Most of America’s aging electric infrastructure dates back to the era when air conditioning was cutting edge technology. It is even older in the city where Thomas Edison built a power plant that serviced less than a hundred customers in 1882. New York has a power system designed to meet a peak demand 75% higher than most of the United States. They need it when people want relief from hot Summer days. New York’s antiquated system loses about 9% of its’ electricity traveling from distant power plants, is vulnerable to natural gas’ price fluctuations and can be KO’d by extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. Governor Andrew Cuomo needed solutions. That’s what brought Local Power to New York.
Local Power Inc’s President, Paul Fenn, develops community-owned utilities – better known Community Choice Aggregates (CCA) – that function as microgrids utilizing local power resources. Fenn co-authored America’s first landmark CCA bill in 1994 as well as similar laws throughout the U.S., drafting a CCA 2.0 law for California that passed in 2002.
According to Fenn:
I was there maybe six months after the hurricane hit and saw just how many areas were devastated along the coast. I’m talking about thousands of homes gone. There was a loss of power in Manhattan for months. That’s Wall Street, the financial capital of America, plus they were still restoring telecommunication systems after a year. Sandy was a major shock to the business community. There was widespread flooding in Upstate New York. There was a lack of adequate power plant fuel supplies, that led to a doubling of electricity costs in the winter that followed.
There was an economic shock felt across the state in everyone’s pocket books. There were local resilience shocks. There was Manhattan shock. I think these all combined to radicalize the state’s energy policy. They wanted to reduce their exposure to transmission failure events. So there is a very focused interest in New York on how to get microgrids and battery on-site renewables integration and things we have been pushing for.
He added, “Never have I seen a state government, and certainly not a major state like New York, talking and acting this way – not in any state I have worked in.”
Local Power Inc worked with a local group in Hudson Valley, New York called “Citizens for Local Power” to author New York’s CCA legislation in 2014.
Governor Cuomo took the initiative in February, bypassing the legislature and ordering state regulators to develop CCA as a statewide platform for municipalities. It is a key component of the Governor’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” which came out last year.
Fenn calls Cuomo’s approach, “the most innovative energy initiative to come from a state level, and a governor, in the United States.” Though other states have very ambitious renewable portfolio standards and greenhouse gas reduction targets, they usually do not have a plan to get there. This tends to be a “costly” and “haphazard” approach. “New York is taking the bull by the horns, around the need for localization to deliver the change.”
As CCA become mainstream, they will give New York enhanced local energy resilience.
CCAs also allow communities to develop local resources, stimulating their economies and providing a source of power that is not subject to the losses of distant plants.
Though solar energy is always popular with activists, and New York is now the #3 solar state in America, Fenn said communities need to develop the energy sources that are most applicable to their situation. Maybe wind, geothermal or biofuels would deliver a more profitable return. New York uses more hydropower than any other state east of the Rockies, obtaining 17% of its‘ electricity from this source. Communities need to develop multiple complementary technologies, according to usage and market conditions.
Westchester and Ulster counties have opted to form their own CCAs, though the state has not completed the regulations. Sullivan County is seriously discussing the idea and a couple of other counties are considering it. They want renewable energy, and either community control or customer ownership of significant parts of their power.
Photo Credit:Midtown New York skyline with the Empire State Building in the background (with electricity), in the foreground is Alphabet City and the East Village without power, Tuesday night, November 30, 2012, a month after Hurricane Sandy by David Shankbone via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); Governor Andrew Cuomo from the New York National Guard via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); A public meeting in Ulster County NY organized by the Coalition for Local Power (Paul Fenn is second from the left)