New York’s Energy Transition Guru Responds to Basic Questions

New York’s Energy Transition Guru Responds To Basic Questions

June 23, 2024/ Francis Menton

The people pushing the “energy transition” in New York and elsewhere claim a foundation in science, but proceed with religious fervor. A key element of the playbook is never to engage with people asking legitimate questions, who are generally dismissed out of hand as “deniers.” But every so often one of the team will break the code of silence, thus giving us some insight into the thought process behind the campaign to transform our energy supply.

In New York, the most important academic guru behind the Climate Act and energy transition is a Cornell professor named Robert Howarth. Howarth is a professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology. Based on that background, he would seem to have nothing to offer on the subject of the engineering of an electrical grid. But Howarth has a burning desire to save the planet, and he has read some work by trendy Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, and has become convinced that putting together a zero-carbon electricity grid is no problem. Despite his total lack of relevant expertise in grid engineering, he has somehow gotten the ear of the New York State legislature and bureaucracies on that subject.

Here is a picture of Howarth from the Cornell website:

See Manhattan Contrarian Blog site

Meanwhile, another guy named Richard Ellenbogen has become a principal gadfly annoying the people like Howarth who are pushing the transition. Ellenbogen has a BA and a degree in electrical engineering, both from Cornell, and runs a manufacturing company in Westchester County that has made some fairly extraordinary efforts to use renewable energy. Unlike Howarth, Ellenbogen actually knows what he is talking about on issue of the engineering of the electrical grid. Ellenbogen has also taken on challenging the New York energy transition mandates as something of a personal passion. He submits formal comments on regulatory dockets every chance he gets, and also tries to engage those pushing the transition in rational discussion. Among those he has tried to engage is Howarth.

A couple of days ago Ellenbogen forwarded to an email list that includes me an exchange that he had just had with Howarth and some of Howarth’s Cornell colleagues. Ellenbogen had basically posed some fundamental questions about how this is all supposed to work. I thought readers might find the responses of Howarth and his acolyte entertaining.

From a June 20 email from Ellenbogen to Howarth:

[T]he facts on the ground are saying that there is a major problem with this process and it is only going to get worse as the utility rates rise and NY residents rebel as the residents of Ontario Canada did, as the residents of the EU are currently doing, and as the downstate NY residents are starting to do. . . . In  a college science project where supply chains, funding, labor, land, the state of technology, and public opinion are not issues that have to be considered, the CLCPA will work.  However, in the real world those are issues and they are going to sink the CLCPA. . . .

Here is the heart of Howarth’s response, also dated June 20:

I am always very happy to engage with anyone who comes to a discussion with an open mind, and who is truly interested in objective information. Your insulting insinuations, though, hardly invite further discussion. I am not likely to write to you again or further respond. But if you truly are interested in the topic, I suggest you read Mark Jacobson’s excellent books, the 2020 “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything” and the 2023 “No Miracles Needed.”

So it looks like that is as much of a response as Howarth will ever give. However, Ellenbogen had also sent a copy of his email (and a prior one) to one Bethany Ojalehto Mays, of something called “Cornell on Fire,” which appears to be some kind of consortium of Cornell-associated climate activist groups who take inspiration from Howarth (although Howarth is not formally a part of them). Ms. Mays provided a much longer response. Here are some key excerpts (from two different Mays emails, one of June 18 and the other of June 20):

  • I suspect we can all agree that (1) no one can afford the costs of irreversible climate breakdown; (2) any costs to current stakeholders must be weighed against costs to future generations of life; (3) there is a real and urgent need to change our lifestyles and “business as usual”; and (4) the climate crisis is such that there is “no nonradical future” . . . .
  • Another set of questions concerns a resiliency analysis, which must not only account for the fact that the grid will struggle to provide peak power during 3 consecutive 90-degree days in Downstate NY (as you point out), but also that our past, present, and future assumptions about unlimited access to energy and peak power supply have created those increasingly frequent and excessive heat waves. Will we respond to present heat waves in a way that only guarantees more cruel heat waves for future beings? Given the challenges you lay out so clearly, Cornell on Fire has emphasized the need to reduce energy use: why is the grid unquestioningly delivering luxury consumption and approving constant expansion, for instance, rather than ensuring that we have clean energy to meet basic needs first . . . .
  • Many of these problems come down to a reassessment of business-as-usual: For instance, you point out that electrification of all homes and personal vehicles will strain the grid. So why are we still relying on the personal vehicle model of business-as-usual? Why not take this moment to shift en masse to public transit and dramatically curb the use of personal vehicles? Why not convert existing housing to multi-family housing that makes much better use of existing resources and doesn’t waste energy heating/cooling thousands of square feet per (rich) person?
  • As you point out, delivering existing demand would entail formidable technical challenges, like “a solar [array] that would have to be at least 20 times the size of our roof.” To us, this suggests that current demand is unsustainable. Why aren’t we asking the more fundamental question: how can our society radically simplify and reduce energy demand, in order to have a hope of transitioning to renewables in time?
  • “A vast majority of the residents of NY State are just trying to get by and pay their day to day bills.” We think that this points to fundamental problems with our capitalist system. We also note that the carbon footprint of the most affluent sectors of society is enormous, and could be dramatically reduced without risking those who are living day to day.

And then, of course, there is this post-script at the end of Ms. Mays’s email:

Ithaca and Cornell lie on the traditional and contemporary homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ People (the Cayuga Nation). Land acknowledgements are only the first step toward reparations, restorative justice, and recognition.

Bottom line: other than a direction to go read Jacobson’s (discredited) work, there is no particular concern about whether the grid will or will not work after the elimination of fossil fuels. Instead, the main idea is to punish the people for their sins of luxury and overuse of energy. Somehow I don’t think that many New Yorkers understood that this is what they were voting for.

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