In late 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed the State Department of Public Service to create and implement an ambitious new Clean Energy Standard that would set a goal of having 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030.
Gov. Cuomo would later announce a plan to invest $5 billion in clean energy over the next decade.
This investment, as well as the adoption of a new Clean Energy Standard, is expected by government officials to bring $29 billion in private sector investments. With this recent explosion of investment and legislation regarding renewable energy in New York, how does all of this affect Oneida County and where does the county currently stand in its clean energy adoption?
Many factors play into Oneida County’s current solar energy situation such as who controls the energy, legislation, the business of clean energy and its comparison to overall energy production.
Power and Control
The subject of who controls energy often comes up whenever oil is mentioned. The debate rages whether Americans should produce their own or purchase from overseas. The debate does not happen as often when it comes to solar energy.
Most of the residential and non-residential solar photovoltaic cells in Oneida County that produce 200 kilowatts or less are controlled by one utility company. According to data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, 95 percent of these solar cells completed since 2000 are controlled by National Grid.
Other utility companies that have a presence in Oneida County are New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG) and municipal utility companies. NYSEG controls 4 percent of these solar photovoltaic cells.
The solar photovoltaic cells in Oneida County have an expected annual production of 3,997,526.23 kWh. Broome County, which has a similar population and median income, only has an expected annual production of 2,559,940.68 kWh.
With National Grid controlling the vast majority of solar power in Oneida County, the argument can be made that it can control the prices and that this overwhelming control can be harmful to residents. Ann Tarpinian, senior council and committee director for the state Senate Energy & Telecommunications Committee, who is a staff member handling energy from Senator Joseph A. Griffo (R - Rome), echoes this sentiment.
“Consumers always benefit from more competition,” Tarpinian said. “That’s where another focus of the Senator [Griffo], what kind of services are out there, above and beyond the commodity?”
NYSEG controls solar cells in southern Oneida County and local municipal utilities have solar cells in the northern portion of the county. National Grid’s installations are more widespread and cover the majority of the county.
Oneida County residents do not have a wide-range of choices in terms of utility companies due to the fact that National Grid controls the vast majority of electrical energy across the county.
REVing up Government & Legislation
Two of the most sweeping state-level initiatives to be enacted in New York over the last few years are the Clean Energy Standard and Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). Both of these initiatives have huge goals of increasing renewable energy usage, creating economic impact and decreasing the state’s carbon footprint.
According to the 2015 State Energy Plan (SEP), New York set the goal of having 50 percent of the state’s energy be provided by renewable energy and a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
The Clean Energy Standard is being established by the Department of Public Service after Gov. Cuomo directed the agency to design the plan. This standard is designed to take SEP’s goal and put it into action.
The Clean Energy Standard is part of Gov. Cuomo’s REV initiative, which is designed to build a cleaner, affordable and more durable energy system for the state.
These goals all have a 2030 target. REV also has a 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent.
Similar to many other industries, renewable energy plays a part in getting legislation and initiatives passed through New York’s government. Lobbyist groups and other clean energy advocates such as Alliance for Clean Energy New York (ACE NY), Goldman Sachs, the Energy Association of New York and National Grid have helped to contribute to the lobbying expenses from 2007 to 2015. According to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ lobbying client disclosures, $4.3 million was spent in lobbying expenses during this period with a specific emphasis on renewable, clean, solar, wind and hydropower energy.
ACE NY, a nonprofit which promotes the adoption of clean energy and energy conservation, counts REV and the Clean Energy Standard as two of the big state initiatives it has supported but it is currently not supporting any other big legislation in the state. According to Anne Reynolds, executive director of ACE NY, selling the idea of renewable energy has changed within the last 10 years.
“We made the economic arguments and we made the public health argument,” Reynolds said. “The climate change argument we made 10 years ago, too, but they didn’t resonate as much with the public and with the media I think as they do now.”
Oneida County has its own clean energy advocate in the New York legislature with Sen. Griffo (R - Rome) being named the Chairman of the Energy and Telecommunications committee in 2015.
