NYISO’s Mischaractization of Key Information
The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) releases an annual state of the grid and markets report called Power Trends. According to NYISO CEO, Robert Fernandez, this report “provides the facts and analysis necessary to understand the many factors shaping New York’s complex electric system.” In a dense 80-page document filled with beautifully designed graphs and well-written explanations, there is indeed an enormous amount to digest about New York’s energy. Unfortunately, while NYISO appears to fairly present the key information that discerning readers will want, there are some seemingly deliberately ways the designers worked to mislead any but the most detailed-minded of readers.
The 2019 report on which we focus is titled “Reliability and a Greener Grid.” Accordingly, one naturally expects it to highlight how well New York is doing providing carbon-free energy versus dirty energy. After all, this is really where the rubber meets the road for climate change. The more energy provided by carbon-free energy sources—namely hydro power, nuclear power, solar power and wind power—and the less generated by CO2 emitters—the fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas—the better. However, for those seeking Mr. Fernandez’ facts—untainted by politics—you will be disappointed.
(A portion of graphics from page 3 of the NYISO 2019 Power Trends report.)
On page 3, the heading “An Authoritative Source Informing New York’s Energy Future,” seeks to reassure readers that the information provided will be accurate. We learn that “Since 1999, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) has provided factual information to policymakers, stakeholders and investors in the power system in support of reliable grid operations and efficient, competitive markets.” This sounds good but, unfortunately, NYISO’s graphics are badly misleading.
As shown by this graphic on the left, we quickly learn that 26% of electric energy came from “renewables” and that 56% of the total energy produced came from zero-emitting generation. Use of a solar energy icon leads one to think that New York State now gets more than a quarter of all its energy coming from solar or wind. Additionally, it certainly like the additional 30% comes from hydro power. Climate advocates will be thrilled.
Unfortunately, it is not until Figure 16 “NYCA Energy Production,” on page 27 that the truth emerges. As shown by the circular chart, it turns out that New York has almost no solar, got 3% of its energy from wind, and just 2% from “Other Renewables,” apparently mostly biofuels, biowaste or biomass (which all emit carbon). The vast majority—85%—of what NYISO labeled “renewable” is hydro. So why did NYISO decide to use a solar icon to depict this, rather than the hydro icon? Were they trying to confuse us?
Studying the NYCA Energy Production chart, we further discover another weird use of icons. NYISO uses the hydro icon to show that 56% of energy came from zero-emitting generation. Yet, from Figure 16, we see that nuclear power provides 32% of the state’s generation, hydro 21%, and wind (3%). So, despite the fact that nuclear produced 57% of the total carbon-free energy, NYISO chose to use the hydro icon, even though hydro accounted for 37% of the total. One might begin to suspect that NYISO, however authoritative, is trying to mislead the casual reader.
Misleading by Omission
Most people who are curious about how well New York state is doing in cleaning up their energy will likely go to the NYISO website and study their Real Time Dashboard, rather than attempt to plow through the 80-page Power Trends report, even with all of the nice graphical icons. The dashboard has a wealth of information about New York’s energy, updated in real-time, every five minutes. But, for those of us seeking to learn how much of our energy contributes to worsening climate change, even with nine distinctive interactive graphs including one labelled “Real Time Fuel Mix,” the information we seek is not available.
The Real-Time Fuel Mix is really two graphs in one. The first mode, called “All Fuels” is shown to the right. It depicts the relative percentages of all components of energy used by the state, but it does not show which contribute emissions and so worsen climate change and which do not. When you click on the “Renewables” button, you are taken to the second graphic, shown below.
Here we get a picture of the “Renewable” sources of energy, nicely depicted in all greens and blues. As we learned earlier, in this chart, hydro is the lion’s share of what is called “renewable” energy, at over 84%. Wind provide 10% and “Other Renewables” comprise about 5.5%. It would, again, seem to the casual and uninformed reader that hydro, wind and “other renewables” were New York’s sole sources of carbon-free energy. In that, they would be quite wrong.
In fact, the use of a chart to showcase the state’s renewables must seem, to a team as expert as the NYISO staff is, rather deceptive. Why deceptive? Because for one, they know that nuclear energy is the largest source of GHG-free generation in the state, yet it has been excluded from being included in the brand label “renewable” for other reasons—many of which are unrelated to climate change. For two, technologies labeled “other renewables” usually include biofuels, biowaste and biomass, such as we believe is the case here, and are quite large emitters of CO2. Furthermore, many states have opted to exclude large hydro as a renewable energy source, because of the damage it imposes to waterways, the risks associated with having that energy “renew” when the climate is shifting, as well as to decrease the incentives to developers to try to build more. New York doesn’t do so and, accordingly, may be trying to improve the picture for themselves. In sum, there is not good chart that gives the public the information that is most critical for them to get. Again, the question is why? Why not provide a fact-based, rather than “brand” based graphic which allows people to see New York’s actual sources of Clean Energy?
