Ask the Expert: Takeaways from the New York Energy Summit

GianGabriel Masoni Dobles, Zondits staff, 6/2/2023

As the state of New York prepares for a major transition to renewable energy, policymakers, energy industry experts, and stakeholders gathered in Albany for the annual New York Energy Summit. Participants discussed strategies for meeting the state’s ambitious Clean Energy Standard (CES) targets and the leveraging of newly available funding through the Federal Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Acts. A diverse group of presenters reported on projects and initiatives in the areas of hydrogen hubs, on- and off-shore wind, solar development, energy storage, transportation electrification, and numerous related technological topics. Of equal concern was the subject of energy equity to assure that residents of all income levels benefit from clean energy investments.

Zondits spoke with Ben Jones, Analytics & Digitalization Department Head at DNV, who participated in the Summit and advises New York policymakers on the clean energy transition.

New York has adopted aggressive clean energy goals. Overall, how did the summit participants address those goals?

The Summit attracted a broad cross-section of regulators, utilities, investors, and other energy stakeholders in New York. There was a lot of discussion about the pace of electrification and what that means for gas, offshore wind, and how that’s going to get connected, and where storage is at today and where it may or may not be tomorrow. Both EVs and hydrogen here were discussed, but in less depth. So, it was pretty broad.

 How much of it was focused on New York itself?

The event is in Albany, and was largely comprised of non-consultants which was refreshing. The traffic was largely folks from in-state with minimal draw from New York City. Some of the presenters had more of a national reach, but it was very much focused on what’s happening in the energy industry in New York. Where is it going? How are the policies going to affect different aspects?

Christopher Raup at ConEd offered perspective on ConEd’s approaches and what some of the repercussions of that are. They view reliability at the forefront, because people can die if they can’t use the elevator to come down from your 50th story apartment. And, if there’s no electricity, you don’t get water up there either because you need a pump if you’re going above six floors.

That really highlighted the importance of knowing that each utility has their own local conditions, varying even within utility territories. 

Where PG&E has to deal with water wildfires in one part of their territory, and high rises in another, they have to manage all that with the specter of earthquakes coming. So each utility has their own constraints to work around.

Many are aware of the high-profile Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) Leases being awarded off the coast of New York that stand to turn the Eastern seaboard into a huge powerhouse for generation. Pretty soon beach-goers will at least be aware of or even see what those turbine farms look like. What was the offshore wind discussion like?

One of the first speakers mentioned that onshore wind development in New York is slowing greatly, fueled by the reality that in the case of onshore wind, as she put it, all the good hills are taken, as are the optimal interconnection locations. Secondary sites are less economical, raising the fear of curtailment on renewables as things go forward. So the risk-reward game is much heavier as we move on. Additionally, New York has not quite cracked the nut of figuring out how to get utility-scale storage moving quickly. So much has to come together quickly. But overall, the eastern seaboard could mitigate some of this long term with its tremendous potential.

You mentioned the current and future state of energy storage, any further insights on that subject?

There are pilot projects going on, but there’s still some skepticism on the part of the market in terms of how deeply they want to invest. And part of this is because I think you want to have storage cited close to the use rather than having it cited close to the generation. But there’s a major barrier in getting batteries installed in New York City because the fire department is terrified of fires coming from batteries because they’ve experienced many, many fires that have killed people in the case of ruptured Lithium batteries from scooters and especially the messenger bikes. If you go to New York City today, you’ll see messenger bikes usurped by Ebikes. They’re essentially little bombs because for some reason that category is totally unregulated and requires no UL certification.

What did you hear about EVs?

Panelists from PSAC, Long Island, DOE’s Kara Podkaminer, and Volvo participated; which was an interesting cross-section of folks. There seemed to be a loose consensus on medium and heavy vehicles because the amount of traffic from those types of diesel powered vehicles going into and out of ports and rail stations is quite high. Addressing this could spur serious local air quality improvements. Generally, ports and rail depots typically are surrounded by underserved populations and pose a health risk, so the subject dovetails into equitable electrification of transportation.

Bus depots also tend to be closer to low to moderate-income areas and are heavy local polluters. So, if you can electrify those things that has real health improvements in an equity sense. It was also pointed out that shopping centers have moved the needle, but are not going to be doing the fast charging most frequently, and are investing more in level two charging because it’s cheaper and it keeps their demand charges limited. If they had a bunch of the fast chargers in lots, their demand charges could go all over the place. The wait for charge offers the advantage of people shopping longer and frequenting stores they normally wouldn’t, which is how Walmart tapped into a whole new customer base of affluent liberals charging their EVs.

Other challenges that surfaced include the tendency of fleet operators to use their trucks for only two years, and then selling on the secondary market. Operators want to cash in on incentives, and then pass the buck when batteries have been worked out; getting assets off the books. Rebates currently aren’t available to offset assuming the risk that comes with a used battery in unknown condition, or to help at the point of sale.

An additional concern is the potential snowballing demand for something like an electrified bus depot when it rivals the energy use of an arena. Fast charging hubs along the highway, can sometimes rival the energy use of a small town. When factoring shear load and then seasonality the challenge triples in the winter peak times. So if the demand is there, and is largely met with gas therms, New York state would have to resize the entire electric grid to be three times as big to cover that.

You mentioned that hydrogen was less discussed.

A representative from New York Green Bank was spoke about investing in hydrogen. He mentioned that their minimum loan now is $2 million and typically ranges between five and $50 million, with projects spanning all the way to hydrogen development.

Aviation was discussed as a promising hydrogen market, and that maybe in 10 or 15 years we could conceivably work out a tank capacity that could hold enough hydrogen to be practical. Hydrogen is very low density which means you need a much bigger tank to carry the equivalent amount of energy as jet fuel. So it seemed like hydrogen is not going to be a first choice for aviation, which is interesting. It also sounds like it’s a terrible idea for feeding into gas networks. The only other presenter who spoke about hydrogen was from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who cautioned that it is too expensive to be put into gas networks. They actually termed it ‘dumb’ and ‘a waste.’

Hydrogen is currently very expensive to produce. It’s too valuable a commodity to be used in a way that you’re going to lose that much of it in distribution. On the other hand, if you can have the hydrogen replace natural gas or some other heating source at an industrial site, that makes more sense. But in terms of wider use, combustion of hydrogen actually produces a lot of NOx and other pollutants so it’s not a clean fuel to burn. The other question that was posed was how hydrogen reacts when you add it to natural gas, given that the natural gas has sulfur added to it for the smell. And I think there is the potential to create hydrogen sulfide which is highly corrosive.

Thank you for your time. Any last takeaways?

These are interesting times for those of us in the energy field. We need to get this right.