Alicia Barton
President & CEO, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority

When it comes to the Green New Deal, Washington is still trying to sort out what the movement means and what steps can be taken to address the dangers posed by climate change. And a similar case is happening in some states, like New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a Green New Deal and bold steps he says are necessary to achieve it.

In this episode of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks to Alicia Barton, the president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA is a public corporation dedicated to energy innovations that would improve New York’s economy and environment – and an agency that will play a big part in the state’s Green New Deal.

Bill sat down with Alicia outside the Center on Global Energy Policy’s summit in New York recently to talk about the governor’s energy agenda, including its call for an ambitious ramp-up in renewable energy deployments in New York as the state aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and ultimately the elimination of its carbon footprint. It’s not without controversy; some state lawmakers and some interest groups say Cuomo’s Green New Deal doesn’t go far enough. But one way or another, the Empire State seems likely to follow through on a plan of this sort.

Alicia has held public and private sector leadership roles in clean energy for more than a decade, including serving as co-chair of the energy and clean tech practice at the law firm Foley Hoag, chief operations officer of the global utility business unit at SunEdison, and CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a publicly supported agency in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, she was also the deputy commissioner for policy and planning at the Department of Environmental Protection and the deputy general counsel at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

During their conversation, Bill and Alicia talked about various elements of New York’s Green New Deal, like its ambitious goals for offshore wind power, distributed solar energy and energy storage, and what her agency and the rest of the state’s government, not to mention the private sector, can do to meet them. They also touched on the growing significance of states like New York acting on energy and climate change in the absence of policy in Washington.

Just as important was their discussion of women in energy and the gender imbalance still seen across much of the energy apparatus in the U.S.

View Transcript


Bill Loveless:  When it comes to the Green New Deal, Washington is still trying to sort out what the movement means and what stuffs can be taken to address the dangers caused by climate change.  And, we see the same thing in some states like New York, where governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a Green New Deal, and bold steps, he says, are necessary to achieve it.

Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University from Washington.  I’m Bill Loveless.  Our guest today is Alicia Barton, the president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a public corporation dedicated to energy innovations that would improve New York's economy and environment and an agency that will play a big part in the state's Green New Deal.  I sat down with Alicia outside the Center on Global Energy Policy Summit in New York recently to talk about the governor's energy agenda including its call for an ambitious ramp up in renewable energy deployments in New York as the state aims for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and ultimately the elimination of its carbon footprint.  It's not without controversy.  Some state lawmakers and some interest groups say Cuomo's Green New Deal doesn't go far enough, but one way or another, the Empire State seems likely to follow through on a plan of this sort.  Alicia has held public and private sector leadership roles in the clean energy field for more than a decade including serving as co-chair of the Energy and Cleantech Practice at the law firm, Foley Hoag, chief operations officer of the global utility business unit at SunEdison and CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a publicly supported agency in Massachusetts.  During our conversation, we talked about various elements of New York's Green New Deal like its ambitious goals for offshore wind power, distributed solar energy, and energy storage and what her agency and the rest of the states government, not to mention the private sector, can do to meet them.  We also touched on the growing significance of states like New York acting out on energy and climate change in the absence of policy in Washington just as important was our discussion of woman and energy and the gender imbalance, we still see across much of the energy apparatus in the United States.  Well, here is our conversation.  I hope you enjoy it.

Alicia Barton, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Alicia Barton:  Thanks for having me.


Bill Loveless:  Alicia, let's talk a little bit about you, your interest in energy goes back some way you earned a bachelor's degree from the ohio state university in natural resources and have made your mark in energy along the way in your career.  But, what first interested you in the topic and how has that awareness guided your career?


Alicia Barton:  I am so glad you pronounced the ohio state university which is actually how the diploma reads.  So, most people think it's sort of a joke.


Bill Loveless:  Though that is important.


