Commentary in the Times Union on State Budget Changes

Commentary: Show commitment to renewables in Sheridan Hollow

By Keith Schue and David Musser   May 7, 2019 (May 8 in the print edition)

People who live and work in downtown Albany have reason to be optimistic about the future — cautiously optimistic. That’s because this year, with the support of the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a budget was passed that gave renewable energy a fighting chance for New York’s capital.

For more than a century, Sheridan Hollow — a community of color just blocks from the governor’s office — has suffered from pollution to meet the energy needs of government. Since 1911, every sort of combustible — coal, oil, garbage, and today fracked gas — has been burned at facilities on Sheridan Avenue to produce hot steam that is delivered through a half-mile-long tunnel to the state Capitol. In the 1970s, the system was expanded to serve the entire Empire State Plaza and use steam to additionally drive chillers that are now 50 years old. Since super-charged steam is needed for both heating and cooling, fossil fuels are burned year around.

More recently, Sheridan Hollow has been targeted once again — this time with a plan to install massive gas-fired turbines in the community to generate electricity for the plaza. Patterned after a project at Rikers Island prison, the proposed cogeneration power plant would operate around the clock, perpetuating an archaic combustion-based system of heating and cooling, and burning nearly 50 percent more gas in Sheridan Hollow than today.

However, this year’s budget offers hope for a different solution — one that could signal an end to a hundred years of environmental injustice. Striking all mention of fossil fuels, the Legislature deleted prior budget language that had explicitly earmarked $88 million for a gas-fired co-gen plant on Sheridan Avenue. Instead, funds were appropriated for an efficient energy system to meet “heating, cooling, and/or electricity” needs of the Empire State Plaza using renewables “to the extent possible.” While these nuanced words indicate that it’s not yet time to celebrate, they do suggest an important shift. What’s needed now is for state agencies, which had previously dismissed renewables, to enthusiastically embrace what energy experts know to be not only possible, but eminently doable.

Last year, the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy participated in a meeting between the New York Power Authority and a team of experts assembled by Jay Egg, a consultant for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and nationally recognized leader in geothermal technology. Egg’s team demonstrated that real gains in efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction are possible not by burning more fracked gas in Sheridan Hollow, but by thinking outside the box of combustion-based heat and power. Highlighting the success of various large-scale conversion projects around the country, it was shown that heating and cooling can be accomplished for a fraction of the energy required today by replacing the plaza’s inherently inefficient steam-dependent system with geothermal technology and thermal load sharing. Further, by deploying more renewables on the grid — both locally and outside Albany — the plaza can eventually meet its electricity needs under normal operating conditions without fossil fuels. While backup generation may be necessary for essential functions during an outage, there is no excuse for burning fracked gas around the clock.

So now the ball is in NYPA’s court. Implementing renewables to the greatest extent possible does not mean strapping a few solar panels onto a fracked-gas power plant. Instead of perpetuating fossil fuels and outdated steam technology, the state should issue a new request for proposals, or request for information, so that professionals with experience in large-scale projects can help develop a comprehensive strategy for phasing in renewable heat and power.

Weaning ourselves from fossil fuels won’t happen overnight. But if the state that banned fracking is sincere about fighting climate change and relieving communities like Sheridan Hollow from harm, it must occur at a steady pace with an eye on the goal. The Empire State Plaza — New York’s center of government — is a great place to start.

Keith Schue and David Musser co-chair the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy science committee.