The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA dismantles one of the last regulatory tools remaining to cut carbon emissions on a federal scale in the U.S. With the failure of the Democrats to pass significant legislation and the specter of looming defeats in midterm elections, it’s now up to progressive cities and states to take the lead in fighting the climate crisis.
We got close to breaking ground on such an alternative state-level strategy this year in New York. In May, the State Senate passed the Build Public Renewables Act. The bill mandates the state’s New Deal-era public power provider — the New York Power Authority (NYPA) — to generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030. It also sets up a process that would allow the New York Power Authority to build and own renewables while shutting down polluting infrastructure. Although it is the largest publicly owned utility in the country, with a track record of providing the most affordable energy in the state, the New York Power Authority cannot legally own or build new utility-scale renewable generation projects at present because the state limits the public power utility to owning only six large utility-scale projects of 25 megawatts or more. This is because renewable energy developers wanted to limit competition from the New York Power Authority. The Build Public Renewables Act would remove this restriction and unleash the New York Power Authority’s game-changing power.
The Build Public Renewables Act had enough votes to pass in the Assembly and move to the governor’s desk to be signed, but Speaker Carl Heastie refused to bring the bill to a vote. Stung by criticism of this undemocratic move and over the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations he has taken from fossil fuel interests, Speaker Heastie has called a special hearing on the Build Public Renewables Act for late July. The Public Power NY campaign is calling for Heastie and Gov. Kathy Hochul to call a special session so that the Build Public Renewables Act can be passed.
Three years ago, when the Public Power NY campaign began work, things looked a lot more hopeful on the federal level. Presidential hopefuls like Jay Inslee centered his plan for a clean energy economy on community-owned and community-led renewables while Bernie Sanders’s climate plan called for 100 percent public power. Sanders wanted to reach this goal quickly and efficiently by using public funding and infrastructure rather than leaving the transition up to corporate investors, who have failed the public miserably.
Joe Biden decided to bundle most of the elements of his promised Green New Deal into the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal, which was killed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) in late 2021. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the surge in gas prices, the Biden administration released a million barrels of crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve this spring, and, instead of cutting fossil fuels, is now scrambling to persuade countries like Saudi Arabia to ramp up production.
States like New York can blaze a different trail. We desperately need an ambitious plan like the Build Public Renewables Act if New York is to follow through on the nation-leading climate legislation it has already passed. With a Democratic super majority, New York state lawmakers passed a Climate Act in 2019 that committed the state to generating 70 percent of its power from zero emissions sources by 2030, with the goal of 100 percent clean power to be reached by 2040. But lawmakers have passed no significant climate legislation since 2019.
If they refuse to mandate that the state build the infrastructure to reach the Climate Act’s goals, political leaders’ promises threaten to become nothing but hot air. New York is stuck at only 6 percent wind and solar energy. The state currently gets about 20 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric facilities run by the New York Power Authority. But with the shutting down of the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant, which provided 25 percent of New York City’s energy until 2021, the state may become more rather than less dependent on fossil fuels.
New York needs to expand its wind and solar tenfold over the next seven years to meet state law. The New York Power Authority is uniquely situated to meet this challenge. The agency has shown that it can do projects cheaper, faster and more efficiently than the private sector. It has an incredibly high bond rating (meaning that NYPA is seen as highly credit-worthy and can borrow at low interest), which would let it raise money to fund projects. It would not have to raise utility bills for customers like investor-owned utilities currently do to build this new green infrastructure.
The for-profit utility ConEd has just requested rate hikes to fund $1.4 billion in new fossil fuel infrastructure. If approved by state regulators, this would mean a 10 percent jump in electric bills and a 15 percent increase for gas, punishingly steep rate hikes during a time when ordinary people are struggling with record inflation. Approximately 32 percent of Con Ed customers are currently in arrears, so clearly this system is not working.
With the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act, the New York Power Authority would be permitted to build utility-scale solar generation and offshore wind, transmission lines, electric vehicle chargers and energy storage facilities. Private renewable energy companies have criticized the plan for cutting into free market competition, but the Build Public Renewables Act mandates that the public power utility build out renewables only when and if the private sector fails to build out clean energy at the pace required by law. The bill also requires New York Power Authority projects to pay a prevailing wage and to use project labor agreements, which would help to challenge the poor pay and precarious conditions that characterize the private renewables industry today.
New York’s decision to unleash clean public power will be an example to other regions in the U.S. For example, despite decades of warnings from climate scientists about the need to stop burning fossil fuels, Mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania and Maryland get just 7 percent of their electricity from clean wind and solar.
In 2018, Washington, D.C. passed one of the most ambitious clean energy laws in the country, with the goal of reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2032. But the investor-owned, monopoly utility Pepco has demonstrated a clear lack of ambition to meet the city’s clean energy goals. Like New York’s for-profit utilities, Pepco is failing D.C. residents, according to the energy activist group We Power DC. The utility had only 5.42 percent clean energy in its power mix, according to its 2018 energy source report — far below the 16.5 percent clean energy that it needs to meet the Clean Energy DC Act.
Worse still, Pepco is raising the rates that it charges D.C. residents for power, a rate increase that the city Office of the People’s Council called “excessive” and “unprecedented.” We Power DC’s public power pledge calls for a publicly owned utility that is just, accessible and sourced from 100 percent clean energy.
The situation is similar in other regions of the country. New England, for example, still gets nearly 50 percent of its power from fossil gas. Only 5 percent of its electricity comes from clean wind and solar. Why are progressive states in New England endangering their citizens by failing to clean up their energy supply? The dominant electrical and fossil gas distribution companies in Massachusetts and across much of New England are investor-owned utilities like Eversource Energy and National Grid. A recent report by a team of climate scientists at Brown University found that the entities spending the most on lobbying against climate action in the Massachusetts state legislature were private energy corporations like Eversource and National Grid. Expecting these profit-driven corporations to shutter their polluting facilities and invest in a rapid transition to clean energy is like hoping the foxes will take good care of the hen house.
When the Build Public Renewables Act becomes law, it will offer tremendous inspiration to campaigns like We Power DC and Maine Public Power. It would also provide an alternative to the increasingly crisis-ridden private utility system, as exemplified in Texas. A decades-long push in the Lone Star state to deregulate the energy system led to a deadly power crash in the winter of 2021. Private companies in search of short-term profits cut all the backup capacity out of the system in Texas, leaving it vulnerable to cataclysmic failure as soon as abnormally cold weather arrived. Hundreds of people died. Just over a year later, the Texas energy grid is again in crisis, with six power plants crashing in the midst of a particularly scorching heat wave.
Public power would take the profit motive that leads to such crises out of the energy system, directing revenue to building out clean power rather than lining the pockets of shareholders and lobbying against climate legislation. Public power would allow us to build the infrastructure we need for the increasingly perilous environment we inhabit. Constructing and maintaining a clean energy system will provide thousands of secure, well-paying jobs.
Energy should be a public good, reliable and accessible to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay. It’s time to take power out of the hands of polluting, for-profit corporations. To decarbonize rapidly, we need to democratize our energy systems. It’s time for public power.