Hochul plans to task NYPA with new energy projects, including reengineering the Erie Canal

(December 23, 2021) — Governor Kathy Hochul is preparing to task the New York Power Authority (NYPA) with the construction of several major clean energy production projects in an effort to accelerate the State’s transition to a “completely clean energy mix”.  The projects will account for massive increases in hydro and solar production — and will enable the State to move away from natural gas within a decade’s time.

The plan is being tentatively dubbed “Green New York“, but that moniker is being debated and could change before the initiative is announced during Hochul’s first State of the State speech next month.

Included among the projects will be a massive re-engineering of the Erie Canal, which Hochul wants to repurpose into a massive pumped energy storage system.  She plans to instruct NYPA to replace all of the canal locks between Lockport and Utica with pumped storage generators that are capable of pumping water uphill during periods of surplus energy production (when energy prices are low) and capable of generating electricity when it is allowed to run downhill (when energy prices are high).  The pumped energy storage system will “even out” energy production when wind and solar sources are not reliable.

The canals will, in effect, become vast energy reservoirs — “the world’s largest battery” — rather than an obsolete method of industrial transport.  

The New York Power Authority already owns the State’s canal corporation.  Operating for the purpose of energy storage will require no major diversions of water from the Niagara River.  But during periods of intense flooding on Lake Ontario — which is expected to become more frequent given increasing climate volatility — the reengineered canal will be able to divert water from the Niagara River to flow into Oneida Lake instead, where it would then be pumped into the canal section nearest Rome and allowed to flow down the Mohawk River and into the Hudson — all the while generating electricity.

A second major pumped energy storage project above Seneca Lake, on the site of the former military base in Romulus, is on the drawing board as well.  Dozens of additional pumped energy storage project sites are being evaluated in the Finger Lakes, along the Susquehanna River, which is prone to flooding, and in the Adirondacks.

Pumped hydro storage is a decades-old, proven, trusted technology that does not involve toxins (like other large-scale lithium-based energy storage projects) and does not have overtly destructive impacts on ecosystems.  A reengineered Erie Canal would be designed to feed a statewide network of pumped storage generators. 

Hochul’s plan will call on NYPA to construct fields of solar panels along a 300-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway‘s median, which could provide 30 square miles of unutilized space for such an installation — which would rank among the largest solar installations in the world.  Other major Interstate routes could see similar solar installations, including I-81, I-84, I-86, I-87, and I-88.  In total, Hochul hopes to identify 100 square miles of Interstate medians to make available for solar installations.

NYPA will be instructed to construct solar canopies above the surface parking lots of all 64 campuses of the State University of New York, at most New York State Parks, at major stadiums and event centers, at state prisons, at high schools, and at airports.  NYPA will also begin to utilize its nearly 3-square mile pumped-storage reservoir in Lewiston for solar platforms that will float atop the water’s surface.

Hochul would like NYPA to play a lead role in reconstructing the Buffalo Harbor Breakwall to include more than four miles of lake source wave turbines built into the structure, adding a new cutting-edge source of renewable energy into the State’s production mix.  The reconstruction is being funded, in part, with federal infrastructure money designated for ports and harbor improvements.  NYPA is expected to engineer, construct, and operate the new energy-harvesting break wall.

Nearly 4.5 miles of Buffalo Harbor’s break walls are positioned to effectively harvest energy from lake source waves. Engineers can imagine hundreds of small-scale turbines built into the new break wall infrastructure.  The infrastructure will generate energy when winds are high, and consequently, waves are strong. 

Hochul wants engineers to explore how NYPA might be able to harvest the energy of the upper Niagara River between Buffalo and Fort Erie, where currents are most fierce. Advances in underwater turbine technology over the last decade have made the prospect of under-river turbines increasingly likely.  Because much of that section of the river falls on the Canadian side of the border, a collaboration between New York and Ontario would be required.

Hochul is planning a bilateral trade summit next summer in Toronto with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and a large contingent of legislators from each government will be attending — including, we are told, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.  Influential executives from Canada’s banking and telecom industries are expected to participate.

Hochul plans to raise the issue at the summit and will suggest a collaboration between the University at Buffalo and University of Waterloo engineering schools, along with Ontario’s HydroOne and NYPA.

On the legislative side of things, Hochul’s staffers are busy designing a new statewide zoning law that will require solar roofs on all commercial and industrial buildings with a footprint larger than 100,000 square feet, which would include nearly all big box stores and shopping malls.  It’s unclear if the new zoning law will also require large-scale surface parking lots (which almost always accompany big box stores and shopping malls) to install solar canopies above parking spaces as well.

It is unlikely that local school districts will be exempted from the new statewide zoning requirement.

Hochul’s staffers believe that large-scale commercial and industrial buildings will be eager to comply with a new statewide zoning requirement that would require many to install solar roofs — and possibly even solar canopies above their parking lots.  The costs of large-scale solar installations have plummeted in recent years, largely because the Chinese government has heavily subsidized their manufacturing at an enormous scale. 


Solar infrastructure has become so inexpensive that industrial properties have begun rapidly adapting the technology to their plants in order to offset the costs of their own energy usage.  The zoning law being contemplated would require these large-scale properties to come into compliance with the solar requirements by 2024.  



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