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Can New York State Power its Way to a Sustainable Future?

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A common view among state and federal lawmakers is that economic growth and clean energy innovation are mutually exclusive. Their error stems as much from their un-confessed self-interest as it does from the ad campaigns portraying fossil fuel exploration as a celebrated American tradition, attracting rugged, patriotic men and women.

The glistening offshore oil platforms and the early morning roll calls at natural gas plants convey a clean-cut, straight-talking, collaborative atmosphere that appeals to American sensibilities. What these ads intentionally fail to address is that the American workers they feature could instead be building the clean, non-polluting renewable power infrastructure America so desperately needs.

In his February 12, 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama urged the Congress to "pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change." And he offered this promise: "... if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy." What Obama did not mention are the energy options already capable of delivering the 21st century American jobs that will, if initiated, result in reduced climate gas emissions, cleaner air and water, lower health care costs and electrical power price stabilization.

Stanford University Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, who explores and analyzes air quality, global warming and large-scale renewable energy solutions through elegant mathematical models, has already connected the eco-economic dots that Obama omitted. Jacobson, director of Stanford's Atmosphere/Energy Program and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, is motivated by the findings of his recent report, which reveal, he says, "the technical and economic feasibility of repowering an individual state for all purposes primarily with wind, water and sun (WWS)."

Jacobson co-authored the report, entitled, "Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State's All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight" with Cornell University Professor of Engineering, Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Robert W. Howarth and University of California at Davis scientist Mark Delucchi, among others. Their findings are published in the Journal Energy Policy.

Jacobson's discoveries have fueled important conversations on energy reform both at home and abroad. Most recently, his work has captured the imagination of bankers, environmental advocates and industrial leaders who increasingly view clean energy innovation as a key catalyst for ending our dependence on fossil fuels, tackling climate change and reinvigorating America's declining manufacturing base.

Jacobson is very approachable in person and exceedingly bright. Though he doesn't seek the spotlight, he nevertheless shines in its presence and his personable demeanor make his ground-breaking research all the more intriguing -- so intriguing, in fact, that it has captured the attention of California's most prominent clean energy financier, Marco Krapels.

Meet and Greet

Just over two years ago, on the southeast side of San Francisco, near the 101 freeway, RaboBank's Executive VP, Marco Krapels, who manages its Capital Markets and Renewable Energy Finance Division, hosted a star-studded soirée at which he introduced the actor-activist Mark Ruffalo, Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox and Jacobson to renewable energy investors, social media influencers and well-connected environmental leaders. Many on the guest list were already aware of Ruffalo's efforts to ban natural gas fracking in New York state and Fox's work to expose the toxic hazards of natural gas-drilling. Guests had also come to learn of Jacobson's Scientific American article -- published a year earlier -- which proposed that "a large-scale wind, water and solar energy system can reliably supply the world's needs." In that paper, Jacobson added, "the obstacles [to clean energy] are primarily political, not technical." Many attending guests had watched Jacobson's February, 2010 TED Talks debate performance, where he presented a compelling case in favor of a 100 percent renewable U.S. energy plan.

Attention quickly focused on the Stanford brainiac, who offered the audience a refreshingly objective examination of his work. "Mathematics can be used to estimate the likely outcome of a new idea," Jacobson began. He explained that his team was busy researching U.S. energy usage from the point of exploration all the way through to the point of consumption. In doing so, they kept account of the "external" costs of each energy source. The respective costs and benefits of each technology became a mathematical profile of sorts and what they found was remarkable: "When you properly factor in the economic costs of natural gas and other fossil fuels -- their burden on the environment, human health and the economy -- the benefits of renewable electricity are not only indisputable, but they're financially compelling." Jacobson's cocktail conversation made an impression as industry moguls and tech savvy pioneers exchanged attentive nods.

Ruffalo spoke of his family's move to upstate New York and the unwelcome realization that the region's groundwater was threatened by the industrial practice of fracturing bedrock to extract natural gas. He described the grassroots campaign that ensued to end the industrial operations and the ongoing battle to permanently ban the practice statewide (a two-year moratorium on natural gas fracking in New York was recently announced by the NY legislature and awaits Senate approval). As New York's electricity is generated almost exclusively by coal and natural gas, alternative fuel sources would necessarily be required should New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ultimately decide to ban fracking operations permanently.

Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox shared the levels of chronic illness and groundwater contamination that are among the all too often under-reported consequences of fracking activity. He described the toxic fluids, which are injected into the ground under high pressure to break rock apart, as "a spoiled cocktail of lethal substances, including neurotoxins, carcinogens, plastics, explosives and volatile organic compounds."

New York: A Case Study

Following Krapels's event, Fox, who was in the process of filming Gasland Part ll, visited Jacobson in Palo Alto the next day. He interviewed him and his graduate students to explore the "big-picture' possibilities of their findings. Encouraged by the conversation, they agreed to reconvene. In February, 2011, Jacobson, Fox, Krapels, and Ruffalo brainstormed by phone. A consensus developed quickly -- the team agreed that if Jacobson could refine his research to address the specific characteristics of New York State's natural resources and energy potential, his groundbreaking work could provide the alternative energy plan Ruffalo was determined to identify for his adopted state.

"Can you do that?" Ruffalo asked. As involved as Jacobson is in teaching and research, it's not surprising that the Stanford pioneer couldn't immediately commit, though he did agree to write a brief, one-paragraph synopsis of his findings that evening. What transpired over the next 12 hours is what great entrepreneurial stories are made of. Increasingly energized by the midnight challenge, Jacobson feverishly researched the wind, solar and water data for New York and plugged these numbers into the model he built. He dug deep into tax policy, retrofitting subsidies, and the financial benefits of improved air quality on human health. He then ran the numbers, and 21 pages of analysis later, Jacobson discovered a very promising scenario. Looking out 17 years to 2030, Jacobson's evaluation of New York's natural resource potential revealed that an electrical-power platform consisting exclusively of wind, water and solar ("water" including geothermal, tidal, wave and hydroelectric) would not only power New York state, but would also reduce its electrical power demand by 37 percent.

Astonished by Jacobson's findings, Krapels asked Jacobson, "How is that possible?" "Renewable electricity is 4-5 times more efficient than fossil fuel combustion," Jacobson explained, and added, "An electric car, for example, uses 80-86 percent of its stored electricity to travel, losing only 14-20 percent to waste heat. A traditional car uses only 20 percent of the gasoline for travel, while losing to waste heat a whopping 80 of the hydrocarbons."

Ruffalo and Fox were intrigued to say the least and Krapels knew that Jacobson was on to something big.

Jacobson, who has always been interested in large-scale problems and connecting research to real-world applications, presented his analysis to Krapels's team over several weeks, following several key refinements that his students and he and several others made. They, like Jacobson, welcome the opportunity to apply math and science to issues involving air and water quality and energy development. It was the heavily polluted LA skies of Jacobson's youth that grabbed his attention as a Stanford student traveling with the tennis team. "I couldn't see even two courts down during tournaments and there were always players overcome with illness due to the smog," Jacobson said. He explained that it was "an environmental science and technology class I had taken with Professor Gil Masters that ultimately inspired me to study air quality modeling and air and water pollution."

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Mark Jacobson, Mark Ruffalo and Marco Krapels.

The late-night emails that were subsequently exchanged between Jacobson, Krapels, Ruffalo and Fox were fueled by a collective passion for a solution, not unlike the late-night working sessions in the White House when imaginative and courageous minds like Edmund Muskie assembled a team to craft and market the all-important Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s. Could Krapels's Mod Squad be following in their historic footsteps? Could they be on the verge of ushering in an epic era of industrial reinvention?

Project Highlights

"The conversion of New York State's energy infrastructure would yield big results but not necessarily big changes to the state's landscape," Jacobson reported to the team. "Most of the wind would come from off-shore installations and the solar units would be well-positioned on parking areas and buildings. Waterpower would include tidal, wave technology, geothermal plants and hydroelectric plants," Jacobson said. The breakdown of the project's required resources is presented below.

