A Public Power Victory in New York State – Build Public Renewables!

Under the new law, New York is mandated to generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030.

On May 2, New York became the first US state to pass a major Green New Deal policy following four years of organising by the Public Power NY coalition and allies. The Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), now New York State law, empowers and directs the state’s public power provider—the New York Power Authority (NYPA)—to plan, build, and operate renewable energy projects across New York State. Organisers are now focusing on growing the movement for Public Power from coast to coast.

Public Power NY was launched in 2019 by the Ecosocialist Working Group of the NY City’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Initially against a rate hike request from the private utility ConEd, organisers consolidated the argument that New York required a strong public alternative to private utilities. Fortunately, New York already had an existing public utility that could be empowered: the New York Power Authority.

“Ninety years ago, FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] established the New York Power Authority to create power for the people. Over the decades, FDR’s vision for NYPA has been diminished. Today we reclaim that power, ensuring NYPA serves us, and that renewable energy is a public good,” reads the Public Power NY statement on BPRA’s approval in the NY State budget.

NYPA: The Return of A New Deal Public Utility  

Established during the Great Depression to counter private utilities’ abuses (namely price-gouging), the New York Power Authority (NYPA) is the largest state public utility in the United States and provides the most affordable energy in NY State. Despite this, NYPA had been barred from building and owning new utility-scale renewable generation projects as the result of powerful lobbying by profit-seeking private energy companies.

Public Power NY organisers argued that NYPA could build renewable energy projects cheaper, faster, and more efficiently than any private sector counterpart. As a public utility, NYPA can borrow money at very low interest to fund projects because of its high bond rating. This is just one of the important advantages it holds over so-called “investor-owned utilities” like ConEd.

Importantly, there are no hard limits on how much the NYPA can receive from federal support for renewables (the Inflation Reduction Act allows public power providers to take advantage of expanded initiatives for wind and solar development previously only available to private developers with massive tax liability). Organisers are hopeful that the BPRA win will act as an example of how to implement the IRA in favour of public power providers’ roll-out of clean energy.

The BPRA’s Mandates

NYPA is now directed by law to build the solar and wind infrastructure necessary to comply with New York State’s Climate Act of 2019, which legally obliges NYS to reach 70 per cent renewable generation by 2030. Wind and solar power currently generate just 4 per cent of the State’s power. Under the BPRA, NYPA is mandated to generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030. BPRA’s mandate lasts until 2035.  

All NYPA projects are publicly owned, and any contracting is to aid its rapid scaling-up, subject to identical BPRA ownership and labor standards. The BPRA guarantees $25 million in annual funding for an Office of Just Transition, with the objective of developing worker retraining in the renewables sector.

Read the complete bill and the full description of the Build Public Renewable Act’s mandates here. View a helpful abridged version of the mandates in this thread by NYC DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group.‍

Labor’s Role & Support

The BPRA could not have passed without the support of unions. From the beginning, trade unions were involved in the Public Power NY campaign, and the campaign was endorsed by unions representing over one million workers in New York. Endorsing unions included: 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers, New York State United Teachers  (NYSUT), United University Professions: (UUP), the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York (PSC-CUNY), and United Auto Workers Region 9A (UAW 9A).

The AFL-CIO and the Public Power NY campaign worked with trade union affiliates to incorporate robust worker protection language into the BPRA, including prevailing wage and project labor agreement [PLA] provisions, diversity in hiring, a labor transition memorandum of understanding, buy-American provisions, and $25 million in annual funding for an Office of Just Transition. The BPRA is expected to create 51,000 prevailing wage union jobs and $90 billion in economic activity.

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Andrew Pallotta stated that “Empowering NYPA to build and sell low-cost renewable energy puts our state on the right path to ensuring all New Yorkers have access to affordable power. We’re proud to support this bill and will continue to be a strong labor voice on this issue.” Similarly, James Davis, President of PSC-CUNY said, “The Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, the American Federation of Teachers local representing 30,000 faculty and staff at CUNY, fully supports the Build Public Renewables Act. New York State United Teachers, representing 600,000 education and health workers in NYS, unanimously endorsed the BPRA… [it] will help NY State reach its climate goals and advance affordable energy costs.”

At a Public Hearing on the BPRA, Patrick Guidice from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 1049 expressed, “I found that the language in the latest version of the [Build Public Renewable Act] bill was exceptional labor language… I’ve never seen anything like it before in any legislation that’s ever been put forward. This gives me a little bit of caution, with all due respect, because it’s such an exceptional language. Can it actually pass?  And if it doesn’t pass, we can’t get stuck with the short end of the stick here. So we’re concerned about that because it’s by far been the best I’ve ever seen when it comes to protections for labor unions.”

When New York State Governor Hochul attempted to put forward a “BPRA Lite” that stripped the bill of its labor protections, the Public Power coalition’s response was to continue fighting for the bill’s original language – until it was won.

