Smarter Electricity in New York

New York Times
12 May 2014

In one of the most promising moves in the energy sector in years, New York State is proposing a way to get a head start on, and perhaps help lead, a revolution in the world of electricity generation. Starting this week, the main players in the state’s complex electricity business will be asked to comment on a new report from the state’s Public Service Commission that envisions more efficient and climate-friendly ways to produce electricity.

“Business as usual just doesn’t cut it anymore,” said Audrey Zibelman, the commission’s chairwoman. By the end of the year, she said, the commission hopes to produce new “rules of the road for utilities.” In its most basic form, what the commission is talking about is an increasingly decentralized system dominated not by big generating stations but by smaller stations located throughout the state, many of them using renewable sources like solar or wind power. The big utilities like Con Edison that now sell electricity to consumers would essentially become traffic cops, making sure power is distributed evenly and fairly.

The hope is that New York can provide a template for other states at a time of rapid change in the energy landscape brought about by new pollution controls and concerns about global warming. These changes have not gone unnoticed by industry leaders. Jim Rogers, the retired chairman of Duke Energy, told a conference at Columbia University last week that by midcentury “virtually every power plant in this country will be retired and replaced.”

Modernizing a system that has been largely static for the last 100 years will be no small task. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo insists that the state is ready to try. He praised the commissioners for “taking a giant step from the status quo” and working toward a “more market-based, decentralized” approach to energy policy.

In addition to constructing hundreds or even thousands of smaller generators, the study envisions a much greater role for individual homeowners and commercial enterprises who choose to install their own energy sources (like solar panels) or invest in more efficient appliances. The proposal, which the commission has called Reforming Energy Vision, stresses that any new system be designed to deal with the consequences of climate change, including floods, hurricanes and heat waves.

The commissioners should take care not to undo regulations and incentives that promote clean and sustainable energy — including the state’s participation in the regional greenhouse gas initiative, a trading system that has gradually ratcheted down carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. A renewable energy mandate that sunsets next year should be extended and strengthened. State monitors should not presume that the market alone will solve all energy problems. If the state does this right, it could well show the rest of the country smarter ways to make and use electricity in the future.