Alicia Barton:  It is, it is.  So, actually it was when I was a student at ohio state that I first became really kind of focused on the environment as a central part of what I wanted to spend my career on and that was in the late 1990s and climate change was really an issue that was starting to be more well understood, and I think you know to me, seems like a problem worth working on.  So, I began focused on science and then pivoted to a career in law where I you know was hoping to you know advocate for environmental policy and regulation, which I have done in my career.  But, as I went through a number of different roles sort of through school, through being an associate at a law firm and then ultimately working in Massachusetts State Government, I became really excited about not just regulating a machine's environmental regulation the way it had been done in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but really building the alternative future and that's what you know started to become extremely compelling to me and sort of I think guided by transition into fulltime focus on clean energy and building clean energy markets and clean energy technologies.  It's not just about you know avoiding machines, but showing that we can actually build a different future.


Bill Loveless:  Proactive, positive method.


Alicia Barton:  Exactly, right, right.  Hands-on and -- and boy, how we made a lot of progress at that time.


Bill Loveless:  I want to talk about your role at NYSERDA, but first to make sure the listeners understand what it is that your agency does here in the state of New York.


Alicia Barton:  Sure.  So, we are the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority or NYSERDA, which is a little easier to say than the mouthful.  And, we are the lead energy policy agency in the lead energy innovation agency for the state of New York.  NYSERDA has actually been around for a long time since the 1970s focused again on energy innovation and energy policy, but with the recent urgent focus on scaling clean energy solutions and building clean energy future for New York State, we greatly expanded our work in recent years.  So, we focused on funding everything from early stage innovation to supporting large scale renewal energy procurements on behalf of the citizens of New York State and we focused on technology expanding everything from efficiency and demand response to certainly renewable as well as emerging technologies now like carbon capture and storage.  So, we're sort of across the board from a technology standpoint as well.


Bill Loveless:  Is it unique in terms of its mission, its structure in comparison to what other states may be doing in this area?


Alicia Barton:  Would -- yes, I do think NYSERDA is unique, but that is true of every state because every state sort of carves up their energy agencies in a slightly different way.  The closest I think analogy is to NYSERDA are really the federal department of energy.  we have fairly close overlap with a type of work that you know we does, although we are much more active in energy markets in New York State than DOB is on a national basis.  And, the California Energy Commission is probably another good reference point for listeners.


Bill Loveless:  Well, on a national basis these days, we hear a lot about the Green New Deal with you know many people, lot of the young politicians, young people, and others pushing aggressively for this in Washington.  But, in New York, now there is a Green New Deal as well, something that governor Cuomo announced recently.  What is that about it and what does it seem to do?


Alicia Barton:  Sure.  So, governor Cuomo's Green New Deal was a plan that he launched earlier this year in 20 -- January of 2019, and it has a few key components, but you know I think the most important thing that stands out to me is that it is actually a very detailed plan to accelerate a transition to 100% clean electricity system and a carbon neutral economy over time.  So, it's not simply aspirational, but it has actually a number of detailed components that really outline a comprehensive strategy that the state is putting in place.  So, you know again the headline I think for the targets is 100% clean electricity by 2040, that's the most aggressive target by any state in the country.


Bill Loveless:  That's right.  Even more so than California which had a pretty aggressive policy as well as I recall California seeks to meet that goal by 2045.


Alicia Barton:  Right.  And, they are under SB 100, which was absolutely a game changer I think for the country, California passing that landmark legislation, and certainly, I think, helped to reinforce our confidence in putting forward a plan here in New York State that is again the governor's Green New Deal, which he also has introduced legislation to qualify this plan into law as well and that's pending with the New York State Legislature now.


Bill Loveless:  And likely to pass?


