THE BLOG
12/07/2015 09:00 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

Governor Andrew Cuomo's Quiet Green Revolution

Andrew Cuomo's highest priority as New York's governor has, by necessity, been the revitalization of the Empire State's upstate economy. But slowly and surely he has been trying to accomplish that goal without sacrificing environmental quality. A clear signal of his approach was last year's continued moratorium on fracking for natural gas. An even earlier sign was his response to Hurricane Sandy and his focus on building more resilient energy and transportation infrastructure. In mid-November he blocked a large offshore natural gas facility opposed by Long Island's environmental community. Moreover, last week he took the most significant green step of his governorship when he directed his Department of Public Service to enact a new clean energy standard requiring that by 2030 at least 50% of the state's electricity be generated from renewable resources. This is a demanding but feasible effort, and is a clear indicator of the governor's priorities.

The state has also invested significant resources to attract a Solar City factory to western New York. The factory will be three times larger than any other solar cell factory in the United States and will employ 3,000 people. New York State invested $750 million in the factory and Solar City estimates its expenditures will be about $5 billion over ten years.

In addition to the investment in the solar cell factory, New York's nanotechnology college, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, is focused on applying nanotechnology to the development of solar cells. The potential for shrinking solar arrays and making them more efficient in transforming solar energy into electricity could result in the transformative technology needed to help drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.

In many respects, Cuomo's approach to sustainability mirrors the approach taken by Mike Bloomberg when he was New York City's mayor. Sustainability is viewed as a tool of economic development and environmental goals are integrated into the goals of economic development. The green economy is growing and New York's depressed upstate economy can benefit from building critical mass in the renewable energy business.

Basil Seggos, Cuomo's new commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, has deep environmental credentials and experience having worked for both Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council. However, the Cuomo team's approach is to pursue environmental and economic goals in tandem. In a piece in Politico New York this past October, Scott Waldman reported that:

Seggos was instrumental in shepherding brownfield legislation through the last few budgets, said Darren Suarez, director of government affairs at the Business Council of New York. He showed a willingness to find a compromise that both sides could live with, Suarez said. "What came out of it was pretty good, the environmental community embraced it and the business community found it agreeable," he said. Seggos has represented the Cuomo administration's approach to environmental issues, Suarez said, which includes a focus on the economy that previous governors have rejected. "The governor has set the tone that the environment and the economy don't have to be at loggerheads," he said. "Some environmentalists haven't gotten that message, but this administration has."

The integration of environment and economic development is what sustainability management is all about: It recognizes that water, air and food are essential to human existence and that production processes in the economy must be designed to ensure that ecological resources are maintained and not destroyed. As China is learning right now, economic development that attempts to ignore environmental factors may save money in the short term, but before long the costs of cleaning a toxic environment must be paid.

The renewable energy standard announced by Governor Cuomo is a real, operational and meaningful step. The New York State Public Service Commission regulates the generation and transmission of electricity in New York State along with similar responsibilities for natural gas, steam, telecommunications and water. The utilities they regulate are "natural monopolies" due to limits of access to space for power lines and similar infrastructure. In other words, we don't want five sets of power lines under the streets of Manhattan and therefore a free and open market for electricity cannot develop. In exchange for giving one private firm the ability to provide a service, the state regulates its composition and price. When Andrew Cuomo directs the Public Service Commission to switch to renewable energy, the force of that order should not be underestimated. It is a meaningful, real-world step that will have a dramatic impact on power generation in New York over the next decade and a half. As Governor Cuomo observed in his letter directing the Department of Public Service to move toward renewables: "By mandating a Clean Energy Standard we ensure that this goal is converted from aspirational to actionable. Talking about goals and achieving them are two different things."

Governor Cuomo's move received notice, but few headlines, and while his political antenna certainly affected the timing and direction of this move, what I find most noteworthy is the muscle he places behind it. He is directing the regulatory body that determines how much money the electric utilities can charge to push the utilities toward renewable energy. This is clearly a move based more on conviction than politics. We see many other indications of Cuomo's quiet commitment to sustainability. From my perspective, one the most significant indicators was his ability to attract and retain Richard L. Kauffman as his "Energy Czar," or chief advisor on energy development and finance. Kauffman is one of the most talented energy policy and management analysts in the world, and New York's creative and innovative energy initiatives over the past several years reflect his brilliance and the governor's support.

The news coming out of the COP21 talks in Paris provide a clear signal of the difficulty the world will face in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One of the critical components of this transition would be a place that can demonstrate "proof of concept." New York State's electric utilities will have the motivation to facilitate this transition. All of the operational and financial issues of moving off of fossil fuels will be exposed here in New York. What are the costs to utilities of distributed generation of energy as more households and businesses go solar? How does declining volume impact the rate base and the ability to upgrade and maintain the electrical grid? These and dozens of similar questions will be addressed as utilities and the state learn together how to operate in a fossil fuel-free environment.

Rene Dubos once famously admonished us to think globally but act locally. All of the grand macro policies discussed over negotiating tables in world and national capitals are only given meaning when state and local officials, business leaders and workers do the heavy lifting of making policy real. There are many reasons to believe that environmental sustainability has moved from the fringe to the center of the global political agenda. The fact that New York's politically savvy and management-oriented governor is providing leadership in this arena is yet another clear sign of the centrality of sustainability. Cuomo is quietly but methodically implementing a green revolution in New York State.