When the New York state legislative session ended last month, some progressive hopes for passing major climate legislation died with it. The Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, was on the table for the second straight year with strong Democratic majorities in the state legislature. A welcome return to the politics of public power, the legislation would have allowed the New York Power Authority, or NYPA — the country’s largest state-owned power supplier, itself a product of former Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s push for public power — to join private developers in building out renewable energy projects according to climate goals.
After a significant pressure campaign by the organizers in the Public Power New York, or PPNY, coalition, including multiple last-minute edits to the bill, BPRA passed the New York state Senate and reportedly had the votes in the state Assembly. But after powerful actors pushed Speaker Carl Heastie to kill it, it never made it to the floor for a vote. Progressives wondered: If a bill like that can’t pass in New York, where can it?
Now that BPRA has failed a second time, the bill’s proponents should pause for some critical introspection. For one, there’s a big problem with the advocacy around the bill; for too long, it focused on the wrong enemy.
The bill itself targets the supply side. The fight for decarbonization is largely centered on the generation of electricity, where emissions are produced in the first place, and the bill aims to increase the presence of publicly owned renewable generation. As a result, the bill’s enemies were not the distribution utilities like Con Edison — who, in fact, took no position on BPRA; after all, their profits don’t come from the supply side. Instead, it was the private renewables developers that were dead set against it. The national trade group Solar Energy Industries Association — the recent beneficiary of a Biden trade rule that allows the importation of cheap solar panels from China made by a combination of forced labor and coal — even weighed in on a state-level fight to oppose.
Yet much progressive critique of the electric power sector fixates on electricity distribution and the “big, bad utilities” who deliver power to consumers. Indeed, the PPNY coalition consistently took this approach, framing its struggle against Con Edison. For example, PPNY advocate and former Assembly candidate Illapa Sairitupac released a campaign video asking residents on the street about their struggles with ConEd bills and anger toward the company’s “greed,” and BPRA was their offered solution.
After two years of fighting for the bill, some of its organizers have finally started to identify the private capitalist control of power generation as the real fight, regardless of green credentials. As BPRA advocate and democratic socialist Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani explained after the session ended, “We have to understand that in the two words that describe [solar companies], the more important word is not solar, but company.”
The coalition failed in other ways, bringing in labor unions at the last second and ignoring industrial expertise in the writing of the bill. The big picture is there; everyone involved understands that decarbonization cannot be managed through market competition, as corporate power producers would have us believe.
But as the PPNY coalition continues to fight for the bill through direct-action and lawmaker lobbying — and with the first public hearing on the bill now scheduled for July 28 — climate advocates also need a more realistic vision of how public power and NYPA can accelerate decarbonization at the speed and scale required.
The Wrong Coalition
The fight for public power is ultimately about transforming an industry, or system of production. And, of course, it is the workers at the point of production who have unique power and leverage to achieve such transformative change. In this sector, and in New York, they’re highly unionized to boot. Not only has PPNY not built a coalition with electricity workers and unions at the center, the bill itself and its proponents show a concerning lack of interest in fundamental aspects of electricity production itself.
There are two fundamental constituencies on the left with an eye on electricity: green nonprofit NGOs and labor unions. But these two forces are consistently in tension on questions of climate policy. We have plenty of examples of climate organizers taking the labor path to organizing: Maine, Illinois, and Rhode Island, among other places, have shown how a union-based climate jobs approach can pay significant political dividends.
Contrary to campaigns in those states, PPNY has clearly taken the NGO path from the start (a decadeslong problem on the left). In addition to an army of volunteer activists from Democratic Socialists of America chapters across the state, the most engaged members of the coalition are green NGOs like the Energy Democracy Alliance; Alliance for a Green Economy, or AGREE; and WE ACT for Environmental Justice — the latter a recent recipient of $6 million from the Bezos Earth Fund. While in New York the Climate Jobs coalition has presented a model for union-led climate organizing, it is not involved with BPRA.