Alicia Barton:  Well, we certainly hope so.  Right now, the debate in the New York State Legislature is really between a couple of competing versions of climate legislation all of which are extremely ambitious and forward looking and I would say nation leading.  So, I am very optimistic that hopefully we can work out the details to come together around you know a bill that can get support from the assembly, the senate, and the governor.  The governor's plan which again is part of his legislative proposal, but also include a ramp up to 70% renewable by 2030, which again is the most aggressive target in the country and that really is reinforced by our recent experience procuring renewable energy on behalf of the state of New York where we've been seeing record results in terms of the amount and availability of new clean energy resources that we can find in the market and that they have been coming in a far lower cost than we originally anticipated.  So, the governor's original target was 50% by 2030 and then since that policy was put in place, we brought a few options and put under contract 46 new large scale wind, solar, and hydroelectric projects.  So, 46 new clean energy power plants for the state of New York in just the last 2 years, which again has led us to think we can go even farther even faster and really commit to that 70% by 2030.


Bill Loveless:  Right.  And, some of this is related as well to the governor's reform effort for the electric grid in New York, the Rev initiative as well.  What is the relationship between these two ambitious efforts, REV and the Green New Deal?


Alicia Barton:  Yeah, absolutely.  So, reforming the energy vision REV has been a strategy that New York has been working on for a number of years.  That's really premised around focusing on declining subsidies over time increasing the amount of private capital that can be available to advance clean energy markets and also focusing on some ways to incentivize changes to the utility business model.  So, REV is focused on building a clear, more resilient, more affordable electric grid over time.  And, when we started that initiative, the ambition was very high, but now putting it in the context of an electric grid that needs to be 100% clean is you know really almost an additional kind of sea change in terms of the level of ambition, but it is entirely reinforcing to those original principles.  We know that if we are going to do something as aggressive as convert to a 100% clean electricity system, we are going to have to find different ways than business as usual to drive that change.  We have been seeing a lot of progress.  So, you know to highlight one, I think, visible aspect of REV that listeners may be familiar with the value of distributed energy resources or VDER proceeding which has really been an effort to try to transition from that metering which has been effective, but very blunt tool for stimulating solar development to a tariff based mechanism that would compensate for locational value of solar and time value of solar or other distributed energy resources.  And, since the time we started that work, energy storage now has come into the picture in a much bigger way and is entirely aligned with this idea of locational and time value.  So, now that we've been spending some years putting those building blocks in place like the VDER tariff.  We really see potential for resources DERs like solar energy storage to continue to grow very rapidly.  With solar, we've actually been seeing a lot of growth in the last couple of years, and storage, we you know have recently put in place some additional funding incentives that we think are going to kick off that market in a big way.


Bill Loveless:  Lot of accomplishments, but still a long way to go when it comes to storage too, right because you need to accommodate the storage on utility scale to account for when the renewables may not be providing as much to the grid and that sort of thing.


Alicia Barton:  Yeah, absolutely.  No doubt about it.  We have again very ambitious goals.  We have targets of 1500 megawatts by 2025 and 3000 megawatts by 2030.  We only have about 60 megawatts of advanced energy battery storage installed in the state today.  So obviously, that's going to entail a huge ramp up.  But, we have been putting in place again the building blocks that I believe will allow that market to show up relatively quickly so, again driven by you know the distribution level that VDER tariffed.  But now, adding on, NYSERDA is in the process of putting in place approximately $400 million in energy storage incentives that will catalyze, we think, development in yes, you know residential behind the meter, commercial scale storage development, but also utility bulk CL incentives as well.  And, that's a critical need for New York state and New York City actually as we see a large fleet of aging peaker plant units servicing primarily you know New York City and westchester counties.  We would like to see energy storage interrupt really than the natural replacement cycle of those fossil fuel peakers and we think that there is a lot of potential to do that and that why we're pointing in that direction.


Bill Loveless:  What could be some of the obstacles to achieving these goals?  These are big goals.


Alicia Barton:  Well, I -- they are big goals and I actually do have a lot of confidence.  So, this is an achievable plan given what we've seen in terms of the growth in the markets if you look back you know 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, I mean that the progress has been extraordinary in that time.  So, changes happening fast, but I completely agree there are number of obstacles and that's where we spend a lot of our time focusing the work.  So, you know there are market obstacles including we are going to have to do a lot of work to think about the integration of these new resources with wholesale markets and capacity markets in particular and that's something that we are focused on.  New York ISO has a number of different proceedings including proceedings to look at a potential carbon tax, efforts to look at integrating distributed energy resources and storage resources specifically, but those are complicated market evolutions that will need to happen we believe in order to allow these new resources to fully compete and deliver value into the system.


