's Reforming the Energy Vision initiative. It seeks to promote energy efficiency and increased reliance on renewable energy, such as wind and solar, as well as a wider deployment of micro grids, local clean power sources and energy conservation.

This initiative aligns with Gov. Cuomo's leadership in increasing energy conservation and efficiency and shifting New York's electric mix to renewable energy through his vigorous promotion of efforts to boost power generation via new solar and offshore wind development. The governor also has been a forceful spokesman for the importance of acknowledging the devastating impact of climate change since Superstorm Sandy and in moving New York into new orbits -- both in reducing the sources of greenhouse gases that cause it and in helping coastal communities prepare for its future repercussions.

Before taking the helm of the PSC, Ms. Zibelman capped off a 25-year career of leadership, both public and private, in the electric utility industry by founding Viridity Energy, Inc. This pioneering company developed a software system that allows facilities, such as factories and universities, to monitor and constantly adjust energy use to minimize costs. What makes Viridity's approach even more attractive is that unused energy produced on-site via solar panels or generators can be sold to the grid.

Such visionary thinking is just what's needed as New York forges a new smart energy policy. The PSC and Gov. Cuomo are to be commended for trying to halt the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from approving a new capacity zone in the Hudson River Valley meant to provide an incentive for energy producers to increase power generation near the New York Metropolitan Area--at the expense of homeowners and businesses. (The FERC denied the PSC's request for a rehearing on the need for the capacity zone; on June 3 the PSC, among others, petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to stay the zone's implementation, which was also denied.) One shuttered facility that may restart thanks to the new zone--the coal-fired Danskammer plant -- once was the state's dirtiest. Bringing this dinosaur back on-line will only make it harder for New York to reach carbon-reduction goals set by the president and governor.

The PSC must take an equally strong stand against proposals that could increase the physical dimensions of high-voltage transmission lines that need to be upgraded. In his 2014 State of the State Address, Gov. Cuomo called for a new process to offer incentives for future projects that stay within existing corridors in height and width. But as part of an ongoing proceeding to upgrade lines that deliver upstate power to downstate consumers, major energy companies may still propose projects that could increase the heights of towers, and the width of some rights-of-way, through the Hudson Valley's most productive farmland and scenic and historic communities under the premise that such projects would improve service and take pressure off rising electricity prices for New Yorkers. These projects also could potentially destroy world-class views, diminish the value of productive farms, imperil critical wildlife habitats and undermine the region's $4.75-billion tourism industry. Before any new lines are approved, the PSC should first examine the need for them and explore all possible smart energy alternatives, including any relevant conceptual ideas beginning to emerge in the Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding.

Embracing 21st-century energy technology will break the costly stranglehold imposed by the state's aging infrastructure, increase consumers' energy choices, and make the grid stronger and more resistant to future weather disasters and terrorism. In the process it will encourage private investment and new jobs in providing and maintaining clean energy sources.

State officials across America have a choice: They can take steps to achieve President Obama's carbon-emission reductions or they can put up roadblocks through backward-looking policies and initiatives. In Gov. Cuomo, Richard Kauffman and Audrey Zibelman, New Yorkers are fortunate to have leaders who are eager to move forward, using smart energy to enhance their state's health and economy. If carried out successfully, their initiatives should serve as a model for our country's energy future.