Governor Should Forge Ahead with Climate Initiatives and Scrap Costly, Polluting Transmission Lines

12/10/2015 03:47 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2016

As representatives from around the globe huddle in Paris to hammer out an accord to reduce the pollutants causing climate change, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is ordering state regulators to shift the state's power supply to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 to reduce carbon emissions in New York. The directive builds on a multifaceted set of initiatives developed by his talented "energy czar," Richard Kauffman, and the equally visionary Public Service Commission (PSC) Chair Audrey Zibelman to combine public and private resources to create a 21st-century electric generating and distribution system.

The centerpiece of their plan is a PSC proceeding aptly named Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). It gives electric utilities, businesses and homeowners incentives to reduce electricity demand, increase efficiency, and tap locally generated wind and solar power. Former Vice President Al Gore has praised the governor for making a major commitment to combating climate change, and the REV in particular, for sending a "strong signal to world leaders."

But on December 17, the PSC could give the go-ahead to another state proceeding entirely at odds with REV and its climate-smart purpose. Gov. Cuomo's Energy Highway, launched in his 2012 State of the State address (before either Kauffman or Zibelman were part of his team), proposes new high-voltage transmission lines through Hudson Valley farms and historic hamlets crucial to the region's tourism economy. The $1.2-billion project puts all the risk on ratepayers, including 80 percent of cost overruns, while utility developers hope to walk away with a 12-percent return on investment. (Does anyone think that is fair?) It also would extend the life of outdated coal-fired power plants in central and western New York whose continued operation runs completely counter to climate change goals.

The new transmission towers would add to the burden small communities along the route already bear in large unsightly equipment that detract from the Hudson Valley's world-class beauty and pose security risks. For example, the Towns of Milan and Pleasant Valley have a significant concentration of electrical transmission and gas lines--without new transmission.

The PSC staff is pushing forward with the transmission project, even though the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition (HVSEC) has demonstrated the new capacity is not needed. This group does recognize the importance of maintaining existing transmission infrastructure. Ratepayer money should be invested in repairing our current aging infrastructure, not wasted on unnecessary new capacity.

What's the rationale behind constructing the new lines? Frankly, we don't know.

State officials originally claimed the lines would open up a bottleneck in transmission capacity, allowing more power to flow from the central and western parts of the state down to the lower Hudson Valley and New York City. This would result in reducing "congestion costs" during the few peak periods of electricity demand--a handful of hot summer days--that place the maximum load on the power system. However, the HVSEC's expert consultants have discredited this theory. Further, the New York Independent System Operator, the entity that operates New York's grid, has officially stated new transmission or generating projects are not needed to enhance the overall reliability of the electrical system for the decade ahead.

Now state officials are shifting to a new rationale. They're justifying the transmission lines on "public policy" grounds and claiming they're part of REV--the backbone of the state electrical system needed to bring wind and other power generated upstate to New York City.

In fact, the transmission lines, REV and public policy issues are part of separate PSC proceedings. And the state's own consultant found that REV would actually reduce the need for new transmission. The Brattle Group, under contract with the PSC, compared a "REV alternative"--a package of energy-efficiency measures--with new transmission lines. It found that REV outperforms new transmission both in lowering cost to consumers and harmful pollutants that contribute to global climate change by a factor of 10. The consultants also concluded that upstate wind power is not constrained by a lack of long-distance transmission capacity, but by the need to upgrade local electrical lines in western New York. The Energy Highway appears to be a form of life support for upstate coal-fired power plants and generators ready for the scrap heap. And the state has targeted the plentiful wind off Long Island, rather than upstate, to achieve greater reliance on renewables.

The Energy Highway has been the subject of a three-year PSC process riddled with procedural missteps that make it vulnerable to challenge. Gov. Cuomo and his top energy officials stand to gain tremendous popular support and build momentum behind their plan for a 21st-century power system that would make New York an international leader in combating climate change--but only if they heed the analysis of their own consultants and terminate the polluting, costly and unfair Energy Highway. If they don't end it, ratepayers throughout the Hudson Valley will foot a $1.2-billion project with no answer to the question: Why?