New York just became the first US state to pass a major Green New Deal policy. After four years of organizing, the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) is now in the New York state budget. Passage of the act is a massive challenge to fossil fuel hegemony and a major victory for public power.
The BPRA authorizes and directs the state’s public power provider—the New York Power Authority (NYPA)—to plan, build, and operate renewable energy projects across the state to meet the ambitious timetable to decarbonize the grid mandated by the Climate Act of 2019. The NYPA, the largest public utility in the country, provides the most affordable energy in the state, but until now, it has been prohibited from building and owning new utility-scale renewable generation projects because of lobbying by profit-seeking private energy companies.
How did we win passage of this plan to start a publicly funded renewable energy program?
The Public Power NY movement began in late 2019 with a campaign organized by the eco-socialist working group of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) against a rate hike request from the private utility ConEd. According to a 2018 report from the US Energy Information Administration, ConEd was already charging the second-highest residential rates of any major utility in the country (nearly double the national average), and now they wanted to raise electricity rates an additional 6 percent and gas rates by 11 percent.
To thwart this request, the Public Power campaign did intensive research into the for-profit utility’s recent history and found that though ConEd was making a billion dollars per year in profits, it had threatened to shut off power for 2 million low-income New Yorkers in 2018. Moreover, ConEd had failed to carry out grid upgrades that it had received $350 million to perform, a failure that left the power grid in an increasingly unstable state.
We also found that the business model of for-profit utilities incentivizes them to build as much infrastructure as possible—passing the costs on to consumers and locking us onto an unsustainable build-out of fossil fuels. A particularly damning indictment of the utility’s unsustainable practices was the revelation that ConEd pays $1.4 million in annual dues to trade associations like the Edison Electric Institute and American Gas Association, which lobby to undermine renewable energy, deregulate the energy market, and consolidate power for private utilities.
In summer 2019, this corporate corruption contributed to a series of blackouts and shutoffs in New York City. ConEd had received $350 million earlier in the decade to upgrade New York City’s “relay protection systems”—networks of circuit breakers that contain electrical problems before they cause full-blown blackouts. They failed to make these upgrades. When temperatures soared and the grid began to buckle in the summer of 2019, Black and brown communities already struggling to cope with high energy prices and intense summer heat were disproportionately hit by the power outages that ConEd imposed.
In response to this crisis, the Public Power campaign canvassed areas that had been hit by power cutoffs and held town halls across the city, making links between the injustices and inequities of the shutoffs and the larger struggle for public power. At a town hall that I attended in Queens, a young woman stood with a toddler on her hip and angrily indicted ConEd’s toxic policies. “I live in Asthma Alley,” she said, a place that derives its name from the toxic emissions of nearby power plants. For years, ConEd and other for-profit power companies burned millions of gallons of the dirtiest fuel available to generate electricity, producing air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, methane, and particulate matter that contribute to some of the city’s highest rates of respiratory diseases. Her child, the young woman said with simmering anger, was among those afflicted with asthma.
In the course of the Public Power movement’s citywide campaign, it became clear that we needed a strong public alternative to private utilities. Fortunately for us, our state has exactly such a public utility: the New York Power Authority. The NYPA was established during the Great Depression following revelations of the price-gouging practices of private utilities. Our research into the NYPA convinced us that it could build renewable energy projects cheaper, faster, and more efficiently than the private sector. Because of its high bond rating, for example, the NYPA can borrow money at very low interest to fund projects, meaning that it does not have to raise utility rates to build infrastructure as investor-owned utilities do.
As the idea of public power began to take hold, we also realized that we would need a robust statewide movement to win. We’d begun working with Brooklyn-based legislators on bills that would expand public renewable energy generation and begin moving our distribution grid into public control, but this work made us realize that we could only understand how public power could work in different parts of the New York if we expanded across the state. We also realized that we would never be able to pass any of the bills we were working on without support from every part of the state. We formed a statewide public power coalition in late 2019, began the collaborative process of investigating how public power legislation could meet needs across New York, and kicked off a statewide series of “Energy 101” events to educate the broader public about how badly the current energy system was failing.
During the pandemic years, we continued to build power inside and outside the legislature. DSA candidates like Kristen Gonzalez and Sarahana Shrestha campaigned for office on platforms that explicitly endorsed Public Power NY, thereby helping spread the word about public power. And their victories made clear that our movement was a serious threat to legislators taking money from private utilities and fossil fuel companies. We fought successfully for a moratorium on electricity shutoffs and a cancellation of utility debt for communities hit the hardest by the Covid-19 recession. We also worked with environmental justice organizations to ensure that the BPRA would mandate an aggressive plan for the closure of polluting peaker plants. Designed to run only during periods of high demand, peaker plants burn dirty fuels like kerosene, spewing out harmful pollutants. They are overwhelmingly located in low-income communities of color like the South Bronx.
We continued to build our coalition in the face on a toxic alliance of private energy companies, lobbyists, fossil fuel interests, and machine politics that fought our bill with lies and campaign donations to buy the support of politicians. Despite two years of losses in the legislature, we organized a broad-based grassroots movement that unites some of New York’s most effective climate, community, and advocacy organizations with thousands of volunteers across the state.
Key to winning passage of the BPRA was getting organized labor onto our side. Early endorsement from my union, the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York, led to subsequent support from the New York State Teachers Union and other unions in the service sector such as 1199SEIU. Winning over the trades took additional work, given the skepticism of workers in these sectors about the (largely private) renewable energy industry in the United States, which is notoriously anti-union. To address these concerns, we worked with the AFL-CIO to incorporate gold-standard labor language into the BPRA that includes prevailing wage and project labor agreement provisions, a labor transition memorandum of understanding, and $25 million in annual funding for an Office of Just Transition to oversee worker retraining in the renewable energy field.
Contrary to fears of some on the right, the BPRA does not abolish for-profit utilities and private renewable energy companies. Rather, the act empowers the NYPA to build renewable energy systems if and when the private sector fails to meet the energy transition timetable mandated by the NYS Climate Act: 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035. But since for-profit companies have failed to build beyond 5 percent wind and solar in the state, the NYPA will need to start planning new projects almost immediately in order to satisfy the Climate Act’s aggressive timeline for decarbonization.
The BPRA establishes a strategic planning process through which the NYPA is directed to determine where, when, and how it builds renewable power. Although we did not win all our demands for democratization of the NYPA, this strategic planning process is a site for substantial community input since the authority is required to consult with climate and resiliency experts, labor organizations, residential and small-business ratepayer advocates, and environmental justice communities, among others, as it draws up its strategic plans. The first of these plans must be published by 2025.
Perhaps the most immediate result of the BPRA, however, is that it mandates the closure of seven peaker plants in NY by 2030, and their replacement with renewable energy solutions such as battery storage. As the public hearing we held in “Asthma Alley” showed, these peaker plants are one of the strongest symbols of the injustice and unsustainability of our current energy system.
Passage of the Build Public Renewables Act is huge win that sets a precedent for other states, for the country as a whole, and for other nations looking to make an accelerated shift to renewable energy. The Build Public Renewables Act shows that we can win a Green New Deal, and in doing so, create hope in the face of an escalating climate crisis.