Webinar Recap: Decarbonizing Our Manufacturing Sector

June 1, 2021

On May 25th, together with Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, we held a webinar on the opportunities and challenges of decarbonizing the manufacturing sector, which is the third-largest contributor to emissions nationally. This webinar was the fifth in our series on Implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. View the recording here.

Our President Julie Tighe kicked off the forum by discussing the CLCPA and the state’s clean energy goals. She then talked specifically about the manufacturing sector, which is the third largest contributor to emissions nationally. Tighe stressed the need for clean energy technologies in the sector. 

A panel of experts was moderated by Dr. Julio Friedmann, a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Global Clean Energy Policy at Columbia University. Friedmann started by underscoring the urgency of climate change. He said that we need to take action, but that there are substantial challenges in the manufacturing sector, including technology, cost, and equity limitations. Friedmann later added that decarbonization efforts are going on throughout the country and world, such as incentives and tariffs. Later in the forum, he spoke to specific technologies (e.g., biofuels) that are being discussed to help decarbonize the manufacturing sector. Central and Upstate New York have an incredible density of skilled labor, added Friedmann.

Heather Briccetti is the President and CEO of the Business Council of New York State. She said that we should care about manufacturing because it is critical to the economy and a provider of quality jobs. She said one challenge the sector faces is that not every process can be made electric, such as the making of glass (which requires heat). She also cited the cost of replacing long-term equipment. Briccetti says that one of the big challenges of the CLCPA is the uncertainty of the costs of decarbonizing. Uncertainty, she says, may cause companies to relocate. New York needs the rest of the country and world to decarbonize with it, to keep the state competitive.

She wants the state to buy its paper exclusively from New York paper manufacturers. Briccetti also said that we need to have clear market signals and certainty on the cost front. She said that reducing emissions will have an impact on public health, especially in disadvantaged communities. Green jobs, economic development, and increased local tax revenue will all be effects of a green economy. However, she also mentioned that manufacturers leaving the state would create more disadvantaged communities. She feels that innovation and infrastructure are critical, and that we need to use our assets to develop innovative energy solutions. Briccetti also feels that we should encourage those who develop new technologies to stay in New York.

Luke Clemente is the Managing Director at Clemente Materials and Clemente Group, which supplies a variety of products including concrete, asphalt, sand, gravel, and topsoil. He said that getting the human capital to support carbon neutral infrastructure is a challenge, but said that they look at things like replacing diesel with natural gas as a fuel source. They also recently replaced a diesel excavator with an electric dredge. He says that in his industry, recycling can be advantageous, citing glass and asphalt. Clemente said that all businesses need to be focused on adaptation, adding that manufacturing is what brings wealth to the state. He also mentioned that there should be a partnership between companies, utilities, and governments. 

Clemente later said that he sees the potential for green jobs, since electrification will require a lot of people with technical skills. However, he says that finding people with these skills is challenging. Clemente says that his company, which is not a technology company, relies on others for innovation but is motivated by the goal of becoming less carbon intensive.

Matt Roberts is the Founder and Co-owner of Sherrill Manufacturing, the only stainless-steel flatware manufacturer left in the US. He said that manufacturing provides an opportunity for people who do not wish to attend college to become a part of the economy. He cited the cost of electric heating as a challenge, but said that his company makes a conscious effort to buy local. Roberts said that they do a lot of recycling, and that 85% of their stainless steel they purchase is already recycled. His company’s location allows it to get electricity from Niagara Falls. They also employ an energy-saving infrared heating system.

His company’s largest competition is manufacturing companies in China, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam. His biggest fear is that if the rest of the world does not decarbonize with New York, companies will either need to move to other states to compete or will be unable to compete. Companies will move to places which do not care about the environment, and emissions will increase. Roberts feels that the state needs to recognize that manufacturers are very important, and that we need a diverse supply of products from a global standpoint. He also mentioned the European Union’s tariff to incentivize low carbon products. He suggested that New York not only implement new green technologies, but become the world epicenter for these technologies, drawing people to the state.

Randy Wolken is the President and CEO of the Manufacturers Association of New York. He said that manufacturing is critical in New York State, and that decarbonizing the sector while remaining competitive with manufacturers in India and China is a challenge. However, based on past experience, he believes that the sector is up to the challenge. He says that a clean energy transition in the manufacturing sector will look like previous clean energy transitions, and that the manufacturing sector has great abilities to confront challenges and use state of the art manufacturing techniques. He also said that there are a lot of great technologies in the pipeline. 

Wolken added that many companies are concerned about the environment, but do not want to lose their competitive opportunities. Wolken emphasized that there are going to be significant opportunities for green jobs in the state, and that New York can be a leader in decarbonizing the manufacturing sector. NYSERDA, he said, is a wonderful resource which other states do not have. Wolken stated that we should focus on the process of decarbonization instead of just the technology involved. He later said that we need to tap into our education system to prepare people to work with new green technologies, and mentioned the challenge of installing infrastructure.

John Williams is the Vice President for Policy and Regulatory Affairs at NYSERDA. Williams said that because the manufacturing sector is so varied, developing clean technology for the sector will be a challenge. He also stressed the need for advancements at the national and international level. He added that we need to be thinking about the entire timescale between now and 2050, but that between 2020 and 2030, manufacturers should focus on energy efficiency. Between 2030 and 2050, we need advanced technology options (such as carbon capture) to come into play, says Williams. He also mentioned that there will be emergent technologies and alternative sources of energy which can be used to help decarbonize the manufacturing sector in the future.

According to Williams, we can prevent “leakage,” or companies leaving NY State, by focusing on near-term decarbonization solutions, such as energy-efficiency. He also mentioned NYSERDA’s TechFlex program, an audit that attempts to identify potential opportunities for energy efficiency in a facility. The goal of the program is to help companies make advantageous decisions in the short and long term future. He also said that New York is investigating how it can work with other states to develop a low-carbon product environment. The state is also planning on tracking the carbon footprint of its own procurements. NYSERDA has recently completed a study on what the power grid can look like to meet the 70% renewable electricity goal. Williams says that the goal is to decarbonize facilities in low-income communities without those communities losing jobs. Part of this work will be creating career pathways which allow individuals to take part in apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs. While NYSERDA focuses on energy, Williams stressed that New York should also look far beyond that.

An audience Q&A session followed the forum. Dr. Friedmann started by mentioning that the reliability of the grid is being called into question with the retirement of nuclear and peaker plants. He also mentioned that while the price of renewables is decreasing, power prices are on the rise. Williams said that we need to make sure we heed the environmental outcomes we know are necessary. He added that we need to be managing costs to ratepayers while we are looking for economies of scale. Wolken said that there is no “silver bullet,” but that the goal is to pilot technology before scaling it to reduce costs. The approach should be a combination of public, private, and nonprofit.

In closing, Briccetti said that we need to value the contributions made by manufacturers, leverage the education and energy assets we have, and rethink policies which add costs to electricity unrelated to reliability. Matt said that over the last 15 months, US citizens have understood the importance of manufacturing. He said that if we transition the right way, we will become a magnet which benefits manufacturers and functions as a showcase for the rest of the world. Luke said he was encouraged by the discussion and talked about the need to stay focused on the right balance between a decarbonized and competitive future.

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