ALBANY — New York just passed one of the nation’s strongest renewable energy policies, but the plan for building out the transmission lines it will need to implement those policies is more uncertain.
On Monday, the state Public Service Commission passed the Clean Energy Standard, which mandates that renewables power half of New York’s power grid by 2030, and provides more than $1 billion in subsidies for financially challenged nuclear facilities that would otherwise close.
Transmission is the backbone of the energy grid and about 1,000 miles of new lines will be needed to meet the requirements of the Clean Energy Standard, according to the New York Independent System Operator. Less clear is how much that will cost.
The state estimates that monthly utility bills will rise by about $2 for residential customers and significantly more for businesses as a result of the Clean Energy Standard. Running transmission lines throughout the state would likely drive that cost even higher.
The Clean Energy Standard decision means New York’s power grid will increasingly shift from large power providers to a series of smaller energy sources. Other than a possible offshore wind farm off Long Island, the vast majority of solar arrays and wind farms will largely need to be located upstate. The NYISO has estimated that if New York does not add transmission lines in the near future, renewable generation will be “capped.”
The NYISO supports the state’s clean energy goals, but stands by its assertion that transmission needs must be addressed soon, spokesman Kevin Lanahan said Tuesday.
“The CES is achievable with additional transmission infrastructure necessary to transport renewable resources to the State's southeast load centers,” he said. “We must determine transmission needs as soon as possible and the NYISO is working with the PSC to identify opportunities to further the development process.”
The PSC has vehemently pushed back on NYISO’s estimates, insisting that they are wrong. But the commission has failed to provide its own estimate for how much transmission is needed to make its policy a reality. On Tuesday, a PSC spokesman said simply that the NYISO estimate did not account for the retirement of fossil-fuel generators under the Clean Energy Standard or the probability of offshore wind sources.
Opponents of the Clean Energy Standard estimate that it will cost more than $7 billion, and a new network of transmission lines could make that rise higher. While the state has resisted providing a final cost, the PSC acknowledges that the initial $500 million annual cost to preserve the nuclear facilities could increase every year until 2030. The construction of transmission lines on top of the nuclear subsidies and renewable incentives could increase that cost exponentially.
The need for transmission capacity is particularly acute because of the location of new solar arrays and wind turbines that will have to be constructed. Much of the renewable power sources will be located upstate where land in plentiful and relatively cheap, particularly in the northern and western parts of the state, and transmission capacity will need to be upgraded to move that power, according to the NYISO.
Ratepayers pay for the cost of new transmission lines in their utility bills. At the very least, more lines will be needed to bring power into the New York City and Long Island region, said Ken Girardin, analyst for the fiscally conservative Empire Center.
“You’re going from generating the bulk of your power at a small number of point sources to generating it at hundreds of different locations across the state, almost none of which are proximate to the city,” he said. “There has been so little transparency as far as the cost estimates, it’s hard to say what has been considered.”
But building new transmission lines has already proved contentious. A proposed line for the Hudson Valley has been delayed for years as community groups, farmers and lawmakers protested its construction in their backyards. Meanwhile, continued delays on transmission lines will put the Clean Energy Standard out of reach for years, according to the Power New York Coalition, which includes labor unions, elected officials and business development groups. Without new transmission, the Clean Energy Standard is not possible, the group contends.
"Increased renewable energy production will not lead to reduced carbon emissions if New Yorkers don’t have access to the energy,” the group said in a statement. “Without reliable and modern infrastructure, New York’s visionary energy planning for the future will continue to be just a dream.”
Some lawmakers see transmission lines as an essential piece of the Clean Energy Standard. State Senate Energy Committe chair Joe Griffo said he supports the Clean Energy Standard, but said he will work to ensure new transmission comes with it.
“I will continue to work with stakeholders and my colleagues to closely monitor the implementation of the new CES and to ensure that our electric transmission, as well as fuel source infrastructure, is up to the task as we move forward to a cleaner, more reliable and resilient energy future,” he said in a statement.