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State Approves Massive Electricity Transmission Lines to Power Climate Goals

One line will bring down dam-generated electricity from Quebec, and another will feed the city with solar, wind and hydropower-created juice from Upstate. Without them, state and city climate targets were merely a pipe dream.

SHARE State Approves Massive Electricity Transmission Lines to Power Climate Goals

A Con Edison plant on East 14th Street, Feb. 16, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The electricity grid powering New York City is poised to get a lot greener.

The state Public Service Commission on Thursday approved two transmission lines that will act as massive extension cords to bring electricity generated by hydroelectric, solar and wind power to the city, where it can be difficult to tap such renewable sources of energy.

The first of the two transmission lines is called the Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would bring in electricity generated by dams in Canada, along a 339-mile route. This project, which has its state and federal permits, is slated to operate by 2025.

The second line is dubbed Clean Path New York, and will carry solar, wind and hydropower from Delaware County 175 miles down to Astoria, Queens. It’s expected to come online as early as 2027.

Together, the projects stand to cut the city’s dependence on fossil fuel generation by over 50% by 2030, which also paves for the state to achieve a zero-emissions grid by 2040, as mandated by the state’s sweeping Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. 

Bringing the transmission projects online also has major implications for the success of New York City’s signature decarbonization effort, Local Law 97, which aims to slash carbon emissions from the largest source in the city: buildings.

“These projects are transformative,” said PSC Chair Rory Christian at Thursday’s meeting. “In addition to supporting the goals set by the CLCPA, this project aligns with the New York State Constitution, supporting each person’s right to clean air, water and healthful environment.” 

Last November, New Yorkers approved a ballot proposal that added environmental rights to the state constitution.

Representatives from several environmental, business and labor organizations — including the New York League of Conservation Voters, Regional Plan Association, Real Estate Board of New York and the Service Employees International Union — welcomed the approvals, applauding the roughly 10,000 jobs they are expected to create and anticipated air quality improvements.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who in September threw her support behind the projects, in a statement called the approval a “major step forward” in “ushering in a cleaner, greener New York for all.”

Weaning Off of Fuel

Fossil fuels generate about 90% of New York City’s electricity, a much higher share than elsewhere in the state. The 2021 closure of Westchester’s 59-year-old Indian Point nuclear power plant, which had previously been supplying about a fourth of the city’s electricity, resulted in fossil fuels replacing that zero-emissions power.

“The real problem right now and for the immediate decade is to replace Indian Point without burning more natural gas and backsliding on air pollution and climate goals,” said Jesse Jenkins, a professor in energy and engineering at Princeton University, via email prior to the lines’ approval. “These lines are really the only way to do that.”

Burning fossil fuels, whether to directly generate heat or to create electricity, results in the release of carbon dioxide, which in abundance worsens the so-called greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere. That leads to warmer temperatures, flooding and extreme weather. 

The Indian Point nuclear power plant when it was still operating.

Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock

“This is a historic milestone in our mobilization against climate change and [the] fight for environmental justice,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement after the transmission lines were approved. “Today, we begin dismantling the disparate access to renewable energy that has plagued our city for far too long.”

Utility customers will foot the bill for the cost of the transmission lines: across the state, residential users can expect to see a $2 to $4 increase in their monthly electricity bills

But the increased availability of renewable power downstate could stabilize customer bills overall, though, since gas-produced electricity exposes customers to more volatile prices, tied to the commodities markets.

New York City estimates it will pay $2 billion to $4 billion for the projects over the next quarter century.

Last week, the New York State Office of General Services indicated it wanted to enter into a similar purchasing agreement.

Easing Climate Law Compliance

The success of New York City’s Local Law 97, adopted in 2019 to curb building emissions, rests in large part on the approval of the transmission lines, too, experts and city officials have said.

Local Law 97 imposes greenhouse gas emissions caps on buildings, most over 25,000 square feet. Most building owners must comply with the caps by 2024 and meet even stricter limits in 2030 — or face fines. 

The aim is to chop building emissions 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The concept of emissions, in the law, counts not only direct exhaust from any fuels used by occupants’ stoves, heaters or boilers, but also the emissions connected to the electricity the building uses, wherever it was generated.

The approval of the transmission lines will make it much easier for building owners to achieve their carbon emission reductions targets under Local Law 97, according to Danielle Spiegel-Feld, executive director of the NYU’s Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy and Land Use Law.

“If the [electric] grid doesn’t decarbonize on pace with the state’s goals, the law will be much more costly to implement,” she said.

A report she co-authored last year found that if greening the grid advances on time, some 91% of the buildings covered under the city law will not surpass their emissions caps set for the years spanning 2024 and 2029 — meaning those buildings’ owners would not have to do anything to comply with the law. 

A Con Edison plant on East 14th Street helps power parts of Manhattan, Feb. 16, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The law also allows building owners to purchase renewable energy credits from the transmission projects to offset any of their emissions over the caps — which essentially means the owners have another pathway to comply with the law without altering their properties or management.

But the Adams administration, which has yet to promulgate the law’s rules, does not intend to let owners purchase those credits on too broad of a scale, the city’s Chief Climate Officer Rit Aggarwala said during a Wednesday City Council oversight hearing on the law’s implementation. He emphasized that compliance with the limits was the first priority.

Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance — which opposed the Champlain Hudson Power Express — argued credit buying undermines the benefits of reducing emissions from buildings at a local level.

“The whole point of Local Law 97 was to reduce in-city emissions, and the purchasing of [renewable energy credits] does not reduce the emissions from a single building in the city of New York. What it does is help build the transmission lines,” he said.

Strange Bedfellows

While the Clean Path New York project generally enjoyed broad support, the Champlain Hudson Power Express — which is backed by Canadian public utility Hydro-Québec and the Blackstone Group-owned Transmission Developers Inc. — generated some controversy. 

Environmental groups like Riverkeeper and Sierra Club found themselves aligned with the fossil fuel industry in their opposition to the Canadian transmission line. Opponents decried the costs, warned it would leave New Yorkers without adequate power in winter months and condemned the project’s effects on some indigenous tribes in Canada.

Supporters of the project argued that delaying action would amount to time wasted fighting climate change, and that the dam-based project would provide New York with reliable energy, regardless of weather conditions, which isn’t true for solar or wind.

They also pointed to the health benefits that would come as a result of relying on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. One of those supporters was Stephanie Chauncey, a longtime resident of Long Island City who lives in Queensbridge Houses. The waterfront area of western Queens is known as “Asthma Alley” for health conditions made worse by nearby power plants.

Chauncey spoke at a February press event with local community members connecting the “high rates of respiratory illness and deaths” her neighbors faced with the need for Champlain Hudson line and other clean energy projects.

In a statement, Hydro-Québec CEO Sophie Brochu said the approval of Champlain Hudson “has New York State and Québec taking one giant step together towards climate progress with a project that is a model for equitable clean energy infrastructure that makes sense for ratepayers and the communities it has the privilege to serve.”

The leaders of Clean Path New York — Michael Polsky of Invenergy, Jeff Blau of energyRe and Justin Driscoll of the New York Power Authority — said in a joint statement, “We are proud to help make New York a healthier, more resilient place to call home.”

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