New York’s Clean Energy Standard: A Shift From Renewable to Clean Energy Sources

By: Devin Stein

As a Long Island native, I grew up with some of the most expensive electricity in the United States. Every time I drive past the nearby Shoreham nuclear power plant, I am reminded of the political pressures that kept the multi-billion dollar plant from ever generating electricity. Now, New York State is trying to protect the nuclear industry that has been feared and discouraged for the past half century because it can reliably increase clean energy production. But industry protectionism would not be necessary if costly regulations were removed and politically popular renewables were not subsidized.

This summer Governor Cuomo announced New York State’s Clean Energy Standard, setting an ambitious target of generating half of the state’s electricity through renewable energy sources by 2030. The plan includes a production tax credit to incentivize nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but does not include the electricity generated by nuclear as part of the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

Like many states, New York is trying to boost the clean energy economy. But what makes New York different is the state already relies heavily on emission-free energy sources. More than half of the electricity generated in-state already comes from just two emission-free energy sources: nuclear and hydropower. If the Public Utilities Commission accepted clean, carbon emission free sources like nuclear, rather than just renewable ones including landfill gas, biomass, wind and solar in the “50 by 30” goal, the state would have already met its goal ahead of schedule.

Many other states have similar renewable energy goals, commonly called renewable portfolio standards (RPS), but most focus primarily on wind and solar power. Wind and solar use unreliable and inefficient technologies that complicate a slowly improving electric grid with erratic electricity generation. These policies place high costs on taxpayers, who pay for expensive renewables through higher electricity rates and taxes. The two cheapest clean energy sources, hydropower and nuclear, are rarely accepted as renewable according to RPS requirements. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only Ohio and Indiana allow some use of nuclear to meet these goals. Even less popular renewables like hydropower are often discouraged in favor of wind, solar, and biomass, although New York does recognize its importance.

New York already relies heavily on nuclear, which generates a third of the state’s power. Nuclear power attracted investment in the 1960s, but was pushed out by regulatory complexity in the following decades. In the short time it was available, however, nuclear became an important power source that millions of Americans rely on. Nuclear would likely be a large component of the clean energy economy if not for regulatory burdens that kept many plants from coming online.

Both nuclear and hydropower are clean energy sources, but do not meet most state definitions of renewable. Yet both sources are widely used in New York State because of their extensive histories of usefulness. Hydropower and nuclear do not need a renewable requirement to survive in the electricity market, they just need a level playing field. Instead of hamstringing investments with costly regulation while simultaneously encouraging and mandating their use, removing federal regulatory complexity will allow these clean energy sources to find their place in the market.

Other state legislators and environmentalists need to learn from New York’s example of accepting clean, emission-free energy sources like hydropower and nuclear, rather than using a tunnel vision mindset to advocate less feasible renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Devin Stein is pursuing a master’s degree in economics at Utah State University, and is currently a research associate at Strata, an energy and environment public policy research organization.

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