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In recent discussions, Jacobson commented that building New York's clean energy infrastructure would not only render the campaign in support of gas fracking obsolete, but it would grow jobs at a rate that the state hasn't seen in quite some time. Initially, 4.5 million jobs would be created and once completed, 58,000 permanent jobs would be the net result of the energy shift, as reported on page 36 of Jacobson's report. The project would also reduce the current cost of electricity in New York, which is currently one of the highest nationwide at 18 cents per Kilowatt hour (kWh) versus the country's average cost of 13 cents per kWh.

"New York could become the East Coast's Silicon Valley," Krapels declared and his team agreed.

How to Pay for It

Krapels's group discussed the financial commitment such a large project would require. Jacobson calculated that a total investment of $600 billion would be needed to change the electricity infrastructure, but that by calculating and applying to the project the environmental costs arising from fossil fuel extraction, distribution, combustion and impact on human health, the project's price could be significantly reduced.

According to Jacobson's study, 4,000 premature deaths occur in New York each year due to poor air quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Levy et al. (2010) calculated that the financial losses relating to each premature death costs New York $8 million for a total annual cost to the state of $32 billion (based on 2000 GDP). As Jacobson's paper reports on page 31, "The value of life is determined by economists based on what people are willing to pay to avoid heath risks as determined by how much employers pay their workers to take additional risks," (Roman et al., 2012). Given that the social costs of dirty air can offset the cost of the project, Jacobson described to the team an American landscape where growing towns and cities are powered by clean electricity that effectively pays for itself in less than 17 years even before electricity is sold, and in as few as 10 years when renewable electricity is sold back to the grid.

Krapels drew an important comparison. He explained that "taxpayers have already spent 600 billion dollars over 60 years on power that is increasingly expensive... and all we have to show for it is a less stable grid, dirtier power sources, and an increasingly expensive energy supply."

Public Perception

As distribution of fossil fuels becomes more precarious -- with proposals for trans-national pipelines still undecided and experimental deep-ocean drilling ongoing without increased supervision -- the likelihood of a catastrophic release of carbon into the air or water only further suggests that Jacobson's plan, given the proper exposure, could win the support of the public.

An entirely new clean energy infrastructure paying for itself in 10 to 17 years sounds like the eco-economic pragmatism that Obama could embrace publically, particularly when, on balance, a coal plant takes 30 years to pay off and is wrought with comprehensive external costs. As fossil fuel exploration and extraction become riskier, their associated external costs will increase exponentially, whereas clean energy alternatives will stabilize energy costs for taxpayers and corporations. This is the arithmetic that could forever change America's perception of renewables and render those distorted fossil fuel ads obsolete.

Think That This Can't Happen in New York? Think Again

Some may say Jacobson's plan is too ambitious. Others will argue that it's too idealistic. But, Michael C. Finnegan, appointed January 1, 1995 as Counsel to former New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R), believes that Jacobson's proposal is doable. "Working together to make progress should be the organizing principle for social and economic success in our country," Finnegan began from his Hudson Valley home.

Finnegan then told the story of how he, in less than a year, negotiated an agreement between New York City and its northern neighbors to protect the nation's largest public drinking water supply by cleaning up the two-thousand square miles of land that comprise the City's watershed north of its border.

"The project was necessary to satisfy the EPA, who in 1989, ordered New York City to protect its public drinking water supply. We had to protect the public as well as the economic interests of the northern communities that comprise the City's watershed," Finnegan said.

The watershed consists of 550 billion gallons of water and three separate reservoir systems. "It's about the size of Delaware," Finnegan said. It covers eight counties, 60 towns, one city and 11 incorporated villages on the east and west sides of the Hudson River.

"We discussed filtering the water, because that was a less expensive option, but when we learned that there were pollutants that we may not have been able to filter adequately, we decided to commit to protecting the watershed altogether and to do a better job of protecting it over the long haul," Finnegan remarked. The cost of not doing so and exposing the city to the risk of contaminated drinking water could not properly be calculated, because the number was simply too big.

When asked about his view on natural gas fracking technology, Finnegan said, "It's not a known science and there isn't conclusive information regarding its safety... I'm not persuaded that the data supports safety conclusively, so we aught not do it."

