Franz Litz – The State of the Empire State

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In 1882, the world’s energy economy was forever changed when Thomas Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, constructed the first central power plant near the intersection of Fulton and Pearl Street in Manhattan. The Pearl Street Station started producing enough electricity from a single generator on September 4, 1882 to power about 400 lamps.  Two years later, Pearl Street Station was providing power for more than 10,000 lamps.

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More than a century later, the world’s energy-economy appears poised for an equally pivotal shift.  Over the past three years, a massive infusion of public and private capital has sparked the start of what could be a slow-motion revolution in how consumers use—or rather avoid using—energy in their daily lives.  This revolution is about becoming leaner and better fit for competition by using less energy while maintaining our quality of life.

New York was at the center of the electricity revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Will New York State lead the charge this time around?  If we look solely at what Governor Cuomo has said since taking office—or rather, has not said—the answer remains unclear. In what was a very productive first year in other policy arenas, Cuomo has so far not made clean energy, energy efficiency and climate change top priorities for his Administration.

Let’s hope that will change in 2012. The first indicator will be how much of tomorrow’s State of the State address focuses on New York’s energy future.  The second will be in February when Cuomo has the opportunity to fill three of the five seats on the Public Service Commission, thereby putting his stamp on the state entity that has driven investments in efficiency and renewables for decades. What the Public Service Commission does or does not do will help determine whether New York succeeds or fails on energy and climate change in the coming years. If the Governor appoints commissioners who know how to drive clean energy and energy efficiency, we’ll know he is serious about these issues.

As the editors of the New York Times declared in their Sunday editorial this week, clean energy is “where the real jobs are.” If the Governor wants new well-paid jobs for New Yorkers, he will boldly and publicly embrace clean energy and energy efficiency.  In the process, he will be making the case for smart government policy to drive jobs and clean up the nation’s energy mix.

Whether or not Cuomo emerges as a much-needed leader on clean energy and climate change, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: what got us here will not take us there.  Energy policy has historically been about how we meet growing demand through construction of new power plants and exploration and exploitation of fossil fuel reserves.  Too little attention was paid to the efficiency of the homes and vehicles used by energy consumers.  And now we have climate change as a key driver of our energy choices.

This new revolution is about reducing our demand for fossil fuels and the electricity largely produced by burning fossil fuels as much as possible. In the process, we create jobs for the people that make our homes and businesses more energy efficient and we put money in the pockets of real people—money that would otherwise go to suppliers of our energy.

In 1976, California’s Governor Jerry Brown pulled the plug on a massive nuclear power plant and decided to bet the state’s future prosperity on a new refrigerator technology called blown-in foam insulation. Brown implemented the first state energy-efficiency standards for appliances that year. The result of this measure and many others that followed? California today has the lowest per-capita consumption of electricity of any U.S. state.

To its credit, New York is not far behind California in reducing its energy demand and investing in clean energy alternatives. Even though Governor Cuomo has yet to show much leadership on energy efficiency or renewable energy or climate change, his Energy Research and Development Authority and Department of Public Service are busy implementing the policies of Governors Pataki, Spitzer and Patterson.  They are doing their best to create clean energy jobs and save New Yorkers money on energy—but until this Governor speaks up and takes ownership of the State’s renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate change policies, New York will struggle to regain its position as a national leader in this area.

It would be nice, for example, if Governor Cuomo could make 2012 the year he set New York on the path to become the most energy efficient state in the nation. As he has demonstrated in his first year in office—when he gets behind something, it gets done. . .and when he does not, it rarely does.


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