Jeanne and John Morelli have long grasped the benefits of renewable energy. A geothermal heat pump warms their house in the woods. Solar panels are fastened to the roof of their barn. Mr Morelli, an emeritus professor of environmental engineering, designed his first device to capture the sun’s rays in the 1970s and he still teaches a course on corporate social responsibility. “The climate crisis, I have no doubt that it’s coming,” he says.
Yet the couple has also placed scarlet signs reading “No massive solar power plant” at the edge of their property. They are protesting against Horseshoe Solar, a photovoltaic project whose 600,000 panels would cover fields usually lush with corn and soyabeans in the Morellis’ picturesque town in upstate New York.
Projects such as Horseshoe underpin New York’s ambition to transform its energy system to spew less carbon dioxide. With the Trump administration disdaining the threat from global warming, state governments have been at the forefront of US climate policy.
Flanked by former vice-president Al Gore, New York governor Andrew Cuomo last year signed what he called “the most aggressive climate law in the United States of America”. Thousands of megawatts of new solar, wind and battery resources are now statutory mandates.
“Compared to most other states — and to most other countries — New York’s efforts truly are much more thorough and comprehensive,” says Peter Fox-Penner, director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and author of the book Power After Carbon. In 2030, New York intends to get 70 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. By 2040 it would eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector.
The push will “position New York to be a leader, as the rest of the country and the rest of the world comes around to advancing climate action at the pace and scale that we’re doing here”, says Ali Zaidi, Mr Cuomo’s chairman of climate policy and finance.
But the Empire State is struggling to stay on schedule. One reason is the tortuous process of building energy infrastructure in local towns. New York’s urgent push to avert climate catastrophe chafes residents unsettled by technologies that require lots of open land.
The 180-megawatt Horseshoe Solar would rise on the southern fringe of Rochester among working farms and well-kept suburban houses. The developer is Chicago-based Invenergy, a global clean energy company founded and controlled by Michael Polsky, an engineer who arrived from the Soviet Union with four suitcases and $500. “Solar power is the new cash crop for farmers and landowners,” Invenergy’s website says.
The Morellis and their allied neighbours say large-scale solar installations will spoil beautiful farmland. In 2019, they helped persuade the town of Rush to pass a law capping solar developments at 150 acres. Horseshoe’s site plan calls for 1,260 acres in Rush and an adjacent town.
“We’re not anti-solar. We just want it in the right place. And there’s plenty of places if they would take the time: brownfields, rooftops, you name it,” says Ms Morelli, an accountant who voted for Mr Cuomo, a Democrat.
Invenergy also has big plans to harness New York’s wind. The 340MW Alle-Catt project calls for 117 wind turbines across rolling woodlots, fields and pastures near the Pennsylvania border, some cultivated by an Amish sect that travels by horse cart and doesn’t use electricity. Lawn signs supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election dot the region; some criticise Mr Cuomo over gun control.
In Farmersville, residents were enraged to learn after the fact that several town officials who supported Alle-Catt had quietly leased their own land to Invenergy. New York’s attorney-general in 2019 fined the company $25,000 for leasing from officials without disclosing the arrangements or ensuring they would recuse themselves from votes on wind power laws, creating “the appearance of undisclosed conflicts of interest”.
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Opponents believe Alle-Catt’s wind turbines, up to 592ft tall, will be obtrusive and loud. “It’s the industrialisation of a rural town for the benefit of a few,” says Bill Snyder, an arborist serving as president of Farmersville United, a citizens’ group. Anti-wind candidates took over municipal government in elections last November and now want a rehearing on the project.
“The developer forces their agenda through on the state side despite the community's vigorous opposition,” says Ginger Schroder, who was elected to the county legislature and whose husband, Mark Heberling, won a seat on the Farmersville town board, a municipal council.
Speeding up approvals
The public process to approve new clean energy projects takes time at a moment when, scientists warn, the world is running out of time to force down carbon emissions. Mr Cuomo now aims to dramatically speed up the process.
Alle-Catt was approved in June by New York’s energy siting board, a body that vets larger generation projects. Proceedings can involve lengthy tangles with project opponents who are legally entitled to funds from energy developers. The group the Morellis helped to form, Residents United to Save our Hometown, has requested $90,000.
The board has required changes to each of the eight projects it has certified since 2018, a spokesman said. In June it rejected Invenergy’s request for a rehearing on Canisteo Wind, a 291MW project in Steuben County, whose approval was conditioned on measures to control noise, limit strobelike “shadow flicker” from rotating turbines and protect bats.
In April Mr Cuomo signed a measure that will supersede the siting board with a new Office of Renewable Energy Siting. Wind and solar applications will win automatic approval if the office does not make a decision within a year. The state’s Association of Towns warns that the law could undermine local control over what happens inside their borders.
The state’s New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (Nyserda) will also assume the role of project developer by acquiring its own interests in properties such as abandoned factory grounds, obtaining permits and then auctioning the package to private companies.
Clean energy developers say the changes were overdue. The “number one issue” after the state’s 2019 climate law “was how long it took to get a permit in New York. It took between five and 10 years. We had been complaining about it for years,” says Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a trade group whose members include Invenergy, Norway’s Equinor, France’s EDF and Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spain’s Iberdrola.
New York is “expensive and cumbersome”, “very rigorous and time-consuming” and “not a market that's for the faint of heart”, says James Murphy, Invenergy’s vice-president of renewable development.
