In 1931, New York governor Franklin D Roosevelt created the New York Power Authority, which was designed to provide low cost electricity throughout the state. In the US today, there are more than 2,000 public power utilities which serve the needs of one in seven Americans. Combined, they account for 10% of all electricity used in the nation. Nebraska is the only state entirely supplied by publicly owned utilities.
On Tuesday, New York lawmakers passed a new law that authorizes the New York Power Authority — the largest state public power authority in the U.S. — to build renewable energy projects to help reach the state’s climate goals.
The Build Public Renewables Act was passed as part of New York’s annual budget process, and is the result of four years of organizing by climate and community organizations, which hailed the new legislation as a major win for energy democracy, environmental justice, and labor organizations.
“This will enable us to build renewable energy projects with gold-standard labor language, ensuring that the transition to renewable energy benefits working people and their families,” Patrick Robbins, an organizer with the grassroots Public Power NY coalition, told Grist.
In a blog post, the coalition said, “While New York passed leading climate targets in 2019, its reliance on for-profit corporations to meet them has kept New York stuck at just 4% wind and solar power every year since. That’s a fifth as much as Texas.”
“BPRA enables the New York Power Authority, the nation’s largest publicly owned power provider, to fix this. Every year, NYPA will perform a review on whether New York is on track to reach 70% renewable by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2040, per state mandates. If it’s not — such as in every year so far — NYPA will step in to build enough energy to make up the gap, and keep us on track.”
Power For The Public In New York
The new law directs the New York Power Authority to plan, construct, and operate renewable energy projects in service of the state’s renewable energy goals. Under New York’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state intends to generate 70% of its electricity from renewables and cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.
“BPRA will ensure our energy transition is led by the right people: a combination of energy experts, environmental justice advocates, and labor unions,” Public Power NY said. “No more leaving the nation’s biggest public power provider to fossil fuel lobbyists and climate deniers. The energy system powering our future must be accountable to all those who live in it.
“BRPA will shut down some of the state’s most polluting oil and gas plants — which are concentrated in working class, Black and brown communities — by 2030, replacing them with pollution-free renewable power. It will make energy bills cheaper for those who need it most.
“Utilities like Central Hudson, Con Edison, National Grid, and NYSEG lobby to keep our bills tied to volatile gas prices and pocket the profits instead of upgrading to more efficient systems that would help New Yorkers pay less. Public power doesn’t need to make a profit — it just has to work, so BPRA will help provide cheaper energy to those who need it most.”
Relief For Workers & Low Income Consumers
The Build Public Renewables Act includes several provisions that prioritize clean energy access for low and middle income customers, organized labor, and a just transition for workers displaced from fossil fuel projects. It requires the New York Power Authority to establish a program allowing low and moderate income electricity customers in disadvantaged communities to receive credits on their monthly utility bills for any renewable energy produced by the power authority.
It also stipulates that workers or contractors hired for these new renewable energy projects must be protected by a collective bargaining agreement, and instructs the public power authority to enter into a memorandum of understanding with labor unions to uphold and protect pay rates, training, and safety standards for workers supporting the operation and maintenance of such projects. Candidates who have lost employment in the oil and gas sector will be prioritized for those positions. Beginning in 2024, the authority will also be authorized to allocate up to $25 million each year toward worker training programs for the renewable energy sector.
Closing Peaker Plants
Proponents of the new legislation applauded a provision to phase out peaker power plants owned by the New York Power Authority no later than 2030 and replace them with renewable energy systems. These small natural gas power plants quickly start and stop during times of peak energy demand, typically in the summer, when air conditioning use ramps up. They are also a major source of pollution and sickness for nearby communities.
In a 2021 report, a coalition of state environmental justice groups found that 78% of residents living within one mile of the plants are either low income or people of color. The report also found that peaker plants contribute up to 94% of New York’s nitrogen oxide pollution, a key component of smog, on days when ozone levels are high.
New York Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha was a key force in pushing the legislation through the state assembly. She says the new law addresses “fundamental questions like who should own energy, who should serve energy, at what cost, and what kind of energy should we be making, and who should be deciding those things.” She ran on a climate campaign aligned with the public power movement, which aims to shift energy utilities from the traditional investor owned, private model to public ownership and democratic governance.
Proponents of the law argued that industry resistance was outweighed by broad support from community-based organizations, environmental justice groups, and unions representing more than 1 million workers in New York.
Another factor was the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Biden last August. The IRA provides expanded tax credits for renewables and makes them available for the first time to tax exempt public power entities like the New York Power Authority.
Shrestha and other advocates hope that the new Build Public Renewables Act will inspire similar legislation in other states, They say they are already seeing local Democratic Socialists of America chapters and other advocacy groups reach out. “The reason I am excited about this win is not because our work is done, but now it means we can start our work,” Shrestha said.
People, Not Profits
The price of methane gas was 24% higher in February of this year than it was the prior year. Higher prices for methane mean higher prices for electricity. While many ratepayers were unprepared for the sudden bill increases, shareholders of privately owned utility companies saw astronomical profits — including those of ConEdison, which provides power to the New York metropolitan area and made over $1.3bn in profits.
“It was ratepayers who were caught in the lurch,” said Aaron Eisenberg, part of the Public Power NY Coalition. “Putting renewables on the grid in New York state makes us less dependent on gas and ensures we have a reliable source of energy provided by a trusted source that’s been around for 90 years.”
Another organizer, LeeZiesche, told The Guardian, “It’s important to make sure that low income communities are not paying an arm and a leg for new energy generation. People having access to affordable electricity is going to be a huge part of surviving the climate crisis. People die when it gets too hot, and if they’re afraid to turn on their air conditioners that’s a serious problem.”
Recently, we reported on a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway entitled The Big Myth, which chronicles how market capitalism has distorted the political process in America for over a century. Much of that distortion is attributable to early electricity generating enterprises like Edison Electric Company, the forerunner of General Electric. The book details how GE recruited a failed actor by the name of Ronald Reagan to host its weekly television show, then propelled him to the governorship of California, which became a stepping stone to the White House.
Through it all, the utilities have adopted the attitude that “It’s our electricity, dammit, and we will decide how to generate it and how much you will pay for it,” while all the time benefiting from a monopoly status granted by the various states that has protected them from competition. Talk about a sweetheart deal!
Those private utilities have used some of the money paid by customers to buy friendly regulators who approve stupid projects like the outrageously expensive Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia that is decades late and billions over budget.
The game is played like this. State regulators guarantee investor-owned utilities a guaranteed rate of return on their investments, no questions asked. That means the only way to make more money is to invest in stuff — like Vogtle. Ratepayers have no effective say in such matters and are forced by law to pay the utilities for their mistakes.
Public power authorities are organized to serve the best interests of their customers, not investors. If that is “woke,” fine. Let’s have more of it!
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