There are smaller legislative bills that have passed in the state but according to both Tarpinian and Reynolds, the big initiatives that are happening in New York are on an administrative level. This administrative level work involves making sure that old Renewable Portfolio Standard is effectively wrapped into the new Clean Energy Standard proceedings.
“The Clean Energy Standard is especially a big one,” Tarpinian said. “These directly impact the district and upstate NY because the Clean Energy Standard is going to help sustain the facilities that are already there and to help to build and set the correct price point so that private develops can come in and build. And we can switch over from less clean generation.”
Monopolizing the Renewable Market
In Central New York, the control of energy shifted gradually toward larger corporations, according to data analyzed for this story. Most of the electricity in the region is controlled by one corporation -- National Grid (see above data map). Even most of the residential solar energy is mostly being controlled by an international business.
National Grid USA is a subsidiary of National Grid PLC, which is a British multinational electricity and gas utility company. They are quick to stress that they are a delivery company, not a generation company.
Virginia Limmiatis, senior media relations representative for National Grid USA, said that the company does not set the price of energy for consumers. She said that cost spikes are mostly due to seasonal changes and are determined by the energy generation companies. Residential electricity costs reached their highest in the last 10 years in 2008, at an average cost of $95.69.
New York State has long been a national leader in renewable energy, although Oneida County has had some setbacks. Two projects in particular have been slow to progress -- Oriskany off Sutliff Road near the former county airport and on Airport Road.
The Oneida County Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Mark Laramie said that they are waiting on National Grid’s approval to move forward. Representatives of National Grid say that it is out of their hands and they are waiting on the out-of-state developer.
Dirty Energy Still Dominates
Solar power has been the dominating renewable energy source in Oneida County. Windmills have been slow to catch on. Most of Central New York is rolling hills and suburban areas -- conditions that are not ideal for large-scale wind energy farms.
While solar technologies can be applied to both small and large scale, harvesting wind energy requires large-scale technology. This would not be ideal for a basic homeowner.
Solar is relatively inexpensive when compared to wind. A typical residential solar installation costs anywhere between $10,000 and $35,000, depending on the needs of the homeowners, according to Josh Richardson, owner of CNY Solar. Solar farms can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install. Wind farms, depending on the size, usually run in the hundreds of millions to install.
Sen. Griffo has been an active advocate for fuel cells technology, fair business practices and renewable energy innovation.
“Right off the bat he has provided a level of transparency that I think was necessary,” Tarpinian said. “If you look at senate bill 3542A, chaptered last year, that relates to the public availability for certain competitive bids for generation. It provides a layer of transparency to those developers that would like to invest in New York.”
Solar power is the leader for renewable energy in Central New York. The clean energy movement has been gaining momentum, Tarpinian added, and that’s partially why the state has decided to reduce and eliminate incentives.
“2015 came with a lot of successes in the solar industry,” Richardson said. “Community solar has been approved. This means that even if a home is on a shaded site they are still eligible to participate in the solar boom (by tapping into a community solar farm).”
Richardson is confident that the incentive decreases will have minimal negative effects for the local solar industry. He thinks that ultimately the long-term success of solar will depend on the corporate utility companies.
“What we will really need is the larger scale utility companies to make sure they are staying ahead of the game and increasing the capabilities of the utility grid to make the most use of all this extra power generation,” Richardson said.
Central New York is already experiencing the impact of renewable energy. Based on the data and experts, the future will hold even more expansion of renewable energy technologies in the region. The Clean Energy Standard, REV and the reduction of solar incentives are indications of this.
Investments being made in renewable energy resources have the potential to contribute to a stronger economy and a cleaner environment for residents. New York offers education and training on renewable energy opportunities for business leaders, homeowners, and the skilled workforce.
The long-term success of clean energy in Oneida County will depend on factors such as accessibility, affordability and awareness.
“In New York State the environmental community has a pretty strong voice,” Reynolds said. “We’re at a really exciting time right now. If the 50 percent goal is translated into a mandate, and it involves the opportunity for long-term contracting, you will see a lot of growth in the renewable energy industry.”