New York is banking big on 'green'
With New York’s primary season reaching its climax last Tuesday, 9/11 remembrances on Wednesday and almost a month of national debate on military action in Syria, here’s something you may have missed: Gov. Cuomo has announced that New York state is setting up a “green bank.”
What’s a green bank, and why is it important? The market for green energy is, generally speaking, more difficult than it is for oil and gas companies. Most importantly, startup capital is less abundant — thus the need for a public-private financial institution designed to help foster clean energy development across the state.
New York’s green bank will help to fix that problem. By offering a variety of financial products to vetted green energy developers, New York’s green bank will help them over that first hurdle into economic viability.
Though New York isn’t the first state to set up one of these banks, what’s being set up is bound to make a big splash. When Connecticut started a $50 million green bank in 2011, it was an idea largely untested. Its success since has brought jobs and green energy to Connecticut that otherwise wouldn’t have grown.
New York’s green bank? It will be 20 times bigger — equivalent to the size of the new green bank in the United Kingdom. What will start out with $165 billion in existing Public Service Commission funds will end up having a value of $1 billion by the time it’s fully up and running. Gov. Cuomo projects it’ll have a value of $8 billion in 10 years’ time. The state estimates that this will double the amount of private capital for clean energy in five years — and will increase that amount tenfold by 2033.
The hope is that this will provide the business-environment groundwork for New York state, and a model for the rest of the country (and world).
But why should we care about green energy at all? Some will complain about government picking winners and losers, saying the government should stay out of the economy. (Strange how you never hear those folks complaining about the billions in subsidies and write-offs that fossil fuel companies receive.)
Unfortunately, the fact remains that our reliance on fossil fuels isn’t just making our planet more polluted, but warmer and less hospitable to life. The more we burn, the more our atmosphere changes. Green energy isn’t just the alternative to that future — it’s the solution.
But even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and man-made, the public doesn’t share in that consensus. Unfortunately, we can’t wait for public opinion to catch up. And while scientific inquiry should never cease, the consensus of virtually all scientists is certainly sufficient grounds off of which to make public policy. The reality of climate change should compel us to curb back carbon emissions, find alternative energy and work toward using energy in a more efficient way. The other choice is living in a world that’s irreversibly scarred by global warming: hotter temperatures, volatile weather and, of course, rising sea levels. Though one event does not serve as proof on its own, the extreme weather events of the last few years — like Hurricanes Sandy and Irene — are a taste of what’s to come if we don’t change our ways.
Sadly, other priorities have gutted Washington’s appetite for green politics — indeed, deficit obsession in Washington means that spending on much of anything perceived as “extra” is unlikely. So even as the planet continues to warm up, very little is being done on a national or international level to stop it. And given the recent tack toward hydrofracking in recent years — possibly making its way to New York before too long — it’s even more important that green energy secure a place in America’s 21st century energy market before we simply make the easy switch from one fossil fuel to another.
This is where state government comes in. Encouraging the timely and robust development of this new and important energy market is not a goal that private enterprise can achieve on its own — sometimes the government needs to take the first step. This is especially the case when an entire system based on fossil fuels already exists, and is seeking to perpetuate itself: Those with the economic power don’t see any reason to change things; their fortune is made larger the more fuel we burn.
That’s why they’ll do what they can to stop and/or discredit these efforts. Given the importance of green energy — and the model New York state is setting for the nation — the state should take extra care in managing this correctly. Not only do we want the best green energy market we can have, but we’ll want to avoid giving the haters any rhetorical ammunition, thereby making the road harder for those who want to follow in our footsteps.
The dearth of action elsewhere is an opportunity for New York, and Gov. Cuomo has rightly taken it. By utilizing free-market principles and the well-tested strengths of public-private partnerships, the outlook looks just a little bit better for New York state’s green energy sector. (Jobs and a cleaner environment are sure to come too.) As the groundwork is laid for this new market, the industry will multiply faster and faster. Hopefully, other states — and countries — will take notice.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.