Bill Loveless:  And, you are seeing the response so far from industry, utilities, technology providers, and others indicating that they are engaging, they are responding to these various initiatives from the government.


Alicia Barton:  Oh yes.  We've been again very pleased with response to a number of efforts and of course progress is faster in some places than others.  but again, if you look at our ability to incentivize the development of large scale renewable energy resources, so I think solar or wind farms larger than 20 megawatts, we ran, as I alluded to before, a couple of solicitations over the last couple of years and we were simply blown away by the response.  We ended up procuring twice as much as we originally intended to under our original procurement schedule and we brought those resources under contract at approximately 25% lower cost than we had predicted just a couple of years ago.  So again, that has been extremely reinforcing to our confidence that the market will show up.  We are also seeing tremendous growth in distributed solar in the state.  Last year, New York was the second largest state in the country for new installations of distributed solar, so residential commercial scale and community solar type projects.  We have a lot ahead of us in other areas though.  So, energy storage I think is just on the horizon offshore wind is really just on the horizon.  And, we are also focused on scaling a number of efficiency technologies like heat pumps.  And, I think you know there will be a lot of work and barriers and challenges associated with each of those.  But, you know frankly, I think we don't have a choice.  That's really what the governor's Green New Deal proposal is all about.  We know the climate crisis is urgent.  We need to put a plan in place to address it and we are not going to wait to get started for political debates to sort themselves out.  We're really doing that work now.


Bill Loveless:  Yeah.  And one thing, you have the benefit of it.  I think New York is sort of a consensus -- a political consensus on many of these issues which we don't see back in Washington.


Alicia Barton:  There is a difference, but you know I would say my -- when I go around the state talking to people about clean energy and climate change, you get a sense that people realize this as real and it's really happening.  And, in fact, you know New Yorkers know this perhaps better than most.  The REV initiative, in fact, was kicked off 6 years ago in the wake of super storm sandy which absolutely devastated parts of New York City and long island and other areas and -- so, when you talk to people in those communities, they know that climate change is real and they see the benefits of taking action which are not only again making our communities hopefully more resilient for the long term, but also building an entirely new industry in the state.  And, we're seeing quite a lot of growth and job growth in this industry and that's really reinforcing the people's confidence in the market as well.


Bill Loveless:  Do you think because of this inaction in Washington on climate issues, clean technology, clean energy that it's become increasingly the responsibility of states to take action, and if so, if that's the best way to do it?


Alicia Barton:  Well, again I would say we don't have a choice what we said right now and it does follow the states at this moment to take up the mantle of leadership not only for individual states, but on behalf of the country.  For example, governor Cuomo along with former governor, Jerry Brown of California and governor Inslee in Washington state co-founded the US climate alliance which now has 17 states participating, committed to meeting or exceeding our state's respective share of the United States commitment to the paris climate Accords [00:19:09].  So, you see you know -- and this is by partisan states as well.  It's not only democratic governors, there are Republican governors participating as well and saying this is again an urgent issue for the future of our states and our communities and we are committed to doing our part.


Bill Loveless:  Well, I want to bring up offshore winds that seem to be the frontier these days on renewable energy.  I have to say as a native of Rhode Island, where I took great satisfaction in seeing my state be the leader in offshore wind technology in the past year or so.  You, New York now have some rather ambitious goals when it comes to offshore wind, the talk of setting a rather big target for this.  Tell me about it.  What are the goals and what's going on?