As the fight over the bill heated up in the last week of the legislative session, PPNY could only cite teachers unions as supportive of the legislation. But unions actually embedded in the industry, like in the New York State Conference of Operating Engineers, actively opposed the legislation. The AFL-CIO of New York opposed it, too, until engagement and substantial edits late in the session moved the union to “neutrality.” And while activists claim that Heastie killed the bill because he has received donations from the fossil fuel industry, he also answers to a power bloc in Albany where the unions still have far more sway than the green NGOs.
The coalition should get credit for engaging with the AFL-CIO late in this session, but this is not an ideal organizing template. A labor-based coalition would mean placing industrial unions at the helm of the campaign from the start — including in the stages in which legislation is drafted.
In the absence of any real union support, PPNY concocted a labor interest in the bill through another key NGO, the Climate and Community Project. This group ran a software model that claims the legislation would create “between 28,410 and 51,133 good jobs,” a wide range that includes new indirect jobs upstream of projects, direct jobs on the projects themselves, and induced jobs created by consumption. Sometimes this figure was even inflated, by the media and by PPNY itself, to mean 51,133 union jobs.
Not only has PPNY not built a coalition with electricity workers and unions at the center, the bill itself and its proponents show a concerning lack of interest in fundamental aspects of electricity production itself.
Aligning with green NGOs also had consequences for the policies included. Thanks to these groups’ rigid and inflexible vision of 100 percent renewable energy, BPRA would only have allowed NYPA to build out renewable energy like solar, wind, and battery storage, and explicitly excluded what’s called “clean energy”: nuclear power and a host of other options.
“If New York has any hope of achieving its clean energy goals in this decade and beyond,” explains John J. Murphy of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada, “we need to maintain reliability while being much more aggressive in pursuing non-carbon technologies like nuclear, wind, solar, battery storage, hydrogen gas, and geothermal heating.”
The green NGOs in the PPNY coalition, however, reject the proven role of nuclear in New York’s zero-carbon energy plan. AGREE, Food and Water Watch, and WE ACT advocated for the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant — a loss for workers and decarbonization — while assuring it would be replaced with renewables. But actually the plant’s closure resulted in a spike in greenhouse gas emissions, largely from the three natural gas plants built to replace it. The PPNY coalition argues that the private renewables developers are too slow, but when it comes to justifying the loss of union jobs and clean generation at Indian Point, AGREE claims that those same private developers are progressing “even faster than we thought.”
As AGREE told the state in 2016, “It is manifestly inappropriate for nuclear generation to be included in the Clean Energy Standard. It not only makes a mockery of the term ‘clean,’ but could undermine the state’s ability to establish policies favoring energy sources with the least environmental impact.” Thankfully, they lost this fight as the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act only stipulates 100 percent clean electricity by 2040.
Because it sprang from such green groups, the BPRA legislation is written in the language of means-tested, distributed “community” energy that activists and NGOs operate within. Eschewing wonks and industrial expertise, the campaign instead formulated their policy ideas upon the questionable expertise of environmental activists and nonprofits. NYPA staff does not seem to have been consulted either.
In this framing, renewable energy exists anywhere and everywhere without limitations and will be produced freely by NYPA and then credited ex post facto on the regular monthly bills of (lower-income) ratepayers. What it leaves out is the reality of the power system — of energy and capacity wholesale markets, of load zones, and of NYPA’s need to provide its customers with 24/7 power around the clock no matter the weather.
Beyond threatening the hopes for decarbonization, such a rigid renewables-only vision will alienate the workers and unions who know from experience that much of the existing renewable energy industry is anti-union. As Jim Harrison, the director of renewable energy for the Utility Workers Union of America, told the New York Times, “The [renewable] industry is incredibly anti-union. … It’s a lot of transient work, work that is marginal, precarious and very difficult to be able to organize.” There are some notable exceptions in offshore wind and utility-scale solar.
Even a solar developer recently acknowledged the limits of these green jobs: “There are construction jobs there, for sure — but once they’re constructed, that’s it. There’s no operating jobs. There’s nothing.”
The Working Class Needs Cheaper Power
Any ostensibly socialist public power campaign should emphasize a primary goal of creating cheaper electricity for the working class, especially now with inflation and skyrocketing utility bills. While PPNY more often cites the low proportion of wind and solar and climate goals, the bill does contain a clause that requires NYPA to provide “100% renewable energy” to “low-to-moderate income” residential customers at a price 50 percent cheaper than what their local utilities procure for them. But this program is only meant for “excess” NYPA power “not used or stored by state or municipal owned or leased buildings” (and if no such excess exists, then there is no provision to guarantee cheaper power).
