Green Energy

By Chesley Hicks

22 April 02

For Earth Day this year, the most environmentally-committed New Yorkers could mark the event by sticking a windmill (actually, a wind turbine) or some solar panels on the roof, which would both save them money and help save the planet. But those of us without roof rights can do our part simply by looking at our utility bills.

Since deregulation required energy providers to start disclosing what fuels are being used to generate heat and electricity, New Yorkers can learn from a glance at our bills what energy sources we are still relying on. Percentages vary by provider, but my latest Con Ed bill lists them as:

  • natural gas, 51 percent;
  • coal, 20 percent;
  • hydro (large dams), 12 percent;
  • nuclear, 9 percent;
  • oil, 6 percent;
  • solid waste (garbage), 2 percent

That leaves zero percent for "green energy" -- wind power, solar power, naturally occurring water flow, geothermal heat, and more -- to heat our homes and light our offices. This is not the situation elsewhere. San Francisco voters recently approved a $100 million bond issue to install solar panels in their city. Fifteen states require power companies to include some type of green energy in their mix of energy sources. It is one of the major (and little noticed) ironies of the Enron scandal that Enron, while primarily a natural gas company, was the largest American developer of "wind farms." Indeed, Enron Wind was recently purchased by GE Power and, unlike its former parent company (which filed for bankruptcy in December), continues to make a profit, its revenues having ballooned from $50 million in 1997 to $750 million last year.

But the green energy alternative remains out of reach for most New Yorkers, whether they wish to generate it themselves by sticking up those solar panels or buy it from an energy supplier. And the situation is sure to endure until the state offers proper incentive and assistance.

One would think we have enough information these days to provide the motivation. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gas and oil emits toxic pollutants and soot, which cause smog, asthma, nervous disorders, cancers, groundwater contamination, and global warming, to name just the most obvious impacts. Nuclear power brings with it the problem of disposing of its radioactive waste. Energy obtained from large hydro projects, while non-polluting, requires massive damming, which causes habitat loss and devastates natural water flow, interfering with fish spawns and the vital movement of river sediment. In addition, noxious power plants, predominantly sited in poor and minority neighborhoods throughout New York City, degrade communities and add the insult of environmental injustice to the injury of ill health inflicted on the residents.

Only true renewable energy -- from the sun and the wind, from ocean waves and geothermal heat -- does not pollute nor cause much impact on natural systems.

Why isn't it being used in New York?

Green energy is more expensive, precisely because it is not being used much yet. "There are lots of statistics that say consumers will pay more for green power," says Alex Perera of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I don't believe them. Once it comes to writing the check, consumers are very hesitant to pay more for green power." If the prices were lower, more green energy would be used -- and the more green energy that is used, the lower the prices would be.

Another problem, Perera says, is the way Con Ed (the energy distribution company in the city) is allowed to make a profit. Right now, there is an absolute cap on what Con Ed can charge energy supply companies, per kilowatt-hour, to transmit energy through its wires. Therefore, the only way for Con Ed to raise revenue is to increase the amount of electricity that it transmits. If a consumer wants, say, to put solar panels on his roof, that means less electricity that Con Ed can transmit to that consumer. And the less electricity it can charge for, the more in danger it is of not meeting its fixed costs (such as the cost of the salaries of its employees, of maintaining its wires, etc ). So there is an incentive for Con Ed to discourage consumers from using green energy (and, for that matter, to discourage them from using energy-efficient appliances, etc.) "A way around that," Perera says, "is to allow Con Ed to adjust their overall rates to guarantee that they will be able to collect enough to pay for their fixed costs. Under this scenario, Con Ed will be much more willing to work with consumers to encourage clean-energy technology."

One of the biggest problems is the state's inaction. It is true that, last June, Governor George Pataki issued an executive order requiring that all state office buildings get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2005, and 20 percent by 2020. The state has already enacted a number of rules and regulations to encourage small-scale green energy in New York. (See the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy)

NY and the web site of the State Assembly for ideas being considered by policy makers.) With funds collected through a surcharge on transmitted electricity and other sources, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) promotes energy efficiency, research and development. "There's no reason why small-scale wind turbines couldn't be installed on some of the high rises in New York," says Gary Davidson of the authority.

