Cuomo budget increases investment in renewable energy

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Solar panels. (Elliott Brown)
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ALBANY—Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal would increase funding for energy and environment initiatives and increase the state's focus on renewable energy while reducing its use of fossil fuels.

During his first term, Cuomo launched clean energy initiatives, but the state saw lackluster growth in the industry. Meanwhile, under Cuomo, the state energy grid shifted only slightly in favor of smaller-scale renewable sources. And while the state launched an ambitious reform of the state's energy markets last year to include more renewables, details have been slow to emerge and it will take years to determine their efficacy.

The energy plan Cuomo outlined Wednesday envisions a New York more reliant on sun and wind as power sources. Unlike the broad ideas that Cuomo introduced in his first term, it includes a series of smaller initiatives that will see more New Yorkers using zero-emission sources within the year. Under the new spending plan, the state will launch a community renewable-energy initiative, where neighbors can buy into a larger scale project and get credit on their utility bills for the power provided. The budget proposal also includes tax breaks for solar panel purchases.

“Giving more New Yorkers access to renewable energy can allow them to reduce their own energy bills while reducing stress on the grid and demand for fossil fuel power,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York. “This can save money for all ratepayers and allow us all to breathe cleaner air.”

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There will be a $20 million competition among the five largest cities outside of New York to develop energy efficiency programs. The goal is to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers by 2020. The best ideas would then be replicated in smaller communities. The Southern Tier will see a separate $20 million initiative to lure green energy jobs to the region. The state will also increase its purchase of zero-emissions electric vehicles.

The state will spend $35 million to establish a research lab at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany to research the energy grid of the future, which will draw less on fossil fuels. The state will also invest $65 million in the Brookhaven National Laboratory to develop better battery storage technology, which is considered one of the key areas of growth for the renewable industry.

The budget proposal references the state's Reforming Energy Vision initiative, which was launched last spring and aims to remake the state's energy markets, but does little to resolve the vagueness surrounding the program. The proposal includes just a few sentences directing the Public Service Commission to develop new performance metrics and rate plans that will incentive utilities to develop a more efficient electrical system. The P.S.C. would also review projects that will promote energy efficiency, including new technological improvements in energy storage and home automation.

The environmental initiatives introduced by Cuomo were more modest, though he included $1.43 billion in spending for energy and environmental initiatives, a 1.2-percent increase over last year's $1.42 billion. A small part of that money includes a $10 million increase to the Environmental Protection Fund, which support local community environmental projects, but, at $172 million, the fund is still about $75 million short of its high a few years ago.

Cuomo proposed an overhaul of the Brownfields program to clean up polluted sites. The changes will target blighted communities and properties that might otherwise remain vacant and polluted. The program currently allows developers to collect tax credits in affluent areas that would likely have been rehabilitated without the incentives. But a set of similar reforms faltered last year in negotiations with Senate Republicans, and it's unclear if Cuomo will have any more success this year.

The governor also proposed a $100 million boost to the state Superfund program, which is expected to run out of money within a few years.

Environmental groups praised many of the governor's plans, but NYPIRG said the Superfund funding would not adequately reform the program and called for a 10-year expansion.

“Funding Superfund on an annual basis weakens the program’s long-term ability to clean up toxic waste sites, which by their nature are multi-year efforts,” the group said in a statement.