Assuming the excess power is available, it would require NYPA to enter a whole new business — direct residential energy supply, in accordance with consumer choice — and with a means-tested requirement to boot. Instead of mass universal goods, the emphasis, like it is for the NGO sector, is on targeting the neediest with hazily defined legal language of “disadvantaged communities.” It also excludes everyone making more than “80% of the area median income” (which means a lot of struggling New Yorkers wouldn’t qualify).
Now dollars and cents enter the picture: NYPA would be obligated to supply those bottom-of-the-hierarchy customers with energy at half the price they’re charged today. But how?
Here the PPNY coalition rests on a tempting but unproven assumption that anything capital can do, NYPA can do better — and more cheaply. There are four major problems with this.
First, what public power entity today develops, owns, and operates renewable energy projects? As we discussed in Jacobin recently, public power systems from the Tennessee Valley Authority to Nebraska to NYPA itself generally only contract with private renewables developers. Thanks to decades of neoliberal renewable energy policy, public power has a major structural disadvantage: Private renewable projects receive federal subsidies that these public power entities aren’t eligible for.
Those subsidies inhibit NYPA’s ability to collect revenue on the wholesale energy market, where competing private wind and solar projects can undercut NYPA’s offers. Such wholesale power sales make up a third of NYPA’s revenues, with the other two-thirds coming from sales to customers (like the state’s municipal power utilities and certain governmental agencies like the New York City subway system). Similarly, power purchased on the wholesale market to provide to customers constitutes one-third of NYPA’s expenses; in short, NYPA’s interaction with wholesale markets is a critical object of focus for any public power bill. But the PPNY coalition has revealed no details about how NYPA should engage in these markets or how taking on the expenses of building renewables without subsidies will affect their already strained balance sheet.
Thanks to decades of neoliberal renewable energy policy, public power has a major structural disadvantage: Private renewable projects receive federal subsidies that these public power entities aren’t eligible for.
Second, the emphasis on renewable energy like wind and solar — which is inherently intermittent in its availability — complicates NYPA’s responsibility to supply its customers with power around the clock. That complication inevitably means that NYPA will need to procure more power from the wholesale market at the times when renewables aren’t producing (like morning, evening, much of winter, and whenever weather doesn’t permit). And that power purchased on the market will almost certainly be fossil-fueled energy — after all, it’s the inevitable backup power for renewables.
NYPA’s original source of renewable energy, hydroelectric power, absolutely serves as flexible 24/7 power that can “firm” any intermittent wind and solar. But NYPA has dwindling transmission capacity to deliver it to the downstate region to serve the massive demand of New York City. Worse, as NYPA warned in a 2020 filing to the state, those subsidies for private wind and solar projects upstate are draining its legacy hydroelectric dams of the revenues NYPA depends on. Even the constant on-and-off operation of the dams’ generators to firm all that wind and solar, NYPA warns, is physically wearing down their components.
The original BPRA legislation even went as far as excluding green hydrogen, a technology that leading environmental thinkers insist is one of the most promising options for long-duration energy storage to help with the intermittency of solar and wind. Many green NGOs also oppose hydroelectric development, like the massive new transmission project to clean up New York City’s dirty grid with hydropower from Quebec. Two core PPNY organizers, Aaron Eisenberg and Sarahana Shrestha (who just won her primary for state Assembly), penned an op-ed criticizing the transmission of clean, firm hydropower from Quebec for “endangering our communities.” Why import real clean energy when you can point to a hypothetical future powered by more intermittent wind and solar?
Third, the bill’s supporters in the PPNY coalition and on the state Senate floor argue that NYPA can outcompete capitalists because they don’t pay property taxes on their facilities. But as the corporate opposition has politicized, this means that local communities would miss out on revenues from NYPA projects. Since wind and solar projects require virtually no workforce once built, they won’t receive much income from wages either. NYPA could provide payments in lieu of taxes — which the Tennessee Valley Authority is required by law to provide local governments, for example — but that would complicate this core argument for lower-cost renewables through NYPA.