As Patrick Robbins shares in the interview with TUED below, “We started expanding our outreach and really thinking about unions as representatives of working people, not just in the workplace. These are people who live in communities, and they have environmental justice concerns as much as anyone else. The environmental justice concerns were a huge reason why 1199 SEIU ended up issuing a memo of support as well. We saw UUP [United University Professions], we saw UWUA [The Utility Workers Union of America]; there was a snowball effect of union support, and we could not have passed the bill without it.”  ‍

Video Interview with Public Power NY Coalition

‍TUED interviewed two Coalition organisers, Michelangelo Pomarico and Patrick Robbins View the 40-minute interview here and read the full interview transcript here. Below are highlights from the interview.

Lala Peñaranda (LP): The Build Public Renewables Act mandates that the public sector step in where the private sector fails to deliver on the State’s mandated goal to get to 70% of its power from renewable sources by 2030, so this begs the question, “Huh? Why would the private sector be failing?”. Tell us about the class enemy in this struggle for decarbonising the New York State economy: who are they, how is the system structured, and what is the private sector’s track record on decarbonisation?

Patrick Robbins (PR): This is going to vary state by state. In New York State, we have a medley of class enemies, among them renewable energy capital. I’m going to very briefly talk about how renewable projects have been built historically in New York State (and in several parts of the country). Many renewable energy projects, particularly utility-scale projects, are funded through tax equity swaps where you have to enter into a bargain with giant banks, who can benefit from the tax breaks, the investment tax credit and the production tax credit that are available to people developing projects. These investors usually take something like 20-30% of the value of the project.

They’re able to do that because they have a monopoly on capital. They have a monopoly effectively on the ability to build. Some of the biggest projects in New York State are, in fact, owned by Goldman Sachs. The other enemies, of course, are the utilities who have no interest in creating more renewable energy or bringing more distributed generation resources onto the grid, and they sit on the information that is necessary to build. It’s considered proprietary information. Great system we have. It’s really a perfect storm of oppositional class interests.
This is why, historically, we’ve been stuck at 5% wind and solar in New York State for a very long time, despite having this reputation as being a progressive state.

When we were thinking about this, we were looking at the landscape of New York and saying, “Ok, well, capital has historically had a giant monopoly on building projects. Are there institutions available to us that could be a vehicle for building public renewables?” We are very lucky to have a New Deal Era authority created as part of the New Deal to manage New York’s existing hydropower resources for the public good, and we said, “Huh! It seems like the State is just sitting on this incredible opportunity. What would happen if we changed the law to expand that authority and make it a vehicle for the will of the people?” That’s what we took on.

LP: How did you talk about public ownership and energy with people across New York State? What was your approach to the political and technical importance of public ownership in energy?

Michelangelo Pomarico (MP): We have to contextualise that we have a really massive crisis of affordability. When we talk about public power, both in the political and the technical sense, what we are really talking about is eliminating the profit motive from our energy system. I think this is an inherently popular and working-class message to talk about with people who are struggling just to make ends meet and pay their bills. It strikes a chord to talk about what a publicly owned energy system could mean for them.

Public ownership is also a public safety question regarding the sustainability of our communities in the climate crisis. For multiple years now, we’ve experienced summers with blackouts and brownouts across the State, followed by harsh winters. One recent winter, we organised door-knocking following a massive ice storm that left many people in our district without power for up to 5-6 days. We had emergency warming shelters where people were temporarily housed while they waited for the heat to return to their homes.

Throughout these extreme weather events, we were always centering a historical and a current context of what public power looks like.

Nationally, where we have examples of public power in the US, we know that the reliability and the outage times for utilities are a lot lower when they’re publicly owned compared to a for-profit system. We now know that in New York State, climate is a popular and urgent issue. In our last election cycle, we passed Prop 1, our ballot measure to ensure that we have a constitutional right to clean air and clean water. It actually received more votes than the Governor on the ballot, which is incredible.

This tells us that New Yorkers across political affiliations overwhelmingly care about climate. It is an urgent issue because it is impacting people in their everyday lives: the cost of heating their homes and keeping their lights on, extreme weather events putting their families in harm’s way, etc. The conversations we were having around public power were about our ability to have an energy system that puts people and the planet above profit.

The conversations were about ensuring that we are investing in an effective and climate-resilient grid while lowering energy costs. There are just so many good arguments for a publicly owned system. We found those conversations to be really powerful: it was overwhelmingly a class issue. And a generational one, of people thinking about their kids’ future or their grandkids’ future.

[Continue reading transcript of TUED’s interview here…]

Recommended Reading

  • Article “After a four-year campaign, New York says yes to publicly owned renewables”, by Akielly Hu for Grist
  • National DSA Statement “DSA Chapters Win Biggest Green New Deal Victory in US History”
  • Article “How to Win a Green New Deal in Your State” by Ashley Dawson for The Nation
  • Video “BPRA: A Win in the Fight for a Green New Deal” by DSA  
  • Article “New York Gets a State-Level Green New Deal” by Lauren Leffer in Gizmodo
  • Article: “Green New Deal Advocates Just Won Big in New York. Here’s How They Did It.” by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections.

DSA Video on New York GND Victory

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DSA Video featuring organizers of the campaign for the Build Public Renewables Act.
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