New York lawmakers are considering legislation that would drastically build out the state’s renewable energy offerings, a step toward a future in which some activists believe energy utilities could be fully renewable and municipally owned.
The New York Build Public Renewables Act (Assembly Bill A1466A) would enable the New York Power Authority (NYPA)—the largest state public utility in the country—to develop and operate utility-scale renewable energy projects while requiring it to phase out fossil fuel infrastructure by 2025.
The bill was introduced in January by State Senator Kevin Parker and Assemblymember Robert Carroll, and is championed by the Public Power NY Coalition—a statewide collective of environmental justice organizations that includes several Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters and the NY Energy Democracy Alliance. It is less radical than a previously considered piece of legislation that would have transitioned control over utilities to the state while banning for-profit energy service companies like National Grid and Con Edison.
Advocates believe the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act would represent a first meaningful step toward climate action more than two years after the passage of New York’s landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). Passed in 2019, the CLCPA established a set of legally-binding environmental targets requiring 70 percent of New York’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030 in order to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050.
The CLCPA was once lauded as the the most ambitious piece of state climate legislation in the country, but activists like Charlie Heller, organizer with the Public Power Coalition, say the state hasn’t upheld its promises. (Just five percent of New York’s energy production is currently generated by wind and solar power, for example.)
“If you really think it's a climate emergency, you wouldn't just sit there and not pass any major climate bills,” Heller said.
“People in Albany don't think that the climate crisis is a priority. They think that passing the CLCPA in 2019 means they took care of it,” he added. “We're not going to meet the targets. This bill is such a no-brainer to prevent this.”
Heller believes the Build Public Renewables Act is pragmatic: It builds out an existing, well-functioning state-run utility with a track record of providing affordable energy. It proposes paying for renewable energy infrastructure with NYPA bonds, rather than taxpayer funds; prevents any rate increases for three years; and establishes free green job retraining programs for workers formerly employed by New York’s fossil fuel sector.
But organizers believe state legislators are stalling, and Heller attributes this in part to financial influence by the fossil fuel industry. (A recent NYC-DSA analysis of campaign finance data found a track record of donations by companies like National Grid and Con Edison to state democrats who now have final say over the bill’s fate.) It is exceedingly unlikely this bill passes this year, because New York’s legislative session ends Thursday. The campaign has ramped up efforts to draw attention to the bill as this deadline nears; on June 2, the Public Power Coalition held a rally and sit-in in lower Manhattan in which a handful of protestors were arrested for shutting down traffic on West Broadway.
However, federal counterparts are ramping up support for the legislation. Progressive congress member Rep. Jamaal Bowman, endorsed the bill at a June 5 rally in Yonkers, a few days after introducing a resolution with Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) advocating for the development of publicly-owned renewable utilities across the U.S.
Energy insecurity rates have skyrocketed in part because of the economic crisis associated with COVID-19. 4.8-million low-income households now have trouble paying their energy bills. There is a growing movement to make utility companies public, because private utility companies are profit driven (there is a similar movement to build and support taxpayer-owned internet service providers.)
Bush said she has had trouble affording her gas bill. At one point, she opted to let it go to prioritize rent payments, instead warming her home with energy-intensive electric space heaters. One afternoon, she came home to find an electrical outlet on fire. “We almost lost our baby. We almost lost our home. Public power could have prevented this,” she said on Twitter last week.
Indeed, supporters of public power believe the private utility model is characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability. Rate negotiations and board meetings for private utilities like New York’s Con Edison and National Grid occur behind closed doors, and private companies can generally cut power if a customer doesn’t pay their bills. In California, for example, Pacific Gas and Electric has repeatedly caused wildfires because it hasn’t updated aging power lines, among other major problems. (Con Ed raked in $1.378-billion in 2018 alone, spending nearly $300,000 on lobbying, Gothamist reported in 2019).
Advocates of public power say that publicly owned utility companies are more efficient and cheaper. 2014 data from the American Public Power Association found that publicly-owned power companies charged 14 percent less to residential customers than investor-owned utilities, on average. Publicly-owned utility companies are also more likely to act in the best interests of the environment, studies have shown, without profit muddying the waters in any way.
The Bowman-Bush resolution affirms growing sentiment that access to electricity should be a human right. As New Yorkers push through the final days of their campaign, groups in Washington D.C., Chicago, and Maine are mounting calls for public power. To Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at Democracy Collaborative and author of an April report on the merits of New York’s municipal power proposal, the salience of the movement is evidence that investor-owned utilities are no longer doing their job.
“A few years ago, this was not in the political imagination in the same way that it is today,” Bozuwa said.
There is a long history of municipally-owned power companies in the United States, most famously the Tennessee Valley Authority that was established as part of the New Deal in the 1930s. 1 in 7 Americans currently receive power from a public utility. The entire state of Nebraska, home to the 15th lowest energy rates in the country, is served by public power. Overseas, cities like Barcelona have established government-run renewable energy utilities that David McDonald, professor at Queen’s University, who specializes in public service models for water, electricity and healthcare delivery, sees as a valuable model.
Meanwhile, New York faces the eighth highest electricity bills in the U.S. and a pattern of recurring blackouts. David Alexis, organizer with the Public Power Coalition and community healthcare worker with the Sickle Cell/Thalassemia Patients Network, says he fears blackouts: Power cuts during heat waves and cold snaps are notably dangerous for sickle cell patients, who experience heightened sensitivity to temperature fluctuations.
"These types of blackouts for extended periods of time ... can be extremely detrimental," Alexis said. "The threat is there."
It’s vulnerable communities like these that the Public Power coalition hopes to center in the fight for the Build Public Renewables Act, which would establish regional energy hubs throughout New York to respond to local emergencies, solicit citizen input and create channels through which communities can hold NYPA to account.
“It's really about opening up that space for energy democracy,” Bozuwa said of the public power movement at-large. “To make sure that those most impacted by our energy transition are at the front of what comes next.”