Alicia Barton:  Yeah sure.  Offshore wind is literally and figuratively the new horizon for clean energy development, and gosh, I really do have to get a lot of credit to Rhode Island who is a tiny little offshore wind powerhouse in terms of launching the United States first offshore wind project and also entering into a very large contract for a second project as well.  I've been a big fan ensuring what Rhode Island and other New England states have been doing.  We in New York have set our sights on offshore wind being a major component of the Green New Deal proposal to transition to a 100% clean electricity.  So, along with that, that plan in that legislative package that was introduced in January that I mentioned, the governor set a target of 9000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035 to put that in perspective.  That would be almost a third of New York state's entire electricity load.  So, it would be a huge part of our energy mix going forward.  And, 9000 megawatts is far in a way largest commitment by any state made to date.  in fact, it actually exceeds the combined commitment of other states, although I hope and expect those states are going to be increasing their ambition over time as well.  What we've seen is sort of similar to what I was describing for land based procurements.  We look at the market.  There have been a number of contracts awarded in various states including New York state has a contract, but Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and over the last few years, the prices for offshore wind contracts have been falling quite precipitously.  And, in particular, a large contract awarded by the state of Massachusetts came in at prices that were frankly shocking to people.  And, we are now looking at proposals for large scale offshore wind development in New York.  Those proposals are under review by my agency right now.  So, I can't speak to the results, but we have -- we saw a record response, we saw 4 different developers propose 22 different project combinations which was the most demand for any offshore went solicitation of the US to date.  And, we have been clear about saying without revealing too much.  We're very happy with what came in as a result of that RFP and we're simply working through the details of trying to award the projects.  But, I predict that we will see a similar dynamic where the market shows up faster lower cost than we anticipated even just 2 years ago.


Bill Loveless:  And that -- excuse me.  That first RFP was for some 800 megawatts.


Alicia Barton:  Approximately 800 megawatts of offshore wind.


Bill Loveless:  Of capacity.


Alicia Barton:  Yeah.


Bill Loveless:  Is the, is the -- what is happening in terms of the infrastructure that will be necessary to get this wind power onshore from the federal waters where it would be generated?


Alicia Barton:  Well, there, the current concept, for example for under this 800 megawatt procurement is that the developers will each individually pursue interconnection in the way that most independent power producers do.  They all find an interconnection location and registrant _____ [00:23:14] run a line to that interconnection point from the facility offshore to a location in New York State, you know Long Island and New York City primarily.  We, however, looking at the 9000 megawatts in this longer term vision of offshore wind be a major part of our electricity mix, we do have to think more creatively about what the infrastructure, the transmission, and interconnection infrastructure will be for that resource.  Frankly, that's the work that we have ahead of us, that's one of those critical path items that we are going to have to figure out.  I have every confidence that the industry will be able to working you know side by side with energy regulators and government agencies like mine figure out you know how to plan effectively for this very different future for the electric grid.  This wasn't the way it was build.  But, again, the track record has been that this is an industry that can solve problem.


Bill Loveless:  And, would it welcome the manufacturing and industrial infrastructure necessary to construct these offshore wind turbines and the necessary power lines.  Well, I guess mostly for the infrastructure offshore, I mean we will see the development of that industrial capacity in New York in this region.


Alicia Barton:  That was so exciting about offshore wind in particular.  It's that it does present really once in a generation opportunity to build a new heavy industrial and maritime industry here on the East Coast of the United States.  The industry does not exist at scale in the US today and the components are so enormous and heavy that they frankly require specialized infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities that will need to be build in order to effectively deploy you know a full scale United States offshore wind industry.  But, the industry is already looking at that and we will see I think these early set of projects comes with you know new commitments for certain parts of the supply chain to start to get a foot hold in the United States.  And, the long term vision really will be you know a fully built out supply chain of everything from again cables, concrete foundations, steel towers to ultimately manufacturing of the turbines themselves and blades and other components which again are so large that shipping is a very real logistical challenge and cost for the industry that the closer they can perform that work to the size of the projects, the more cost effective it will be over time.


Bill Loveless:  a lot of opportunity there for industrial development. Now we are seated here in New York outside the Center on Global Energy Policy's energy summit.  This is still sort of a buzz about an announcement governor Cuomo and New York mayor Bill de Blasio made recently about congestion pricing in New York City.  I don't know the extend which you get involved in that issue, but I am just curious of what you see that new transportation policy achieving.


