By Marie J. French  |  POLITICO  |  02/03/2020 05:05 AM EST

POLITICO Pro Q&A: Climate Action Council member Dennis Elsenbeck

This is the first in a planned 10-part series of interviews with the members of the 22-person Climate Action Council who are not state officials. The council, created as part of New York’s sweeping new emissions reduction law passed last year, is tasked with crafting a draft plan to achieve those goals within two years and finalizing it before Jan. 1, 2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It was conducted on Jan. 17.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the final two appointments to the council on Friday, selecting Jim Malatras, his policy guru who played a hand in the nuclear bailout and also helped draft the governor’s climate proposal last year, and Rose Harvey, a former commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Conversations with both are being scheduled.

Dennis Elsenbeck is a Buffalo-based consultant with law firm Phillips Lytle. He’s a former utility executive with National Grid and said he has worked in all aspects of the business, from the customer side to demand side management.

He was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

What are you hoping to bring to the Climate Action Council?

One of the concerns I’ve had as I look at my years with the utilities is we look at ratepayers more like cost centers instead of investors. So we create these initiatives, but there’s not a lot of community, market, business engagement in the process.

If they were in the process we would want to ensure that they understood that there was a return on what they’ve been paying into.

So what is your priority going into the council?

The goals that are set by New York state are nation-leading. It puts a stake in the ground — but really the focus needs to be on the global climate economy. If we focus on achieving New York’s goals without setting our sights on the global economy, what we’re missing out on is in the trillions of dollars.

Our programs and incentives cannot just be set to build solar farms, wind farms, battery farms. They need to feed back into a green economy in the manufacturing community so that they’re not spectators but participants.

How do you view New York’s progress so far, in terms of achieving its green gas emissions and renewable energy goals?

We’ve shown progress, mainly in putting projects in the queue. But much of that is more focused on the least cost approach, but is it the highest value that we’re getting in return?

Although it might be higher cost per unit to invest [in] green energy solutions to solve demand issues it actually has a higher value, because if I control demand I control the need for transmission, distribution, investment and supply investment. We have to be able to address the question that will come from the business person, which is, “What am I buying for that?” That’s what I mean by engaging the marketplace so they’re starting to see their dollars as investments.

I think you’ll find this will be a different perspective because I’m a very market-driven individual and I look at the way we develop programs and strategies.

What sector is the most challenging for New York to address in terms of emissions?

It’s a passion of mine to look at our Rust Belt neighborhoods that are now treated as underserved communities. They were once thriving communities where you had industry and then you had residents building around that industry to create walkable communities. When industry left, what you had left was individuals who didn’t have transportation options available to them, they didn’t have work from a walkable point of view.

Part of the climate act is saying that 35 percent of the benefits of the climate act should go to our underserved communities. You’ve got to look at combining efforts like economic development, community revitalization [and] social justice, with workforce development so we’re recreating those environments. What I don’t want to get into is, ‘how can I just subsidize the residents,’ because that doesn’t create opportunity and hope and participation and potentially a job fostered by this new view of a green economy.

I’m not a self-righteous dude, I’m just an engineer [who] sees the pieces and parts as a whole as opposed to separate individual items that are mutually exclusive.

What are your thoughts on a potential carbon tax or carbon price or other types of market-based mechanisms?

As an individual who is somewhat fuel-agnostic, I just find that we walk into every situation as if we already have the solution. We’ve got to be actually looking at what we’re solving for or we’re just going to create solutions, like we do round pegs and square pegs, looking for holes. Let’s find the holes first and then discover what type of technology can actually fill the hole. We’re doing almost the complete opposite today.

So are there any actions that you think the state should be taking now?

You’ve got the 6,000 megawatts of solar, distributed solar by 2025 [the goal in the climate law]. So because it’s part of the climate act, shouldn’t the implementation of how that goes forward be part of the scoping document? NYSERDA just filed for $573 million to fund the 6,000 megawatts of distributed solar. So if you’re already funding it, how can we make sure that this scoping document, this council, has actual input?

How much input do you think the nongovernmental members of this council should have?

They need to have the majority. I think we need to have the market weigh in because I really think the market wants this to work, but not if they’re treated like they’re a cost center, and they’re just funding it. If they actually feel they’re investing into the overall strategy of New York state to position itself as a leader and bringing a foothold for New York’s economy to compete with the world, I think that that will drive the conversation and the narrative much differently than we have it today.

NYSERDA was directed to do a study of how to get to 100 percent renewables. They also have a study they’ve commissioned on the future of gas. Do you think these kinds of reports should be made public as part of this process?

I not only think they should make them public, I think they should be vetted through the business community.

Is there anything you want people to know about you?

I’m a systems person. When people say they look up at the stars and they say, ‘look at all the shiny stars,’ I will tell them, ‘No, I see the Big Dipper.’

I don’t walk in to a meeting knowing what the answer is before the question. I think that opens up the dialogue for individuals to feel that maybe they do have an opportunity to provide input. We’ll never have an opportunity like this again to engage the marketplace. And that’s what I’m all about: getting people involved, being transparent. We can solve multiple issues if we just work together.