This week, the New York Independent System Operator — the nonprofit corporation responsible for operating the state’s electricity grid — confirmed that when the old and increasingly dangerous Indian Point nuclear plant is retired in 2021, the grid will remain reliable, with plenty of available power.

Riverkeeper already knew that air-conditioners would keep humming in the summer and holiday lights would still twinkle in the winter, based on a 2017 report by Synapse Energy Economics we commissioned with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The real question is: how can we assure that the power that replaces Indian Point will be clean and green?

NYISO’s report discusses two contrasting paths for closing Indian Point. Given the season, let’s just say that one is naughty and the other one’s nice. The naughty path assumes three natural gas plants will come online by 2023: Cricket Valley Energy Center (1,020 megawatts); CPV Valley Energy Center (678 megawatts); and Bayonne Energy Center II (120 megawatts). Replacing Indian Point power with these power plants would cause a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the new pipelines required to serve some of these facilities will cause significant water quality impacts. Of course, the NYISO report’s big takeaway is that there’s no need to go anywhere near the naughty natgas path.

We can instead take the nice path, because NYISO’s own figures show that the three new gas projects under discussion aren’t needed for New York’s power system to remain secure and reliable. Without new natural gas power, says NYISO, even after you close the 2,000 megawatt Indian Point plant, there will be only 100 megawatts of power needed in 2021 and 600 megawatts by 2027. NYISO’s report goes on to say that this modest need could be met by “combinations of solutions including generation, transmission, energy efficiency, and demand response measures.” Well, not only could this small gap be met by energy efficiency and demand response, recent history shows that it’s already well on the way to being met that way.

That’s because NYISO’s own demand forecasts keep going down, from year to year.  For example: NYISO’s 2014 estimate of what peak downstate electricity demand would be in 2016 was overestimated by a whopping 549 megawatts more than what their forecasters projected just a year later. In the interim, energy efficiency and other conservation measures provided unexpectedly deep cuts in demand, far outstripping previous estimates. If demand forecasting trends continue downward — and they should, given the measures already in place to save energy — the modest shortfall projected by NYISO without new natural gas plants goes away completely and Indian Point can be closed without requiring any new generational capacity, whatsoever.  This is already evidenced by NYISO’s preliminary demand forecast for 2018, which shows that more than half of the 100 MW of resource need in 2021 in the lower Hudson Valley (if none of the gas plants were completed) has already been captured by efficiency and behind-the-meter solar installations.

But wait, there’s more we can do, on the nice path. New York can actually close Indian Point and reduce the amount of fossil fuel it uses for electricity generation, by truly going big on energy efficiency and conservation.

As Riverkeeper and NRDC illustrated with the help of Synapse Energy Economics in our report: “Clean Energy For New York: Replacement Energy and Capacity Resources for the Indian Point Energy Center”, New York is behind a surprising number of other states, in the efficiency department. For example, while New York saved about 1.05 percent of retail electricity sales through energy efficiency in 2015, Rhode Island hit 2.91 percent, Massachusetts reached 2.74 percent, and Vermont topped out at 2.01 percent. What’s the difference between these states and New York? They have incorporated energy efficiency mandates into their energy portfolios.

The closure of Indian Point presents a singular opportunity for Governor Cuomo to lead the charge on clean energy in New York and set the course for our future by setting efficiency mandates for utilities and reducing demand by two to three percent annually. Governor Cuomo has already signed a bill requiring the state to set an energy storage target. While it’s unclear whether that target will be sufficiently aggressive, it’s nevertheless a crucial new step towards further lowering peak energy demands on generators during high use periods. Passage of a similar bill requiring more energy efficiency, like the one introduced by New York State Senator David Carlucci, could give a big boost to our efforts to close Indian Point and cut carbon pollution at the same time. And, reducing total electric demand through greater efficiency is the easiest and cheapest available method to help achieve the state’s lofty goal of supplying 50 percent of our energy needs with renewables by 2030.

In taking a conservative approach to predicting future energy availability, the NYISO report also omits consideration of other viable renewable projects. For instance, one promising, already-permitted proposal is for the Champlain Hudson Power Express, a 1,000-megawatt transmission line that could deliver low-carbon surplus hydropower from Quebec to New York City. This project alone would displace any perceived need for new natural gas generation and put us on track to cut carbon-based energy consumption in the Empire State.

Make no mistake: measures already in place will allow us to close the ever-riskier Indian Point nuclear plant without any new fossil fuel power whatsoever.  And, with a few proven policy improvements, we can boost energy efficiency, battery storage, and renewable resources to secure the power grid, shutter Indian Point and cut carbon, too.  There’s no coal in this stocking for consumers, either, as efficiency more than pays for itself.

Closing Indian Point creates a huge opportunity for New York to lead on clean, efficient and sustainable energy.  And based on recent experience in New York and other leading states, the path forward to a safe, secure, low-carbon energy future without Indian Point is well lit.

By Paul Gallay and Mike Dulong