The mysterious death of an idea to improve energy efficiency in New York

Appliances on the trash heap in the Rockaways. (Larry L for school via Flickr)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy swept across the New York region and left thousands of water-damaged boilers, refrigerators, washers and dryers in its wake, the state received a request to use money devoted to energy efficiency to replace the old appliances with new, cleaner ones.

The request was made by a lawyer at NYSERDA, the state authority in charge of energy efficiency programs, which asked the state's energy regulator to allow it to create an emergency fund to help homeowners replace their damaged appliances.

The rationale was straightforward: since New Yorkers would be tossing out thousands of waterlogged appliances, why not help them buy more energy-efficient ones to put in their place, thereby reducing demand on the grid, and reducing energy costs for both the homeowner in question and consumers statewide?

“Some of the first purchases storm victims will make in the effort to return to a semblance of normalcy will be to replace their furnaces, refrigerators, washers and dryers, and other appliances,” wrote Peter Keane, an associate counsel at NYSERDA, to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in New York State and whose board is controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo. “The opportunity to realize the energy efficiency gains is thus dependent on the Program becoming available immediately.”

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

NYSERDA requested about $30 million for the program, to be paid for with existing pots of money derived from surcharges on electricity bills and a regional cap-and-trade program.

The following week, the state’s utility companies, including Con Edison and National Grid, sent another letter to the Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities, asking for much the same thing.

“The need for increased incentives is immediate,” they wrote. “Contractors are currently replacing customer equipment with the lowest cost units, which are generally standard efficiency models.”

Shortly thereafter, both NYSERDA and the utilities mysteriously withdrew their petitions, with the utilities indicating they were doing so at the behest of the commission itself.

"The Joint Utilities understand that there are concerns about the implications of the Proposed Program for existing Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard programs," said a ConEd lawyer in another letter to the commission.

NYSERDA and National Grid didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for ConEd said, “We reviewed the matter with PSC staff and agreed that the proposals could have unintended consequences on existing energy efficiency programs, and that our efforts should be devoted solely to providing immediate relief for storm victims."

With no action on the part of the PSC, in December, the Pace Energy & Climate Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, among others, followed up, urging the commission “to avoid missing this limited window of opportunity to capture significant energy savings.”

Yet at the commission’s monthly meeting last Thursday, it again took no action.

Asked why the Public Service Commission had let the matter drop, a spokesman declined comment.

Like the Long Island Power Authority, the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in New York State, is an opaque governmental entity over which the governor can exert control.

Its five boardmembers are appointed by the governor's office to six-year terms.

Cuomo has made only one appointment to the board, even though, since two boardmember terms have expired, he has the power to have appointed three members in total.

In 2010, Cuomo ran on the promise of overhauling the state’s energy infrasturcture, releasing a policy book on the topic called "Power NY."

In it, he argued that “Measures that increase energy efficiency reduce energy costs, create jobs and economic growth and protect our environment” and therefore “should be at the heart of New York’s energy policy.”

“Because of the nature of the law of ‘supply and demand’ and New York’s competitive energy market, a reduction in the total demand for energy reduces the price that must be paid to suppliers for the delivery of energy, thereby saving all energy consumers money,” the book said.

Cuomo went on to praise a Spitzer-era energy policy known as "15x15," which aims to reduce energy use by 15 percent by 2015, and said, "the State has not moved quickly enough to meet that goal.”

(A recent report by the Pace Energy and Climate Center faulted the Cuomo administration for falling behind on that goal, too.)

Cuomo also wrote, “All governmental and quasi-public entities that are responsible for implementing energy policy in New York must be transparent in their activities and accountable to the public.”

The governor's office had no comment.