Fourth, there’s a tacit assumption from PPNY that public wind and solar projects developed by NYPA would avoid the roadblocks faced by private projects. Those roadblocks tend to play out as a power battle between local interests and the state government. At one end, rural localities will vote on restrictions against sprawling, utility-scale wind and solar projects, and on the other end, a state office in Albany will override local control. Perhaps some of that rural opposition would dissipate if the project developers were the state itself rather than fly-by-night private companies looking to profit off the tax incentives. But PPNY hasn’t made the case, especially given that BPRA places more protections for such communities in project siting.
None of this means that NYPA can’t possibly compete with private renewables developers, but it does call into question PPNY’s animating strategy — and of the implementation details of the bill.
The Struggle Ahead
Campaigning for governor in 1930, Franklin D. Roosevelt cast public power as the defining issue of the election. In his framing, Democrats sought “the development of the water power resources of the state by a public agency for the public benefit,” while the Republicans wanted to “leas[e] these resources to private corporations for private exploitation.”
The goal was simple: cheaper electricity for the people by eliminating the capitalist middleman. Across the border, he said, the people of Ontario enjoyed cheap electricity thanks to their state-owned hydroelectric resources, while across New York people paid up to eight times as much. “The idea of cooking by electricity at the rates now prevailing in our State is out of the question, except for rich people.”
Lower prices and expansion financed by increased electrical consumption form the basis of a working-class program for public power. Roosevelt cited the low $3.40 monthly electric bill that Ontarians paid for “light, cooking, refrigeration, ironing, toasting, vacuum cleaning, radio operation, washing machine, fans, waffle irons, chafing dish, and other kitchen appliances.” These concrete symbols of good modern living were key to getting widespread support. Does something as abstract as the proportion of wind and solar in statewide electricity entice people the same way?
The PPNY coalition is already planning to continue its disruptive, direct-action tactics at a hearing scheduled for July 28, proclaiming the moral urgency of immediate climate action. They are pushing the legislature take the unprecedented measure of calling a special session in August to pass the legislation. But to bring the BPRA back in line with the FDR model — the model that worked — progressives should also consider proactive changes to the legislation.
First, the legislation should be rebranded as the Build Public Clean Energy Act. It should empower NYPA to build, own, and operate not only renewables, but also (new, advanced) nuclear and other zero-carbon technologies. Rather than merely trying to outcompete capitalists in the mature renewables industry designed just for them, it’s precisely in these latter technologies (e.g. small modular reactors, green hydrogen, direct air capture) that we need the state to undertake risky, unproven, and necessary investments for decarbonization. In fact, the TVA is already embarking on this sort of public sector-led research — an approach emphatically demanded by unions as “a key part of combating climate change” at the recent AFL-CIO convention.
Second, it should also make clear that “green hydrogen” is hydrogen produced with clean energy, not just from renewables. Not only would that create demand for new nuclear projects — the kind of “dispatchable emissions-free resources” the state’s grid operator projects we’ll need more of — but such production could serve as a critical economic lifeline to New York’s remaining nuclear plants.
Third, the complicated, means-tested measures to deliver cheaper energy to some “low and moderate income households” should be scrapped in favor of a clearer plan to explain how the bill can deliver cheaper rates for everyone, affirming a socialist focus on simplicity and popularity of universal public goods over means testing.
Fourth, the current bill contains self-serving measures that imbue “community organizations” (i.e. NGOs) with NYPA decision-making power — what they call “energy democracy.” It would even direct NYPA funding to them to come up with a “democratization plan” for NYPA. But instead of a vision of energy democracy rooted in nonprofits, the legislation should aim to strengthen the democratic power of workers over NYPA’s operations. Hearing from unions that directly bargain with NYPA on behalf of the very workers who operate the state’s power system should inform changes to the legislation.
Public power is central to the decarbonization challenge. But how you build the movement and the coalition you assemble matters. The NGO-led PPNY might indeed pass some version of the BPRA in 2023, but if they really want to win transformative change in our energy system they’ll need both the workers and a more careful study of the industry. It’s not too late.