New York City is among the most progressive and climate-conscious municipalities in the United States. It is legally obligated to bring its greenhouse emissions to 40 percent below their 2005 peak by the end of the decade. And yet over the past year, NYC has dramatically expanded its reliance on fossil fuels – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Empire State environmentalists.
In 2019, when the city put its ambitious climate goals into law, the Indian Point nuclear power plant provided the bulk of its carbon-free electricity and 25 percent of its overall power. The plant was profitable and met the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s exacting safety standards. Nevertheless, environmental groups had been fighting to close it for decades, arguing that its proximity to both New York City and the Stamford-Peekskill fault line created an unacceptably high risk of a nuclear disaster. The catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011 bolstered their cause. In 2021, New York closed down Indian Point. At the time, the conservationist organization Riverkeeper argued that Indian Point’s electricity could be fully replaced by renewables.
Alas, wind and solar power are neither sufficiently abundant in New York nor sufficiently reliable to replace the emissions-free energy that Indian Point once produced. In May 2021, the first full month after the plant’s closure, carbon emissions from electricity generation in New York State shot up by 37 percent. In New York City, fossil-fuel producers’ share of the electric grid rose to 90 percent.
Fortunately, the state has a plan to reverse this baleful trend. Last fall, Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans for constructing a pair of new transmission lines, one bringing wind- and solar-generated electricity from upstate into NYC, the other transporting hydroelectric power from Quebec. Together, the two transmission lines are projected to yield a 51 percent reduction in downstate fossil-fuel generation by 2030.
But a motley coalition, comprised of natural-gas producers and environmental organizations like Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, has a good chance of killing that plan.
In order to move forward with the transmission lines, the state needs to secure the approval of New York’s Public Service Commission. And to do that, the project’s proponents must establish that the transmission lines are in the public’s interest. Their case features no shortage of strong arguments. For New York to meet its emissions-reduction targets, it will need to phase out its reliance on gas-fired power plants. And absent imminent technological breakthroughs, the state will not be able to radically dial down gas power unless it has an alternative, reliable source of electricity. Wind and solar are excellent sources of power. But due to the limitations of existing battery storage, they cannot be relied upon to yield electricity in all meteorological conditions. Natural gas, by contrast, can provide power in any weather. And it is also easily dispatchable, meaning gas plants can be abruptly activated and deactivated at any given time depending on energy demand.
Hydropower has those same properties. Yet it produces an infinitesimal fraction of the greenhouse-gas emissions that natural-gas power plants do. Thus, Canadian hydropower is critical to New York’s decarbonization plans. If the Empire State can tap the excess electricity that Quebec’s hydroelectric plants currently generate, it can build a predominantly renewable-based energy grid without having to lean heavily on fossil fuels as a backstop. If it can’t tap that resource, New York’s emissions-reduction targets will likely become quixotic.
Beyond the project’s indispensability to New York’s climate goals, the transmission lines will also improve air quality and advance environmental justice for NYC residents. New York’s present reliance on natural gas doesn’t just hinder its decarbonization goals but also degrades the health of many disadvantaged communities within the city. “Here in western Queens, we have ‘Asthma Alley,’” former City Councilmember Costa Constantinides told NY1 earlier this year, referring to the elevated rates of respiratory problems in the areas surrounding the borough’s fossil-fuel-fired power plants. By reducing the city’s use of gas-fired power, the new transmission line will, in Constantinides’s estimation, “help us transform into a renewable row … allowing us to move forward with still providing the city power, but doing it in a way that’s not having a cost to our lungs.”
Finally, state officials estimate that the project will eventually make electricity cheaper for consumers, yielding a reduction in wholesale-energy costs of between 10 percent and 15 percent by 2030.
That said, the transmission lines have one major political liability: a large up-front price tag. The project is likely to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, which would be paid over the course of 25 years. This means higher costs for a while; the state concedes that some upstate customers could see an increase in their electricity bills of as much as 10 percent in the immediate term. Given that both transmission lines will bring power to New York City — not to upstate residents — that rate hike is potentially incendiary. And powerful interest groups are trying to gin up outrage over it since New York’s natural-gas plants understand that hydropower poses a massive threat to their market share.
If the Public Service Commission faced a clear-cut choice between advancing decarbonization, cleaner air, and cheaper electricity in the long term versus minimizing power bills for upstate New Yorkers next year and pleasing some gas magnates, then climate hawks might have the upper hand.
But anti-hydropower environmental groups are threatening to tip the scales in the other direction. By their account, the hydropower transmission line would not actually benefit the climate but would damage Hudson River ecosystems.
Their argument hinges on one fundamental claim: that hydropower is not actually a low-greenhouse-gas energy source. Although hydroelectric dams generate pollution-free energy once constructed, creating the reservoirs necessary for their operation often involves flooding areas covered with plants and trees. As that organic matter decomposes, methane is released — which is no small problem since methane is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
But this contention seems to be rooted less in careful reasoning than in a desire to erase the tension between Riverkeeper’s commitment to conservationism and its avowed concerns about climate change. After all, the dams that New York aims to tap were built decades ago, meaning that the methane emissions generated by their construction have already been released. Further, hydropower dams constructed in cold-weather climates like Quebec’s tend to generate far fewer methane emissions than those in warmer climes. And regardless, no serious analyst believes that New York’s electricity grid would contribute more methane to the atmosphere if it replaced gas-fired power with hydropower that Quebec is already generating.
Environmentalists opposed to the hydropower transmission line also invoke the opposition of Indigenous groups. It is true that Canada’s First Nations have legitimate grievances against Hydro-Québec dating back decades and that some Indigenous organizations oppose the transmission line. But others are among its strongest proponents. Indeed, the Mohawk tribe would co-own a segment of the transmission line that runs through its lands; Mohawk Council grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer has called the project a “game changer” for the tribe.
The project’s designers also took conservationist concerns into account, consciously avoiding disruptions to blue-lupine flowers, on which endangered Karner blue butterflies rely. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “Arrangements were also made to protect bald eagle nests that might be present during construction and identify shagbark hickories big enough for the endangered Indiana bat to roost.”
It is doubtlessly true that the transmission line will impose real costs on ecosystems along its path. But such costs are an inherent feature of the green transition. Transforming the entire energy system that undergirds industrial capitalism and minimizing disruptions to the natural environment are irreconcilable objectives. And this is especially true if one is committed to ratcheting down nuclear energy and relying overwhelmingly on wind and solar for power generation, as renewables are among the most land-intensive forms of electricity generation in existence.
If you believe that climate change is an existential crisis, then you must be prepared to prioritize decarbonization over competing ideological objectives. And if you want to be a climate realist, then you cannot pretend that renewables’ present limitations will disappear, so long as we oppose the expansion of all competing forms of electricity generation. Unless, or until, we make massive advances in battery-storage technology, we are going to need to anchor renewable grids with dependable power sources. If we shutter nuclear plants and block hydropower transmission lines, fossil fuels will fill the gap.
Plenty of environmental organizations understand this and have rallied behind the governor’s energy agenda. But some haven’t. And given the myriad other political obstacles to swift decarbonization, the climate movement cannot afford to have any significant portion of its self-professed members agitating against emissions-reducing projects. If the emerging coalition of conservationists and fossil-fuel producers succeeds in pushing up carbon emissions in deep-blue New York City, the prospects for nationwide decarbonization will look awfully dim.