But these state efforts are little more than positive gestures. The governor's goal for state buildings, for example, is modest indeed, since he could set such a goal for all buildings in the state, rather than just state office buildings. Better yet, he could require all energy supply companies to sell green energy as a certain percentage of their total sales. And Davidson admits that New York does not yet generate enough green energy to meet even Pataki's unambitious goal.

"This is an evolving process," says Ed Collins of the New York Public Service Commission -- an evolution rather than a revolution in the way electricity is produced, bought, and sold here. The city is still run on fossil fuel, but not because it needs to be. "If an energy supply company wanted to supply green energy to New York, it could," Collins says. Energy supply companies seem to be waiting for a call from individual consumers, a call some expect consumers to make as their knowledge expands. "The goal of environmental disclosure," the New York Public Service Commission has written, "is to facilitate informed customer choice, which could, in turn, lead to improved environmental quality and resource diversity."

Fortunately, some individuals and private organizations are taking their own initiatives for onsite sources of wind and solar power. A non-profit business cooperative that serves New York City, called 1st Rochdale, intends to have a self-generated residential building running this summer, a project that will include solar panels. It is also working to finish a contract with the state energy authority to offer green power to commercial customers. "The real goal is to commercialize and mainstream these proven technologies," says Tom Thompson, the vice president of sustainable energy for 1st Rochdale

Anthony Pereira, president of Alternative Power, a Manhattan-based solar company, says his business too is on the rise. His company has installed solar outfits all over the tri-state area, including two in Manhattan, one to the owner of a co-op apartment, and the other in the World Trade Center Plaza, which was destroyed on September 11th.

New York State's geography is particularly amenable to the proliferation of green energy. The alternative energy website of the Department of Energy declares that New York has excellent wind resources and that solar power is "useful throughout the state." In the towns of Fenner and Madison in New York's Madison County, two privately owned wind farms have opened over the last year and a half. The one in Fenner, the largest wind farm in the eastern United States, generates enough electricity to power 10,000 homes. Advances in solar technology, including the development of solar panels that transfer the sun's energy directly into electric currents, have had an impact on the state as well, though mostly on a small, private scale. This is a particular shame given that air conditioners, for example, could run on solar power. That their peak usage coincides with the sun's most potent hour is a simple equation that experts now recognize bears profound implications for solar power prospects in New York City. For New Yorkers interested in easing the threat of blackouts, lessening pollution, and saving money by way of avoided costs, roof-mounted wind turbines and solar panels are an efficient choice.

Nonetheless, it is impractical to convert the city to green energy building by building. It is a project that the state must encourage. "You might have some consumers who will pay more for green energy," says Alex Perera, "but it's not going to be a big market segment. It's important for that reason for the state to have creative approaches to encourage these better technologies, because there are huge benefits, environmental, public health, and economic, to it." New York could pursue projects already embraced by other states, including tax credits to plants that produce renewable energy.

The driving forces behind the promotion of renewable energy are its tremendous environmental and economic advantages. Onsite technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are initially costly but pay off considerably not only by generating "free energy" for years, but by giving clean air and unspoiled land back to the public. Many policy makers firmly understand that the high "external costs" of the present system -- the expenses incurred via air pollution, environmental degradation, damage to human health, and potentially catastrophic national security risks -- outweigh the current market-dominating fuels' low prices up-front. That is why state programs designed to bring green energy up to competitive market scale are, like deregulation itself, a necessary investment in the future.

Resources:

The Green Power Network is a project of the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network. See the reports on renewable energy available in New York State

Natural Resources Defense Council

The American Wind Association's New York site

New York Rivers United

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

Solar Today

The Union of Concerned Scientists

The Tellus organization

Rocky Mountain Institute

Environmental Advocates of New York

1st Rochdale's "Green Apple program"

Environmental Justice is a nonprofit group for communities disproportionately affected by air pollution in NYC.

The Green Energy Guide helps you find green energy companies that supply your area (though a New York City search yields names of companies that do not offer true renewable energy).

Green Mountain energy supplies green energy to much of the nation.

The Bonneville Environmental Foundation offers consumers that cannot buy green energy in their state a way to still actively support its development.

Windpower.org

The Environmental News Network energy page

Alternative Power is a Manhattan solar power company.

New York Solar Industries

The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy tells you exactly what is happening in each state to promote renewable energy.

The Safe Energy Communication Council

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