Today I trekked out to Brooklyn to testify at a public hearing on New York’s plans to achieve “net zero” electricity by 2030 or so, and a “net zero” economy by 2050. Actually, it wasn’t much of a trek — the hearing took place at an auditorium in Brooklyn Heights, near the first subway stop on the other side of the East River.
The organization holding the hearing was the New York Climate Action Council. This body was created under New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 (Climate Act), and is tasked with figuring out how to achieve the statutorily mandated net zero targets. The first statutory target is 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, which as a practical matter means that fossil fuels must be almost completely eliminated from the electricity sector by that date. The Council issued its Draft Scoping Plan for how to achieve the targets on December 30, 2021. The Draft Scoping Plan is some 300 pages of text plus 500 pages of appendices; but the gist comes down to, we will order the private sector to eliminate emissions by various dates certain, and then it is up to the little people to work out the details. Today’s hearing allowed for members of the public to comment on the Draft Scoping Plan, supposedly so that any appropriate adjustments can be made before the Plan becomes final later this year.
The Climate Action Council has some 21 members. A full list can be found here. Seven of the 21 attended today’s hearing. I’m going to give you a list of these people and their titles, to give an indication of the extent to which the Council is dominated by environmental activists and political functionaries with no background or interest in how a huge electrical grid might actually get converted to “net zero” as an engineering matter. The members present were: Doreen Harris, President and CEO of the New York Energy Research and Development Authority; Basil Seggos, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Roberta Reardon, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor; Robert Rodriguez, Acting Secretary of State of New York; RuthAnne Visnauskas, Commissioner and CEO, New York State Homes and Community Renewal; Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director, Environmental Advocates NY; and Raya Salter, Lead Policy Organizer, NY Renews. Of these, maybe Ms. Harris of NYSERDA knows something about how the electrical grid works. Then again, maybe she doesn’t.
Speakers got two minutes each to address the members of the Council. The hearing was scheduled for 4 hours, from 4 – 8 PM. Some 200+ people had signed up, so clearly many did not get the chance to speak. My turn came about two hours in, shortly before 6 PM, by which time about 50 – 60 people had spoken before me. After I spoke, I stuck around for about 20 more minutes before leaving. So I heard a total of around 60 people give comments.
A summary of the 60 or so comments before me will give you readers an idea of what we are up against. Of the 60, exactly 4 were not fully on board with the crash program to replace all fossil fuels in New York with some combination of wind and solar “renewables,” storage, and/or the magical not-yet-invented “DEFR” (Dispatchable Emissions Free Resource) often mentioned in the Scoping Plan. The four who were not fully on board consisted of two advocates for nuclear power (note that New York just closed its last downstate nuclear plant last year, well before the end of its useful life — so nuclear is clearly going nowhere), plus one representative of each of the two large utilities, Con Edison and National Grid. In the case of the utilities, the message was, of course we’re on board, but we’ll just have to work together, and maybe you might need to go a little slower and maybe allow for some so-called “green” hydrogen in the mix, or something.
Then there were the other well-over-50 speakers. Some were politicians or their representatives (Public Advocate Jumaane Williams was there in person; Comptroller Brad Lander sent a sub; multiple City Council members were there in person, and many more sent subs; the Mayor’s office sent several, mostly from the Mayor’s “climate” office). Then there were many representatives of environmental activist organizations, including multiple from each of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, plus well over a dozen more from various local groups. There were lots of pastors and others representing religious groups, a plurality of them Jewish (not surprising in Brooklyn). And there was a good number of private citizens speaking for themselves, although these were a clear minority.
The overriding message was an emotional plea to the Climate Council to please, please save us from these evil fossil fuels before it is too late for ourselves and our children and our planet. Several used the opening line, “I’m here today because I’m scared.” Multiple speakers choked back tears. Easily 20 speakers invoked Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Ida (2021), as if reducing usage of natural gas could somehow end the risk of severe storms. An overlapping group of at least 20 went on about the increasing incidence of childhood asthma, as if atmospheric CO2 has something to do with that. Another overlapping group of at least 20 asserted that climate change was differentially harming what they called “justice communities” (when did that term come into vogue?); and therefore “justice demands” the elimination of fossil fuels. One lady focused specifically on the increasing rate of teen suicide, which she asserted was entirely attributable to fossil-fuel-induced climate change.