We sought to find out. So, on May 3rd, 2020, we submitted a request through the NYISO contact page requesting their consideration of a clarification to their online Energy Dashboard. It read:
You produce a really nice Real-Time Dashboard on the daily fuel mix, with two options: All fuels or Renewables. I am writing to request that you add a third option: “Clean Energy,” which would be chart of the fuels that do not generate CO2 or methane emissions with their generation, so this would include Nuclear, Hydro, Wind & Solar, but not Biofuels, Biomass, Biowaste, Gas, Coal, Diesel or Dual Fuel.
Thank you for your consideration. I think a chart like this would go a long way towards helping the public recognize that not all Renewables are clean (i.e. don’t emit CO2) and not all non-renewables are dirty.
On May 4th, we received a replay from Barbara Kappes, and learned that Case # 00020400: Report request Re: Real-Time Dashboard Fuel Mix had been received by the NYISO Stakeholder Services team. Thereafter, we received an inquiry from NYISO’s External Affairs department, inviting us to learn about NYISO’s Carbon Pricing proposal. We endeavored to get our original request answered and addressed but got nowhere after a number of email exchanges.
On May 5th, we received another message from Barbara, who wrote:
Thank you for your appreciation of the NYISO Real Time Dashboard-Daily Fuel Mix chart on the NYISO public website as well as your suggested enhancement. I will be sure to share your suggestion, adding a “Clean Energy” tab, with the appropriate NYISO business owners for review as a potential future enhancement.
Also, you may already be aware, the 2019 Power Trends contains a fuel mix chart based on annual energy production that depicts this information as well, although not in real-time. The chart is located on page 10 and labeled the “Tale of Two Grids”. Link to 2019 Power Trends is below for your convenience.
On May 8th, NYISO closed our Case # 00020400, without adding a “Clean Energy” tab. We are disappoint that NYISO did not instantly grasp the importance of providing a third graphic, such as the one we have mocked on on the right side, which shows only sources of clean, zero-emission energy.
A Tale of Two-Faced Leadership
What Barbara brought to our attention was this chart, entitled “A tale of two grids.” In it, NYISO has broken the chart into four categories that approach what we were seeking but don’t quite get there. The categories include Fossil Fuels, Zero Emission, Hydro Pumped Storage and again, that mysterious “Other Renewables,” which we now know for sure is generated entirely by a carbon-emitting source of biofuel, since none of it is included in the “Zero Emission” category.
This chart, aside from revealing that “Other Renewables” is all carbon-emitting and without even a negligible amount of solar power, we learn that Upstate New York is almost 90% Zero Emission energy and only 11% Fossil Fuels but Downstate New York is 70% Dirty Energy and only 27% Zero Emission. This is a very curious phenomena, particularly as Upstate New Yorkers are predominantly Republican and are not particularly worried about climate change and Downstate New Yorkers are predominantly Democractic and are very concerned about climate change.
It happens that there is a much better graph than this one, available on page 27 of the Power Trends report, to explain what is going on with these two grids and to allow us to back out what is included as “Zero Emission” and what isn’t—which is our objective with the Clean Energy graphic we asked for.
From these two charts, we can plainly see that that NYISO includes as Upstate NY’s 87% Zero Emission consists of: 41% Nuclear Energy, 41% Hydro Power, and 6% Wind, rounded down to 87%.
Downstate New York’s 27% Zero Emission consists of 23% Nuclear and 4% Hydro. Once again, the 2% of energy from “Other Renewables” in both regions, while not a fossil fuel is also not zero emissions, so they simply leave it as “other renewables” but it is not solar which is zero emission, so it is almost certainly all biofuels, biowaste or biomass.
Taken together, these two charts do tell the story that nuclear energy provides 47% of Upstate New York’s Zero Emission energy and it provides 85% of Downstate New York’s zero emission energy.
Upstate New Yorkers love their nuclear plants and Governor Cuomo got the PUC to pass a Clean Energy Bill that provided support for the four Upstate nuclear plants be taken over by Exelon, which would qualify for Zero Emission credits, if and when the gas markets forced the price of energy to fall below a certain amount. Cuomo bent over backwards to celebrate the saving of nuclear’s clean energy and good paying jobs for his upstate constitutents.
In stark contrast, Cuomo, catering to the antinuclear prejudices of his downstate constituents, bent over backwards to support the 50 year efforts of environmentalists to shutter Indian Point, the one nuclear power plant serving the downstate area. He worked to force Entergy into agreeing to close the plant five years before their license to operate had expired. The first of two operating reactors was shuttered in April of this year, halving the amount of clean energy generated by the plant and reducing the downstate region’s supply of clean energy from 27% to just over 15%. Even while Cuomo worked to get passage of a new Clean Energy bill to save the 4 nuclear power plants in Upstate, he excluded Indian Point from qualifying under the bill for ZEC, and, because it will be at least five years before the state might hope to see new off-shore wind connect to the grid, Cuomo was able to appease his fossil fuel donors as well, and approved the process to bring four new natural gas plants on line to serve more fossil fuels to the Downstate Democrats, especially the ones who care about climate change. That’s pure two-faced leadership if we’ve ever seen it.