Reforming New York’s Energy Vision; Five Minutes with Kate Burson

Kate Burson is the Breakfast Keynote
CleanTech Alliance Fourth Annual Meeting
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Washington State Convention Center

Doors Open at 7:00 AM

CleanTech Alliance members were very vocal in what they’d like to see for an Annual Meeting keynote presentation. Dozens pushed us to “Look to New York!”

New York State is transforming into a clean energy innovation center. When we looked, we found Kate Burson sitting at its epicenter. Kate is the real driver behind the state's strategy to scale up clean energy deployment, enhance competitive for clean energy businesses, and make energy systems more resilient, clean and affordable.

Under Kate’s guidance, New York has experienced a multitude of landmark achievements, including the establishment of the nation's largest green bank, an ambitious regulatory reform agenda, and the restructuring of the state's energy incentive programs into a proposed $5 billion clean energy fund.

Kate agreed to answer a few of our questions as a teaser for the November 17 breakfast keynote. Here’s what she had to say.

Multiple CleanTech Alliance members encouraged us to look at New York’s clean energy transformation as a keynote topic. What is New York doing that’s catching everyone’s attention?

This is a great question for me to ask you and others paying attention across the country. I’ve been told that people find New York unique for three reasons.

First, New York is addressing transformation as a unified team. The Governor appointed an Energy Czar to develop and implement the transformation across the state. The Governor’s office, the regulatory agency, the research and development authority, and the two public power entities are all partners in this.

In addition to the unified state team, the utilities, businesses, advocates and engaged customers are all at the table and part of the process. We are all committed to delivering the win-win that we know exists.

Second, New York is getting ahead of a problem instead of reacting when it’s too late. We are opening the hood of the entire transmission and distribution system as well as the traditional utility business model to tackle problems, opportunities and questions that have not been answered yet at micro and macro levels.

Finally, New York is challenging the lore that things must be done the way that they’ve always been done. We are questioning the status quo at every step, and that includes in our own organizations as well. This paradigm shift is a cultural and organizational one for all of the players, government, utilities, stakeholders, businesses and eventually consumers.

 

A “long-term vision” isn’t easy for state agencies working on short-term budgets. How is Governor Cuomo’s administration able to focus on multi-year goals?

One example that comes to mind is that New York advanced a 10-year budget commitment to support clean energy development. This provides much needed long-term certainty to the market and institutionalizes the new policies and strategies. The key is convincing the public service commission and the greater community that the long-term approach is in the best interest of society, which is what we've worked on with the10-year budget bounded clean energy fund.

New York is proposing a $5 billion Clean Energy Fund made possible by restructuring the state’s energy incentive programs. What does that all include?

The Clean Energy Fund is meant to be dynamic and responsive to enable the market. The bulk of the fund is focused on ways to drive clean energy to scale. We believe that government can have a meaningful impact on scale by reducing soft costs and enabling sustainable competitive markets to develop.

The New York team is looking at all of the levers of government and examining what we can do to remove barriers to market development. Examples of this include the Green Bank and the NY-SUN program. The latter was based on the California model that was part of a variety of tools and trends that enabled solar to scale. I will discuss these and other examples at your Annual Meeting on November 17.

New York seems to balance the incentive carrot and mandate stick quite well. How do you draw the line between government policy and industry action to push the market forward?

Government and industry action are both vital to advance society; win-win results are not only possible but are necessary. When industry thinks outside of individual companies and thinks about its role in the larger system, we can advance faster. When government takes the time to understand and address the contemporary challenges and barriers in the market place, systemic growth can occur.

The carrot and stick point is very important. Organizations and people move mountains when there is a meaningful upside opportunity. However, in order for a system to work for the whole and not just the individual, there must also be real accountability. In the end, it is government’s responsibility to ensure a level playing field and a just system.

 

Green banks are gaining momentum. New York has one of the largest. What do you see as the main benefits and results from the New York Green Bank to date?

There are different ways that green banks can accelerate clean energy deployment, and the variety of the green banks developing across the country speaks to the different needs of the regions for which they serve.

NY Green Bank operates as a wholesale capital provider to help overcome financial market barriers faced by projects involving proven technology assets. Its wholesale lending approach maximizes impact by mobilizing both the capital and institutional capabilities of private market clients and partners. Significantly, NY Green Bank is both market-focused and market-responsive. In making investment decisions, NY Green Bank asks market participants to first identify specific gaps and barriers that are preventing otherwise technically and economically feasible transactions from closing.

Some of the biggest benefits coming out of that are:

  • Leverage: 8:1 leverage on the public dollar and loan repayment that enables recycling of the funds that could not occur under the previous grant only approach.
  • Development of template financial products: The NY Green Bank operates one standard deviation away from healthy market activity. At the frontier, templates do not yet exist. The Bank puts significant time and effort into developing template products with market terms so that they can be replicated by private actors.
  • Market awareness and education: In each and every transaction, NY Green Bank strives to aggregate and make available performance data that will advance the state of private capital markets for clean energy projects. Additionally, some engagements involve NY Green Bank professionals serving in advisory roles to the smaller regional banks with less experience in clean energy project investing.
  • Environmental outcomes at a lower cost to ratepayers: By bringing in multiples of private capital for every dollar it invests, NY Green Bank helps achieve greenhouse gas emissions benefits at a lower overall cost to New York’s ratepayers.

What clean energy technologies and trends are you tracking that have the highest potential for market impact?

Today I’m most excited about the impact of integrated solutions more than one particular technology. In terms of market impacting technological development, I think we are just at the tip of the iceberg. I’m looking forward to discussing this more with your members in November.

Your office oversees a public service commission, research institution, two power authorities and a green bank – not to mention the industry at large. What’s the hardest part of the job?

Culture change internally, but also externally. We are in a different world than we were 10,15, 50 years ago. It’s dynamic and unpredictable; we also have many more capabilities today. We have an opportunity to provide services at a much different level, and we push ourselves to test new approaches, to break out of silos, and to be pleasantly surprised by what we can accomplish when we work through our perceived limits or boundaries. We are asking this of ourselves, teammates, agencies, utilities and the larger stakeholder community. Not everyone wants this. Therein lies a big challenge.

These questions are a small glimpse of what’s in store at the CleanTech Alliance Annual Meeting on November 17. Early-bird registration ends soon, so register now.

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