And no event like this could go without a critical mass of cynical hucksters looking to use the opportunity to make themselves a quick buck. At least four presenters styled themselves as “consultants” who would advise owners how to upgrade their buildings to comply with the new rules. Needless to say, all of these people argued for specific rules to advantage what they were selling, and also asked for state funding to help the building owners pay for it. Meanwhile, self-appointed representatives of the “justice communities” also unsurprisingly had their hands out for grants and taxpayer funding of various sorts, often with only the most tenuous relationship to carbon emissions or climate change.
So basically that left me and the two nuclear guys as the only ones out of about 60 advocating for anything approaching sanity. What follows is an approximate text of my presentation (I had to leave a few lines out here and there while speaking in order to meet the two minute cutoff):
My name is Francis Menton. I live in Manhattan. I am testifying as a private citizen.
I feel like I am in the crowd that has come to observe the grand procession where the Emperor unveils his new clothes. The Emperor has no clothes on. He is completely naked. Am I the only one who can see this?
100% carbon free electricity or energy for New York, at least unless based substantially on nuclear, is not different from the Emperor’s new clothes. It is a ridiculous and dangerous fantasy. It will not and cannot happen. It will shortly run into the wall off physical reality.
I will briefly address three aspects:
- Energy storage
- The global context
Supposedly, we are replacing our fossil fuel generation (mostly natural gas) with wind and sun. Sun does not work at night, and there is little in the winter. Wind does not work when it is calm. Neither works on a calm night.
How do you plan to back this up when we have no more coal or natural gas? The treatment of this subject in the Scoping Plan is breathtakingly incompetent. Where is the calculation of how much storage you will need to get through a full year? The Scoping Plan doesn’t even make that calculation in the correct units, which are gigawatt hours.
You’re going to need at least 10,000 GWH of storage to back up just current usage if you replace a fossil fuel generation with wind and solar. At the price of Tesla batteries, that will run you about $1.5 trillion, which is approximately the entire GDP of New York State. If you triple electricity consumption by electrifying vehicles and homes, then you must triple the storage, and it will cost at least 3 times GDP. And by the way, you need a battery that can store electricity all the way from summer to winter without all the energy dissipating and then discharge over the course of months. No existing battery can do that.
This can’t be done. How could you commit us to this without any feasibility study, any detailed cost workup, let alone a demonstration project showing that it can be done?
Hydrogen is not the answer to this. To generate hydrogen from water is enormously costly. And then you promptly lose about three-quarters of the energy you expended, because one-quarter is all you get back when you burn the hydrogen. And then, the H2 is inferior in every way to natural gas:
- H2 is only about one-fourth as energy dense by volume as natural gas. Are you planning to quadruple all the pipeline capacity?
- H2 is much more a danger to explode than is natural gas.
- H2 is a tiny molecule that is very difficult to keep from leaking. And very corrosive to metal pipes. Do all homeowners have to replace their internal pipes?
- How much more does H2 cost than natural gas? 5 times? 10 times? Where is the detailed cost study? Where is the demonstration project?
Nobody currently does hydrogen at large scale and there are very good reasons for that.
The Global Context
New York’s average electricity usage is around 20 GW. You’re talking about building a “massive” 9 GW of new offshore wind turbines in the effort to go carbon free.
Meanwhile, do you know what China is doing? Just this year, they are building 47 GW of new coal plants. Those will produce all the time, versus only one-third of the time for our wind turbines, so China is building just this year in coal plants some 15 times our planned massive wind turbine development.
And then they have another 100+ GW of coal plants in the works for just the next couple of years.
And then there’s India. They have about the same population as China (1.4 billion, which is 70x our population). India is way behind China on electrification. They explicitly say they are going to do it with coal. That will be well over 1000 GW of coal capacity by the time they are done.
And then there’s Africa. They have about 1 billion people — and 2 billion projected by 2100. And most of those people have no electricity at all. They’re also going to do it with coal.
Who are we trying to kid here? To the extent that New York is able to reduce emissions somewhat, it will be completely insignificant in the global context.
The whole project for New York is completely unworkable, wildly expensive, and utterly meaningless in the global context. People, this emperor has no clothes.
I’m not fooling myself into thinking that this will have any immediate impact. I will say that among all the other speakers, not a one addressed or attempted to refute any of my points.