|Powerimg NY with renewable energy means more hydro power|
like the 2,353-megawatt Robert Moses plant in Niagara Falls
In 2010, New York state consumed more than four times as much energy as it produced (3,728 trillion BTUs vs. 867 trillion BTUs).
Although these numbers seldom if ever find their way into rallies and rhetoric, the protracted debate over shale gas in the Empire State is hopefully compelling residents to pay closer attention to where energy comes from and how they use it. The consequences of flipping a switch should become less of an abstraction now that the on-shore drilling boom has brought the extraction energy to our collective back yards.
New York state (and the rest of the country) could make up its energy shortfall by using fracking to exploit previously inaccessible carbon reserves, such as the Marcellus and Utica shales lying under largely unexplored regions of New York between the Finger Lakes and the Catskills regions. There is now expectation that the United States will become an energy exporter after the Obama administration recently approved policy to permit liquefied natural gas exporting plants in the wake of a market glut from shale gas production. (It’s a policy that will help shareholders, but hurt wage-earners, according to a federal report, which I have written about here.)
Despite consensus that fossil fuels are not sustainable – even the fracking proponents pitch natural gas as a “bridge” to a world someday powered by cleaner alternatives – acceptance of renewable energy has, for various reasons, yet to reach critical mass.
Whether or not fracking takes us across the bridge to the next generation of energy, there are paralyzing chasms that must be crossed, one way or another, in policy and politics. In New York state and other places, there is the gulf between the energy consumed and the amount produced – a disparity that is more unsettling as competition for cheap carbon continues to increase globally at unprecedented rates. There is also a chasm between opposing visions of our country’s future by patriots for and against shale gas development. And there is a certain disconnect between the past and future that we are unable to bridge in the present. The moratorium on shale gas permits in New York is approaching its fifth year anniversary (July 23) with little signs of advancing state policy on the broader issue of energy.
|New Yorkers Against Fracking poster for rally in Albany|
While banners, placards, slogans, marches, and chants will be the natural and time-honored means for delivering political pressure at the Albany rally – called New York Crossroads -- the concept behind the rally is based on research by a group of scientists, economists, and academics. The result is a paper published in March in Energy Policy, an international academic journal dealing with political, economic, environmental and social aspects of energy. It spells out empirically how New York state can wean itself from fossil fuels and convert completely to renewable energy sources by 2050.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s hesitancy over fracking provides a stark contrast to the approach of the Obama administration, which has characterized shale gas development as “a priority” in the country’s energy future. Now the anti-frackers hope to present the ambivalent New York governor (and potential presidential candidate) with a blue print to overcome the political inertia and practical barriers to advance beyond fossil fuels.
“You have to be realistic and pragmatic,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineer, former fracking industry consultant, and one of the 13 co-authors of the plan. “If you say no to shale gas, you better say yes to something else.”
The report considers the cost and feasibility of powering New York’s residential, manufacturing and transportation sectors with solar, wind, and water energy technologies -- combined with reduction through inherent efficiencies. It also accounts for known health risks associated with carbon fuels. Not surprisingly, it is drawing challenges and criticism on many fronts, including questions about the reliability of a post-carbon grid adjusting to power flows and natural cycles, and behavioral changes, capital sources, enterprise, and political shifts that will be necessary for a renewable energy plan to flourish.
Those on both sides of the fraking debate – now being recast in New York as the fracking versus renewable debate -- see Cuomo’s leadership as pivotal. He could allow fracking in New York as it has proceeded in Pennsylvania, free of a severance tax and exempt from water conservation and hazardous waste handling laws. This would channel more capital into drilling and related infrastructure and contribute to a glut of cheap fossil energy that hurts the competitive position of renewables. Or he could tilt the scales in the other direction, allowing greater incentives for renewables while discouraging shale gas development.
Authors of the report – titled “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s all-purpose Energy Infrastructure to one using Wind, Water, and Sunlight” --have been promised an audience with Cuomo, Ingraffea said, which has yet to happen, but they are encouraged by the governor’s hesitancy to approve fracking and the mounting political pressure to provide answers.
New York is hardly starting from scratch in harnessing renewable sources. According to the same EIA report that outlined the state’s energy deficit:
The State possesses considerable renewable energy potential. Several powerful rivers, including the Niagara and the Hudson, provide New York with some of the greatest hydropower resources in the Nation, and New York’s Catskill and Adirondack mountains offer substantial wind power potential.
The EIA report notes that New York produced more hydroelectric power than any other state east of the Rocky Mountains in 2011 and that the 2,353-megawatt Robert Moses Niagara hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls was the fourth largest in the United States in 2010. Looking ahead, New York's Renewable Portfolio Standard requires that 30 percent of electricity come from renewable energy resources by 2015; in 2011, 24 percent of electricity came from renewable energy resources. The report also notes that residents in New York, in metropolitan areas at least, are already inclined to conserve energy. Although the state was the eighth largest energy consumer in the country in 2010, it had the second lowest energy consumption per capita after Rhode Island due in part to its widely used mass transportation systems.
Ingraffea dismisses the idea that a fossil-fuel free New York is a pipedream. “The technology is already here,” he said. “The bridge is behind us. Renewables are every bit as real as coal, oil, or gas. The hard part is not the science. It’s the policy.”
It’s not surprising that the feasibility paper has been criticized and debated over its assumptions and practicality. Andrew Revkin, the New York Times analyst and blogger who covers energy, climate, and environmental issues for Dot Earth, summed it up this way: “To me, the analysis works best as a thought experiment, given the monumental hurdles — economic, political, regulatory and technical — that would hinder such a shift.” (You can read his full assement here.)
Two of the papers’ authors, Ingraffea and Robert Howarth, are also principal aubthors of another paper that has riled the industry with science suggesting shale gas development is as bad or worse than coal in contributing to greenhouse gasses and global warming. The work, titled Climate Impacts of Shale Gas Development, has been met with rebuttals and challenges (including this one by Francis O’Sullivan and Sergey Paltsev at MIT) as well as praise. That’s the fitting and proper nature of academic scholarship, the scientific method, and the hard work of blending science with policy. At the very least, it provides a starting point for much-needed discussions – one challenging the conventional wisdom that gas is cleaner than coal, and the other providing an empirical framework for life after carbon. With or without fracking, carbon reserves are finite, and New York’s share of them will last for maybe a generation or two, perhaps less. The legacy of abandoned wells may well outlast that. What then, if not renewables? And if renewables, why not sooner rather than later?