In the future, when we look back on 2014, I believe it will be remembered as the tipping point for climate action. In the Northeast, we’ll remember the devastating early-season snowstorm that caused over a dozen deaths. In the Southwest, many will remember the third-straight year of a drought that seems without end. And, nationally, many will remember 2014 as one of the hottest years in recorded history – the hottest since 2010 and the 11th time the record for hottest year has been set since 1998.
In a year punctuated by extreme weather across the country and the globe, 2014 will also be remembered as the year when seeds of coordinated global action to address climate change first took root. The federal Clean Power Plan, the Lima Climate Agreement, the United Nations Climate Summit, and the U.S.-China Climate Accord, among other major milestones, all highlight the growing awareness and importance of taking action to address climate change. Though many view these events as tentative first steps, they are nonetheless steps in the right direction.
Action at the national level has been long overdue and support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, is borne from decades of work at the local level. The historical absence of a broader national agenda has spurred cities and states to act on their own, and local authorities are continuing to make significant, innovative strides forward.
That passion for change is evident in New York, which, in the spring, embarked on an overhaul of the state’s energy system to allow for cleaner, more efficient power. Not to be outdone, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has also set a monumental task of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Neither of these efforts is straightforward, and success will require a systematic, holistic approach at all levels, involving a diverse coalition aligned with a common goal.
It is without question that the powerful hurricanes Sandy and Irene, which hit the East Coast in recent years, were catalysts in bringing about this much-needed tidal wave of change. The most visible signs of forward progress today are improvements that will help protect against the effects of increasingly severe weather – keeping the lights and heat on when they’re most needed. Elevated electrical equipment, flood barriers, and other high-visibility protective measures are already in place in many locations as utilities in the Northeast continue to fortify their energy systems.
As Con Edison, New York’s largest utility, enters year two of a four-year $1 billion storm-hardening plan, some of these early actions have already yielded benefits, preventing around 25,000 outages in 2014. The efforts of Con Edison and other utilities to improve the grid by making it more efficient and less polluting will only increase going into 2015.
Most investments by utilities will be less visible, but they will be important to setting the stage for a cleaner energy future. Utilities will need to invest in innovation and hire the best and brightest to keep abreast of rapid changes in technology.
The most encouraging prospect for the coming year is the New York State Public Service Commission’s ‘Reforming the Energy Vision’ (REV) memorandum calling for the development of demonstration projects that will align with the state’s vision of a 21st century energy system. Coming at the end of a year filled with much promise, the memorandum adds a much-needed call to action.
With New York’s new order, we see the beginnings of what a unified effort to transform our energy system could look like. The state is calling for more renewable energy, more options for people to take control over their energy use and costs, such as demand response (which pays customers to save energy when the grid is stressed), and a re-examination of how utilities interact with customers – all with the goal of reducing harmful pollution and expanding the penetration of clean energy resources to more New Yorkers. And, the newly created New York Green Bank is helping to make a lot of this possible by easing the ability to obtain financing for these projects.
Success in these endeavors will mean a future in which New Yorkers have greater control over how they use energy and how much they pay for it. Utilities will be able to cost-effectively manage their operations and pursue solutions that not only support their bottom lines but the environment and customers’ pocket books as well.
John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” Heeding this call, New York has planted the seeds of an energy system that will meet our future needs. I predict that, in 2015, we will begin to see some early blossoms from that effort.
Photo source: Christmas stock images
This post originally appeared on the Sallan Foundation.