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State's power grid is holding up through recent heat waves, but there are concerns for the future

Pittsford Victor Rd in Pittsford, NY seen from the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa covered in smoke.  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday classified the Rochester region's air quality as "unhealthy."  due to the smoke from raging wildfires in Canada, (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
A smoky haze in the air over Pittsford Victor Road in Pittsford, as seen from the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

While the state's power grid operator says there's enough juice to fuel demand right now, a recent report warns that supply might run short in the New York City area in two years.

The New York Independent System Operator, or NYISO, has been issuing quarterly assessments of the state’s power reliability since 2019. That’s when New York enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

Kevin Lanahan, who runs NYISO’s government relations, said the most recent report, issued in July, finds that without a faster build-out of the power grid, New York City will have a deficit as large as 446 megawatts in two years. That’s the amount of power needed to run about a half-million homes.

“The system has become strained in the sense of being able to deliver the megawatts across that part of the service territory under certain conditions,” Lanahan said.

The warnings are limited to New York City right now, but Lanahan said upstate is also at risk in the near future. Several major manufacturing projects have been announced recently, including Micron in central New York, and they will require large amounts of electricity.

He said the models that the independent system operators have been running are for normal summers and have not taken into account extreme heat waves or prolonged periods of smoky air from wildfires.

The unhealthy air from Canadian wildfires has driven more people indoors this summer, making increased use of electric appliances, computers, televisions, and air conditioning more likely. That puts a greater drain on the grid. In addition, solar panels used to generate green-sourced energy work less efficiently in the hazy air.

“The solar gets interrupted with smoke,” he said. “And we rely on that solar to shape peaks.”

He said a “confluence” of factors are causing the shortage, including decisions to shut down older, dirtier power plants that were used to boost energy output during peak demand periods. There are also changing consumer habits. A growing number of people are switching to electric or hybrid cars, which need charging, and more people are buying all-electric heating and cooling systems, like heat pumps. Also, more people are returning to cities to work, post-pandemic.

But Lanahan said alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels are not coming online quickly enough to meet demand. Offshore wind projects in Long Island Sound will not be completed until 2028 at the earliest and could take until 2030 to be fully operational.

He said that’s not enough if the state wants to reach the goals stated in its climate action plan of net zero emissions by 2050.

“We need to develop more renewable resources. And we need to keep a careful, watchful eye on this balance between demand and supply through the transition,” he said. “If we create this imbalance, then we're going to risk outages.”

He said there are some hopeful developments. The Champlain Hudson Power Express pipeline is scheduled to bring hydropower from Hydro Quebec to downstate by mid-2026.

Lanahan said New Yorkers can do their part, too. He said even raising the temperature of the air conditioning by one or two degrees can make a difference.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.