Alicia Barton:  Well, it really is an exciting and obviously ground breaking development for the United States to have congestion pricing having been approved in the recent state budget that legislative leaders and governor Cuomo agreed to at the end of March.  For clarity, my agency is not directly involved.  It will be run by other authorities, the bridge and tunnel authority will have to spend time between now and the end of 2020 developing the mechanism for implementing congestion pricing.  But, there are potentially huge benefits for reducing congestion and also reducing you know associated missions from traffic and the like.  And, critically, it will create a new revenue source for reinvesting in the MTA making public transit even better solution for commuters over time.  There is a lot of detail still to be figured out, but I do think when you look at the global presidents in Singapore and Stockholm and in London, it has been a success and I am very excited to see a big success here in New York as well.


Bill Loveless:  Could it be a model for the other cities in the United States?


Alicia Barton:  Yes, certainly for some of them and may not work for every city, and of course, New York is quite unique.  But again, there are other places where it has worked and I think it's really critical to see again that's high and not only from the pricing, but reinvesting the proceeds into the transit system.  That's really the set of ingredients you need.  It's not only you know an ability and a will to want to reduce traffic in missions, but also you know you have to provide alternatives for people to really make it work.


Bill Loveless:  Before we go, one thing I wanted to bring up with you was the topic you've spoken up and that is you know your career as a woman in the energy industry and you know how you've been the only woman in a room of men on many occasions.


Alicia Barton:  It happened to me earlier this week.


Bill Loveless:  Really?


Alicia Barton:  Yeah.  It is a challenging issue and one that you know it's no secret that the energy industry is less diverse than it really would be ideal.  And, the way that I think about that is we are literally trying to change the world.  We are trying to take an energy system that has existed and substantially some are formed for you know the last century and really overhauled entirely and just you know 10, 15, 20 years.  In order to do something of that magnitude, we need you know a really diverse industry with creative perspective and you know there is all kinds of research that shows that more diverse industries and teams and companies are more successful than others.  So, it is a personal passion of mine not just because I am a woman, but because I am rooting for the success of our industry and I know we have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time.


Bill Loveless:  so, you are not moving fast enough to close that gender gap in the energy sector generally.


Alicia Barton:  Look, I have to say we are not moving fast enough and I am optimistic and I see tremendous number of outstanding women leaders in our industry, outstanding young women professionals in our industry, and I do think we are making progress.  I don't mean to be too negative, but now, it's not happening fast enough and ..


Bill Loveless:  What needs to be done to encourage that change?


Alicia Barton:  Well, first of all, you have to talk about it and you have to focus on it.  One thing that I -- that I've shared for our agency for example is we looked at the participation of minority of women owned businesses in our procurement relationships.  So, the contractors and vendors, we rely on to run our agency and we were doing as well as we wanted to in that.  So, we put in place a new program in focus.  We put specific targets in place and this was being driven of course state wide as well at other New York State agencies who has priority for governor Cuomo.  But, once we started looking at it and actually doing more outreach and recruiting, going to different types of vendor fares to try and actively promote the opportunity to work with NYSERDA and focus on the participation of women and minority on businesses.  We were able to roughly double the participation of WMBE firms over just a couple of years.  So, you can actually make progress on this, but it does take consorted effort and it seems like an intractable problem to a lot of people many times, but we can't simply say, you know we can't just shrug our shoulders and say you know it's just demographics or it's just our industry.  We have to be focused on putting in place you know specific efforts to change it.


Bill Loveless:  Yeah, no better time for that opportunity for this sort of change.  Alicia Barton, thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Alicia Barton:  Thank you very much for having me.  I am a fan of the show.


Bill Loveless:  Thank you.  I appreciate that.

Well, that's our conversation.  I hope you enjoyed it.  For more information on Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, go to our webpage at and follow us on social media at ColumbiaUEnergy.  Give us a rating too.  It helps us grow even more. For Columbia Energy Exchange, I am Bill Loveless. We'll be back again next week with another conversation.