New York is decentralising its energy supply

The financial powerhouse of the United States wants to put in place new energy supply standards and is calling on utilities companies to convert the infrastructure to support renewable and decentralised energy — the foundations for a new, smart grid. John Dyer reports from Boston.

New York State is decentralising its energy supply – an answer in part to the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo credit: Anthony Quintano, flickr)

New York State is decentralising its energy supply – an answer in part to the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo credit: Anthony Quintano, flickr)

When Hurricane Sandy struck New York’s Long Island three years ago, many residents on the south side of the island lost power for weeks after waves, wind and rain overcame their antiquated power grid.

Local utilities had few options for bringing power to neighbourhoods, hospitals and other vital services once the grid was knocked out. At night, immediately after the storm, people who lacked alternatives or refused to enter shelters were huddling around campfires with the Manhattan skyline visible in the distance.

Governor Cuomo ushering in reforms

Something like this will never happen again if it is up to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who launched a campaign called Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). And there are actions to back up his words. Earlier this month, Cuomo broke ground on a new power plant that uses organic material to generate power. The Democratic governor and other Empire State officials hope will help create a system to avoid the worst effects of a disaster like Sandy in the future.

“This exciting project is yet one more way we’re investing in a sustainable energy future and building a cleaner and greener New York,” said Cuomo in a statement. “This first-of-its kind project for Long Island and the greater New York metropolitan area will build upon this administration’s commitment to expand the state’s use of renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint.”

Billions for biogas and solar power

Long Island-based American Organic Energy is building the USD 40 billion facility, called an ‘anaerobic digester’, with the help of state tax credits. The power plant will convert around 180,000 tonnes of organic waste — discarded food, leaves and other yard waste — into natural gas annually by early 2016, said American Organic Energy Chief Executive Officer Charles Vigliotti. “We’ll separate the tuna from the can and recycle the tuna and recycle the can,” he said.

The organic power plant is one of a handful of projects Cuomo is pursuing in his REV campaign, which aims to improve the vulnerabilities exposed in New York’s energy system during Sandy and reduce the state’s energy bills, which are the highest in the United States.

In 2012, New Yorkers’ spent an eye-popping USD 39 billion on energy generated outside the state, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The projects include New York utilities spending USD 1 billion on solar power initiatives across the state, fast-tracking approval for projects that would provide local power in so-called ‘micro grids’ and setting up new energy exchanges and simplifying billing for customers.

Critics: the poor have to pay

But critics wonder if Cuomo will be able to reach his goals, given how state and local governments are chronically strapped for cash.

“The problem is that we have no idea what they will cost, especially if they are expanded state-wide,” said Arthur Kremer, chairman of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, an activist group. “While REV is supposed to represent a new vision for our state, it is hard to see if there is no transparency or accountability.”

If regulators allow utilities to hike rates and fees to pay for the governor’s ambitious plan, low-income families will suffer, said Kremer and others.

Last year, more than 1.1 million utility customers in New York owed debt on their energy bills, an increase of almost 120,000 people compared to 2013 and 160,000 more than in 2012, according to the New York Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator. Utilities cut off power to around 250,000 a year in New York.


Photo: Anthony Quintano, flickr/Creative Commons

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