New York State is wrapping up Climate Week today, after a week’s worth of more gubernatorial talk on climate than we heard from ex-governor Andrew Cuomo in all of 2020.
The weeklong celebration of climate action got off to an underwhelming start, however. “Get There Green!” a state press release urged in August, nudging New Yorkers to pledge to take a bus or a bike sometime during Climate Week instead of driving. In case it’s news to anyone: We’re not going to carpool our way out of the climate crisis.
But as Climate Week got rolling, the Hochul administration picked up the pace, with a spate of announcements on climate-focused programs and projects. There were a number of state moves announced over the past week that go beyond paying lip service to the urgency of the problem.
Governor Kathy Hochul hasn’t been on the job long enough to make a lot of truly earth-shaking moves on climate. Many of the projects announced have been in the works for a long time. Others are low-hanging fruit, like the expansion of the state’s goal for buildout of smaller “distributed” solar projects. But already, Hochul is showing signs of being a lot more serious on climate than her predecessor.
“Hochul is demonstrating that she understands the climate crisis is here, and it’s happening now,” says Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of NY and a member of the state’s 22-member Climate Action Council, the committee charged with creating a roadmap for the state to meet its climate goals over the next few decades. “We’re getting a sense that the Hochul administration will treat climate change like the emergency it is.”
In a Climate Week kickoff press conference, Hochul didn’t miss a chance to brag, Cuomo-style, about New York being ahead of the game on decarbonizing the electrical grid—which, compared to other states, it is. “We’re going to double down and expand that goal to build out at least 10 gigawatts of solar by 2030,” she said. “No one said we’re going to do that before. I’m saying it right here, right now.” The state’s previous goal of six gigawatts of distributed (in other words, not utility-scale) solar capacity by 2025 is very close to being met already, spurred by the falling price of solar, which is now cheaper to build than fossil-fuel electrical generation.
Hochul is also expanding the amount of funding in the Environmental Bond Act from $3 billion to $4 billion—and, in another Cuomo-like move, changing its name yet again. Cuomo had previously rebranded the ballot measure the “Restore Mother Nature Act;” now it’s the “Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act,” in a nod to the fact that tackling the projects of decarbonizing the state economy and boosting the resilience of communities to extreme weather is going to create a lot of new jobs in the state. The measure goes before New York State voters in November 2022.
Among the Climate Week announcements that have been in the works for awhile: A $36 million project to create 10 new “Clean Energy Hubs,” one for each of the state’s economic development regions. The state is soliciting proposals from local community organizations to be involved in the hubs, which will be funded to take on a wide variety of local energy projects, and serve as information centers to connect local residents and businesses with jobs and resources in the world of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Betta Broad, director of New Yorkers for Clean Power, says she’s excited to see this project take shape. As part of a coalition of energy policy advocates, Broad worked with staffers from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in 2019 on a concept for a “holistic and collaborative approach to connecting people with clean energy programs” that would have the state working closely with local community groups. She says this week’s announcement is the fruit of that work.
“This was something that was very near and dear to my heart,” Broad says. “Fingers crossed it ends up being what we all dreamed.”
A little more controversial is Hochul’s announcement of two new planned transmission lines to support the decarbonization of the electrical grid. Transmission upgrades are a much-needed move if New York is to succeed at getting off fossil fuel electricity, because power is going to have to travel along different paths once the state’s gas-fueled power plants begin phasing out.
For one of the transmission projects, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, the environmental impact of hydropower and the reliance on energy from out of state have been sticking points for some climate advocates, who would rather see New York build more solar and wind at home than connect to Canadian hydropower. The other transmission project, the “Clean Path New York” line slated to run from Delaware County under the Hudson River and into New York City, sparked community opposition in the pollution-beleaguered South Bronx, before its backers agreed to move a planned high-voltage converter station out of a highly populated neighborhood.
Another recent move by Hochul that signals seriousness on the climate front: On September 8, she signed new legislation aimed at spurring the electrification of New York’s transportation sector. It’s a broad bill, setting a target for the sale of new light-duty vehicles to move entirely to electric or other zero-emission models by 2035, and introducing targets for the sale of new zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles and tractors.
“My take on it is by signing that into law, she essentially set an expiration date for internal combustion engines in New York,” Iwanowicz says.
A few ongoing conservation and resilience-oriented projects also got put in the spotlight by Hochul this week: a deal with NYSEG to protect 470 shoreline acres along Cayuga Lake, along with a wastewater infrastructure project in the North Country and $15 million in new funding for municipalities to tackle water infrastructure and energy projects. Climate Smart Communities, a state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) program that helps municipalities with climate resilience and clean energy projects, also got a Climate Week boost, with 11 local governments newly certified or re-certified under the program. More than half of them are in the Mid-Hudson region.
A new state DEC project that will award grants to local environmental justice organizations to monitor air quality in severely polluted communities is also good news for communities that are bearing the brunt of climate impacts, especially those who currently shoulder the lion’s share of asthma and premature death caused by gas-burning electrical plants.
One of the most headline-grabbing announcements out of the Hochul administration this week didn’t have an explicit climate connection, but it might end up being good news for state climate action anyway: The resignation of state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was marred by scandal and obfuscation. Zucker sits on the Climate Action Council, and environmentalists have long been furious with him for his actions in a 2014 drinking water contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls. If Zucker’s replacement ends up being someone with expertise in the threats climate change poses to public health, that could give a boost to state progress on climate action.
There are a lot of climate projects in the works at the state level, and many of them got a turn in the spotlight this week, but the biggest decisions are still down the road. Among them: Whether the state Public Service Commission and the DEC will issue permits to new fossil-fueled electrical plant projects in Queens and Newburgh, where owners of the aging Astoria and Danskammer power plants are seeking to rebuild. In her Climate Week kickoff speech, Hochul had fighting words for the Astoria plant: “We’ll be shutting down unhealthy facilities like the Astoria facility, which is in the part of the city known as Asthma Alley,” she said. But without a binding decision, those are still just words.
It’s a critical moment for New York, says Elizabeth Moran, who works on New York State climate policy for Earthjustice. “The Hochul administration and the DEC have reached a fork in the road: either continue allowing permits and further investments in the polluting fossil fuel-burning energy industry, like the pending permits for the NRG Astoria Power Plant and Danskammer, or pivot to clean and renewable energy sources,” she says.
Cryptocurrency is yet another looming climate question for New York, but it didn’t get much love during Climate Week. With bitcoin miners already taking over entire gas-fueled power plants to run servers, climate activists are hoping to see New York State put a halt to the energy-hungry practice. A bill that would put a moratorium on large cryptocurrency-mining projects cleared the state Senate last year, but got bogged down in the Assembly after facing steep union opposition.
By the time the 2022 legislative and budget seasons get underway, the real meat and potatoes of New York State’s climate action commitments will be on the table. The Climate Action Council is slated to release a draft scoping plan in early 2022 for public comment; that document will guide statewide climate action over the next few decades, and will touch on every aspect of the state economy. And on the legislative side of state government, there are a lot of climate cans that have been kicked down the road. The biggest outstanding issue is that despite the passage of sweeping climate legislation in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state still hasn’t passed a bill to secure funding for most of the CLCPA’s ambitious goals.
Arielle Swernoff, spokesperson for the large climate and justice coalition NY Renews, says her group doesn’t have a lot to say about Climate Week. They’re looking ahead. “Fundamentally we need to pass the Climate and Community Investment Act, which is the only proposal that makes investments at the scale of the crisis.”