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Green Madness: The Lights Are Going Out In New York City

Robert Bryce, Crain's New York Business

Gov Andrew Cuomo’s green obsession is making the Russian roulette blackout game ever more dangerous.

Since the five-hour blackout that hit Manhattan on Saturday night, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly attacked Con Ed, the utility that provides electricity and gas to customers in the New York area. He has threatened to strip the utility of its operating license and said the city was playing “Russian roulette” with electricity reliability.

That’s pretty rich. Over the past few years, Cuomo has repeatedly made political decisions that have reduced the reliability of New York’s energy infrastructure. Cuomo telling Con Ed that it needs to improve its reliability is like an arsonist telling the fire department to buy more pumper trucks.

The most obvious example of the reliability risks facing New York City is the looming closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant, a move that Cuomo began pushing for back in 2011.

Next April, one of the two operating reactors at the facility will be shuttered. The other reactor is slated for shutdown in 2021. While the premature closure of the 2,069-megawatt facility may please Cuomo’s friends at Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York Independent System Operator, the agency that manages the state’s electric grid, has repeatedly warned about the threat to reliability.

Indian Point provides about a quarter of the electricity consumed in the city. Further, it helps assure the stability of the grid. The electric grid runs on narrow tolerances of voltage, which is akin to water pressure in a pipeline. The grid must be continually tuned so that electricity production and electricity usage match and voltage on the grid stays at near-constant levels. If voltage fluctuates too much, blackouts can occur.

In 2011, NYISO said that “under stress conditions, the voltage performance on the system without the Indian Point plant would be degraded.”

In 2016, the agency reiterated its concerns, saying, “Retaining all existing nuclear generators is critical to the state’s carbon emission reduction requirements as well as maintaining electric system reliability.” That same year, two analysts—one from General Electric and another from consulting firm ICF—provided a presentation to the system operator that discussed a reliability standard known as “loss of load expectation,” or LOLE, an event in which electricity demand exceeds available generation.

The reliability standard for grid operators in the U.S. allows for a LOLE of one day every 10 years, or 0.1 days per year. By 2030, the GE-ICF presentation estimated that closing Indian Point will result in the doubling of LOLE in the New York City area to 0.2 days per year.

In addition to the premature closure of Indian Point, New York has been blocking new natural-gas pipelines that would help provide cleaner and cheaper energy supplies into the state and into New England. As I show in a recent report for Manhattan Institute, the governor’s appointees at the Department of Environmental Conservation have repeatedly refused to grant permits for new pipelines at the same time the grid has become more reliant on gas-fired generators.

Since 2004 gas-fired electricity production in the state has nearly doubled and it will jump again after the closure of Indian Point. In response to Cuomo’s pipeline blockade, the region’s biggest utilities, Con Ed and National Grid, have said they will quit providing new gas connections in their service areas in and around New York City. That, in turn, forces some consumers to continue relying on heating oil, which is more expensive and more polluting.

Finally, Cuomo has agreed to implement the Climate and Community Protection Act, which mandates that 70% of electricity consumed in the state come from renewables by 2030 and 100% from carbon-free sources by 2040. Forcing the electric grid to rely more heavily on intermittent sources such as solar and wind will put yet more stress on the grid, particularly during extreme weather.

In short, Cuomo is pushing for the biggest changes in New York’s electric grid since Thomas Edison launched the Electric Age on Pearl Street in 1882, and he’s doing so without any understanding of how those changes may affect reliability.