Uncertainty in the Public Service Commission

Governor Cuomo often goes out of his way to describe New York State as a national leader on climate action. And when it comes to the power sector, which represents around 20-percent of the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, the Governor is right. New York has really stepped up its game over the past four years, and that is due, in large part, to the leadership of Audrey Zibelman, the Chair of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Unfortunately, on March 9th, Audrey Zibelman is stepping down and will preside over her final PSC session, leaving behind a lot of unfinished business. Her departure is coming on the heels of the recent retirement of longtime Commissioner Patricia Acampora, leaving what has historically been a five member Commission with just two Commissioners (Garry Brown left the Commission in 2015 and was not replaced). This dynamic could lead to deadlock on many major pending issues, like the future of net energy metering, the establishment of energy efficiency mandates, the next phases the Clean Energy Standard and Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) implementation. With only two Commissioners, movement on these matters will be challenging if they are not both on the same page.  

The body of work coming from the PSC is substantial, and extremely important. We now have a State Energy Plan that sets a goal of reducing climate pollution, economy-wide, 40-percent of 1990 levels by 2030 and 80-percent by 2050. The REV process is overhauling the electric utility business model to emphasize products and services designed to reduce energy use and cut carbon pollution. Last year, the PSC approved the Clean Energy Standard mandating that half of all electricity consumed in New York State come from renewable sources by the year 2030. We have seen the expansion of NY Sun, the creation of the Clean Energy Fund and the New York Green Bank, and the advancement of policies supporting community owned renewables, and the modernization of the state’s antiquated transmission system. Taken together, these initiatives are transforming the electric industry in New York, but there is still much to be done before we can declare this transformation a success. The next few weeks could prove crucial to the Governor’s energy and climate agenda as the administration maps out the next steps for the Commission.

Assuming the Governor can find qualified and talented individuals willing to take on the challenge, any new Commissioners will require the approval of the Republican-controlled State Senate, which may prove difficult. Senate Republicans, who have bemoaned the lack of legislative involvement in key energy policy decisions in recent years, suddenly find themselves with an enormous amount of leverage. Public Service Law dictates that no more than three Commissioners can be enrolled in the same political party, all but assuring that Senate leaders will insist on at least one Republican appointee, likely of their choosing. What’s more, these vacancies are occurring at the height of the State Budget negotiations, which could tie up any Commission appointments in the closed door political horse trading synonymous with Albany.

New York’s continued progress on climate and clean, renewable energy will depend, in large part, on the way the Governor and the Senate decide to shape the next Commission. New York State’s efforts at becoming a leader in climate action cannot afford to be stalled. Make sure to contact your Senator to let them know you are watching, and stay tuned for updates as they occur.

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