Finnegan mentioned a recent meeting he attended where the subject of fracking in New York State was discussed. "One insider told us that the soft underbelly of fracking in New York involves trucking the used chemicals over narrow roads that cannot accommodate the size of the trucks. They apparently have not found a location for fracking waste, so therein is a major legal issue. If there's no location, there's no permit."

If the fracking fluids are as dangerous as Ruffalo and Fox describe, and require special disposal off-site, then why are we intentionally injecting them into the ground anywhere in America?

Finnegan shared his insights on why, at least in his state, there are residents who do support fracking: "There has never been an economic policy for the Catskills or the Appalachian region. The strategy vacillates back and forth -- everything from casinos to horse racing -- and in the absence of a plan, it's not surprising that some residents grab onto what appears to be the one strategy that could work, in this case, fracking."

Looking back on the historic negotiations he led in 1995, Finnegan shared a memory. "The higher we set the bar, the better behaved we were ... There were a number of times when any one of us could have gone the wrong way, but we hung together. When in the middle of a heady debate one day, I quoted Ben Franklin -- 'We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.'"

Finnegan was able to choreograph a tight-knit team who apparently understood that if their plan didn't work out, they would all get hung by their respective constituencies. "We had a ban on press conversations and everyone abided by it," Finnegan said.

If the land use development challenge in New York State triggered the need for such an epic solution in order to protect a water supply serving over eight million residents, certainly the dangers posed by natural gas fracking are a fair parallel to Finnegan's grand challenge. Given the risks, how could the notion of injecting millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Empire State's heartland be taken seriously by anyone at all? Moreover, given the risks, why isn't our federal government doing everything possible to create an alternative solution, based on the best science that we have to date?

What Do We Have to Lose?

There are major economic challenges facing America. Health care costs have skyrocketed. The climate is heating at breakneck speed and our once diverse habitats are disappearing. Humans face a planet in distress. Once fertile agricultural land is blistering and may soon be unable to supply the food necessary to feed the world's growing population. Global drinking water supplies are drying up. Higher temperatures have created super bugs and viruses resilient to modern medicine. Asthma rates among young children are at an all-time high. Earthquakes are occurring near natural gas fracking operations, in states where tectonic activity has been rare to non-existent over recent geologic time. Our polar ice caps are breaking and melting at a record rate. All of these problems share a common source: the destructive effects of fossil fuel exploration, distribution and combustion.

This is what Jacobson calls the "Fiscal Energy Cliff," which he describes as "the epic environmental and ecological costs we all pay for our current energy supply."

Though the solar company Solyndra was one renewable energy disappointment, the catastrophic BP explosion and season-long flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was a larger-than-life calamity. Because of one company's economic struggle, the fossil fuel titans mock alternative energy as "unreliable," and cast doubt on the promise of an American energy and manufacturing boom while their own industry poisons the planet.

Paul Hawken, Sausalito, California's globally lauded eco-pioneer, author and philanthropist, who has had plenty of first-hand experience developing clean energy technology, commented by phone that many major breakthroughs have been made in the industry in the last three years. "We can do it," Hawken said. "It's not like you have to know everything at once... you figure it out as you go. That's how we got to the moon, after all."

Jacobson has done the arithmetic. Ruffalo and Fox are spreading the word. Krapels finances clean energy projects. Finnegan says, "Let's work together!" And, Hawken, who regularly speaks to Fortune 100 companies on sustainability and environmental leadership, believes that we need "a Manhattan-style, full-bore project to invest in a low-carbon economy."

And what better place to initiate a Manhattan-style project than the Empire State, where uncommon hurricanes are now the "new normal" in weather reporting. "Students are voting for divestment in fossil fuels at colleges here and abroad," Hawken noted. "Bill McKibben's 350.org Do the Math Tour has alerted them to the fact that fossil fuel companies are ruining their lives and their future... President Obama has a narrow opportunity to shape a lasting legacy by issuing an executive order to begin building the green energy infrastructure that he promised and that young voters want."

What we need is national enthusiasm for an idea whose time has come.

We've got the technology. We've got the minds. We've done the math. All we need are the influential voices who will stand up and say, "Make it happen!"

(Please note: No group, company, industry or government agency or interest group funded any part of this study).



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