Invenergy has invoked New York’s climate vision in trying to move projects forward. The company asked the state to override Rush’s 150-acre cap, arguing it would effectively block any large-scale solar project and “prevent the state from achieving its renewable energy goals”. On Monday, the siting board pushed back, demanding that Invenergy calculate the cost of complying with Rush town law before considering a waiver.
The company’s lawyers have opposed Farmersville’s request for a rehearing on Alle-Catt, claiming the use of terms such as “industrial” by critics was as subjective as “a description of turbines as elegant, kinetic sculptural elements”.
Mr Murphy acknowledges that renewable energy systems change the landscape. But he adds that they “interact well with most agricultural settings”. Alle-Catt’s turbines would be spread over 30,000 acres in part to protect the land. Among Horseshoe’s racks of solar panels, Mr Murphy envisages grazing sheep and beehives that allow the soil to “get a rest from the industrial farming practice”. The same point was made in prewritten postcards that Invenergy provided to local supporters — including people leasing land to the company — to sign and mail to state officials.
The “70 by 30” goal would require New York to shake up an electricity system that took decades to assemble. Just over a quarter of the power supply came from renewables last year, according to the New York Independent System Operator (Nyiso), which runs the state’s grid.
A single hydroelectric dam accounted for 44 per cent of this renewable supply, making it the bedrock of the new climate law. The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, opened in 1961, was named for the state’s brilliant, ruthless “master builder” known for steamrollering communities that got in his way. Moses flooded land owned by the Tuscarora Native Americans to create the dam’s pumped-storage reservoir after he prevailed over the tribe at the US Supreme Court. In the heat of the fight he lashed out at “senseless, expensive and aggravating litigation, delays and red tape”.
Meeting the 2030 target would largely rely on centralised procurement by Nyserda. A draft road map eyes $4bn in subsidies to renewable generators whose cost would eventually be passed to utility customers. Residential bills would rise by 1.4 per cent, but $15.7bn in social benefits from a reduction of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, put at 19.2m short tons by 2030, would far outweigh the monetary cost, in the state’s analysis.
The road map estimates about 106,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy in 2030 would allow the state to meet its 70 per cent target. Renewable energy generation was 39,000 GWh in 2018.
State energy officials see the gap filled mainly by almost 60,000 GWh of energy from large, new state-contracted projects: solar and wind farms on land and offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic, and possibly the freshwater Great Lakes. The state-contracted projects built so far can only generate 407 GWh of energy a year.
Generators would eventually need to serve a bigger load: power use could surge by 65-80 per cent by mid-century as New York pursues deeper electrification of technologies from car motors to household heating, according to an analysis by consultancy E3.
“We’re really teeing up a twofold challenge for the electric sector. The first is that we need to meet increasing electricity demand reliably, and second, we need to decarbonise to reach zero-emission electricity by 2040,” Tory Clark, an E3 director, told New York’s Climate Action Council in June. Demand currently peaks when air conditioners run hard in the summer. E3 noted that winter would become the new peak as electrical heat became necessary. A Nyiso report drily observed that “solar production is unavailable” on cold winter nights.
Bottlenecks in long-distance transmission lines are another hurdle to clean energy. Nyiso calls it a “tale of two grids”. Upstate, 88 per cent of electricity already comes from zero-carbon sources such as the Moses dam, Nyiso says. But fossil fuels generate more than two-thirds of the electricity lighting Manhattan skyscrapers, Brooklyn brownstones and other downstate customers.
Downstate is next year set to lose a big block of zero-carbon energy when the Indian Point nuclear plant along the Hudson river, a target of some environmentalists, shuts down. The state public service department is studying investments in bulk transmission lines to better link upstate resources to New York City.
Natural gas has a dim future under New York law. Mr Cuomo this year made permanent a ban on drilling for gas by fracking. His environmental regulator cited the climate law when it shot down a permit for a new gas pipeline to serve National Grid’s utility in New York City, causing the sponsor to scrap the project. “There’s an arrogance there, that their plan is the only plan,” says David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry group in Pennsylvania.
Mr Zaidi, a lawyer, professor and former Obama White House official, moved to Albany, the state capital, after being inspired by the speed and scale of the climate law.
He says the law would benefit New York even if other places did not follow along. “We need every jurisdiction, every state, every country, not just in the United States but all around the world, marching forward in this direction. That’s the way we tackle climate change. Period. But there are huge opportunities for New York, in terms of public health, in terms of good-paying jobs,” he says.
Mr Zaidi offers soothing words for towns concerned about the presence of big renewable plants. “Core to our values is ensuring robust engagement with communities, rigorous implementation of our environmental values and laws,” he says.
Some communities have welcomed the clean energy industry. Doug Berwanger, supervisor of the town of Arcade, says Alle-Catt would pay $500,000 a year in community payments for 20 years, equal to almost half the municipal budget. Lease revenue from other wind projects had been a “lifeline” for farmers as low milk prices hammered the dairy business, he says.
Tensions are worsening elsewhere. In July, ad hoc member Art Christensen quit New York’s siting board after it dismissed concerns about property values near the 100MW High Bridge Wind project in Guilford, calling the state “callous and reckless”. One resident handing out flyers opposing the project found a dead rabbit in the mailbox, resident Duane Reif testified in proceedings.
“This project is tearing our previously peaceful community apart,” he says.
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