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New York's "Energy Highway" Comes Full-Circle, Focused on Renewables

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David Gaier's picture
Owner David Gaier PR

David Gaier is a communications professional, former spokesman for NRG Energy and PSEG Long Island, and consultant to energy advisory agencies. His 30+-year career includes crisis communications...

  • Member since 2019
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  • May 29, 2020

In 2011, the administration of NY Governor Cuomo announced the creation of a Task Force to develop a “New York Energy Highway” plan. Co-Chaired by New York Power Authority (NYPA) CEO Gil Quinones and then-Department of Environment Commissioner (DEC) Joe Martens, the project would create a “Blueprint” with three main goals: Give downstate customers access to upstate power generation by easing transmission congestion; plan for and respond to power plant retirements; and study the expansion of natural gas delivery to residences and business in New York State. Renewables were in there, too.

As part of the plan, the NYPA Board approved a program to modernize NYPA’s legacy transmission system in Western, Central, and Northern New York, and NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, issued a $250 million Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) solicitation, targeting electric generation projects that would use “clean-energy resources” to help NY diversify its overall electric energy portfolio.

The Blueprint was released on October 22, 2012, with a goal of increasing the electricity supply though both generation and transmission (including renewables) by 3200 megawatts, create jobs, and promote economic growth, all while protecting the environment. Overall, the Blueprint called for public and private investments within NY during the following five to ten years, via 13 specific actions across four categories: Expand and Strengthen the so-called “Energy Highway;” Accelerate Construction and Repair of Infrastructure and make it more resilient; Support Clean Energy; and Drive Technology Innovation—such as the development of Smart Grid demonstration projects and an Advanced Energy Management System. By April of 2012, 85 entities had submitted 130 proposed projects. I know, because I worked on three of them. At that point, the Task Force was to disband and the appropriate state agencies such as NYSERDA and NYPA would take over.

But just one week later, Superstorm Sandy hit, causing deaths, massive and widespread damage in the tri-state area, and also upending large parts of NY and NJ’s transmission system. In New York alone, more than 2 million customers lost power, some for days and others for weeks or more, exposing the inability of a mostly “sticks and wires” infrastructure to withstand hurricane-force winds and unprecedented tidal surges.  

By 2015, major elements of the Energy Highway had stalled, in some cases because local communities had staunchly and vocally opposed new transmission lines.  The project’s momentum was lost to the extent that then-chairwoman of the New York State Public Service Commissioner, Audrey Zibelman (now CEO of Australia’s Energy Market Operator) issued a statement saying that the Commission—now responsible for the initiative—would “carefully re-examine the need for transmission upgrades to address existing transmission congestion problems.”

To be sure, some progress was made, though it was mostly unrelated to transmission. FERC created a new capacity zone—the Lower Hudson Valley Zone—to address downstate shortfalls of electricity and deal with an existing transmission constraint. In return, two power plants in the Hudson Valley, Danskammer and Bowline, agreed to make the investments required to bring back about 1,000 megawatts of power. (Note: Bowline did bring back 390 megawatts to its Unit 2, taking it to a full nameplate capacity of 567 megawatts. Danskammer did not move forward with its plans at the time but in December 2019 filed an Article 10 request with the State of New York to repower the plant). And a $2 billion Direct Current power line, the Champlain-Hudson Power Express (CHPE) was proposed that would move another 1,000-1,250 megawatts of power all the way down to the New York City load pocket, Zone J. CHPE is still moving forward, albeit more slowly than originally planned, with construction slated to being next year and to be in service by 2025. And some “Highway-esque” projects are still active, notably new or upgraded transmission lines: a 54-mile Hudson Valley segment being built by Transco, and an 86-mile central New York segment built by LS Power.

Today, the original “Highway” plan has in practical terms essentially dissipated, replaced with “REV: Reforming the Energy Vision” a comprehensive, goal-driven strategy that would build 6 gigawatts of distributed solar by 2025, 3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2030, 9 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035, and ultimately produce 100% clean energy by 2040. REV tasks the same New York State agencies with implementing the plan, with the addition of LIPA, the Long Island Power Authority, which has already announced a plan for the Ørsted / Eversource South Fork Offshore Wind Park, originally conceived at 90 megawatts and upgraded last year to 142 megawatts on the same footprint by using higher-powered direct-drive turbines.

Not everything is pristine. Unit 2 of the Indian Point Nuclear Plant was shuttered last month, retiring 1,028 clean megawatts while its sister unit #3 will be permanently closed next April, taking with it 1,041 megawatts of generation. Some of this power will be replaced by the 1,100-megawatt Cricket Valley Energy Center, a $1.6 billion natural-gas-fueled facility in Dover, New York that went commercial in April.

But New York hasn’t halted on its determined path to clean energy. On April 6, 2020, the State announced “The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act” as part of its 2020–2021 enacted state budget. The legislation is intended to streamline and hasten the siting, permitting and construction of renewable energy projects, and in the process, bring with them jobs and economic activity that would help the state recover from the dramatically-negative effects of the Covid19 pandemic. All projects of 25 megawatts or more are affected, and developers with projects already in the existing Article 10 process can stay in the process or opt-in to the new one.

At the same time, the state is now looking again, and harder, at a process to improve the siting and permitting of new transmission, currently regulated by the existing Article 7 process. In the state’s budget, if approved, NYPA would gain additional authority to build transmission to specifically support the state’s clean and renewable energy goals. This would accelerate the transmission siting application process to one year or less, and brings project priorities back around to what would effectively resurrect the “Energy Highway” to a “2.0” status.


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Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 1, 2020

NYS  is sitting right on the best Hydro source at Niagara Falls and Moses dam. They also have some great wind power. I'd like to see that energy enhanced. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 1, 2020

Are those hydro sources 'tapped out' though? Or is there increased generation potential there that they're sitting on?

Would also love to see NY become a wind power hub for the East Coast!

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Jun 2, 2020

While upgrading existing hydro facilities may be possible, there is only a limited amount of additional energy that can be extracted from the existing facilities.  There is essentially zero chance of building additional dams which could lead to larger energy additions.  Then even if one could get more energy out of the upstate hydro, there are still transmission bottlenecks that would need to be addressed.

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