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Public Power Has Albany Rattled

The push for the Build Public Renewables Act in New York has become surprisingly muscular. Is it strong enough to break Albany’s climate gridlock?

Sarahana Shrestha, a candidate challenging Hudson Valley Assemblymember Kevin Cahill in the upcoming New York State Democratic primary, holds a sign advocating for public power at a Kingston rally.
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When I call Aaron Eisenberg, spokesperson for Public Power New York, he apologizes: He has to duck out of his day job to take my call. The Democratic Socialists of America activist is running communications for the public power coalition as an unpaid volunteer, working to pass a bill that would enable the New York Power Authority to build publicly-owned renewable energy projects in New York.

“We’re trying as hard as we can on all this. We don’t have any lobbyists. We’re all volunteers making calls,” Eisenberg says. “I think that’s what has rattled them so much. How is this making the most noise? How is that possible?”

It’s not every day that an ad hoc group of activists with more passion than funding gets this close to touching the levers of power. Especially on a climate issue. Especially in New York. 

Last week, as the New York State Assembly dragged out its legislative work in a marathon overtime session, long after the state Senate had finished its business for 2022, supporters of the Build Public Renewables Act waged a grassroots call-a-thon to press Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to bring the bill to a floor vote. As the session wore on, the effort snowballed. Assemblymembers who had been silent on the bill for months stepped up to declare support. “Build Public Renewables” trended on Twitter. 

It takes 76 Yes votes to pass a bill in the New York State Assembly. Public power advocates claim that their final tally was at least 83. The bill had already passed the state Senate, 38-25. But because of how procedure works in Albany, it wasn’t enough: Heastie never brought the bill to a vote, and it died with the end of the legislative session early Saturday morning. 

Although they didn’t succeed in getting the bill passed through both houses, the public power advocates made an impact. On Monday, in a statement declaring general support for “the goals of the Build Public Renewables Act,” Heastie announced that the Assembly will hold a special hearing on BPRA on July 28. It’s a chance for supporters to make their case, with all eyes watching.

“We weren’t calling for this beforehand. It is not something we were expecting,” Eisenberg says. “It’s entirely unprecedented. It’s historically unprecedented, because it’s after the session closed, with primaries and votes going on.” 

Emboldened by a taste of victory, New York’s public power advocates are now pressing Heastie to call the Assembly back into session after the hearing to vote on the bill. Climate and environment organizations that had declined to support earlier versions of the bill are taking a second look. 

Whatever happens to the bill in the long run, the movement for public renewable power is poised to have its hour in the sun.

“We are going to try to make this a national issue,” Eisenberg says. “All eyes on New York.”

Assembly Democrats Play Defense

Public power advocates say their bill got a surprise last-minute boost of attention and support after a series of substantial revisions late in the session, including new labor protections that convinced some larger unions to drop their opposition. At least one high-profile New York labor union, New York State United Teachers, has come out in support of BPRA.

Another factor that might be prompting Heastie and Assembly Democrats to take another look at the bill: Fear of losing primaries. Climate advocates affiliated with left-progressive and Democratic Socialists of America groups are running against moderate Democrats in multiple New York State legislative primaries, and are making Albany’s habit of punting on important climate legislation and funding a central issue in their races.

The battle over climate priorities is especially hot in the Hudson Valley’s 103rd Assembly District, where Sarahana Shrestha is mounting a primary challenge against incumbent Democrat Kevin Cahill. 

“Shrestha’s race against Cahill is absolutely critical for the future direction of this state,” says Pete Sikora, a climate advocate for New York Communities for Change, and a prominent leader in the successful fight for a New York City law that bans gas use in smaller newly constructed buildings starting in 2024. “I think that for the kind of progressive left that matches the actual opinions of voters, winning an election in the Hudson Valley, in quote-unquote ‘Upstate New York,’ would reshuffle the Assembly’s politics.”

Shrestha, a prominent public power supporter who has embraced a “Green New Deal” platform on climate, says that when she knocks on doors in the 103rd, voters are eager to talk about BPRA. 

“We talk about public power a lot, and it is wildly popular,” Shrestha says. 

Early on in her campaign, Shrestha says, some of her supporters were worried that focusing on climate issues would be a difficult sell for voters in the district. “I can confirm that is absolutely not true. It’s the easiest conversation,” she says. “People don’t understand what the hangup is. Albany is not making the necessary decisions, simply because it might be a little difficult. Voters understand that we need to get a move on.” 

Cahill was not a listed cosponsor for either BPRA or the All-Electric Building Act, two high-profile climate bills that failed to pass because of Assembly inaction this year. But in a written statement for The River, the Assemblyman said he supports both, and bristles at the idea that he isn’t working hard enough on climate. On this year’s most significant climate bill passed in the legislature — a measure that would enact a two-year moratorium on crypto mining operations that use entire fossil fuel power plants to power their equipment — Cahill voted yes. 

“A cosponsorship is not the sole watermark of support. Those who would make the contrary argument are advancing a diversionary, uninformed or deceptive view of how legislative processes work,” Cahill wrote. “Regarding this specific bill [BPRA], in addition to publicly supporting it, I registered my support with Assembly leadership and urged passage.” 

He is also quick to point out his advocacy for climate funding. Cahill, along with fellow Democrat Kevin Parker in the state Senate, is the author of the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA), an important climate bill introduced in 2021 that has still not come to a floor vote in either the Assembly or the Senate. The bill would establish a $55-per-ton carbon tax for large polluters, raising $15 billion in revenue that would flow toward climate investments. About a third of the revenue raised would be directly given as rebates to low- and moderate-income New York households, to compensate for any rise in energy prices the tax might contribute to. 

State climate planners estimate that the cost of taking action to meet New York’s climate goals will be roughly $10 to $15 billion a year, in the near term, whether those costs are paid by private industry, federal or state government, or ordinary households. So far, the state has not acted on large-scale funding for climate action. The Environmental Bond Act that goes before voters this November would raise $4.2 billion if it passes, some of it for climate resilience projects, but little of that funding would go toward projects related to decarbonization and the transition to zero-carbon energy.

“The CCIA has gathered almost 60 co-sponsors since its introduction in April of last year.  There is real momentum surrounding the CCIA in both the legislature and environmental advocacy communities. I expect support to continue and grow,” Cahill wrote.

Is BPRA a Climate Bill? 

On its face, BPRA is a climate bill. Its main impact would be to free up the quasi-public New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build out new renewable power, expanding the authority’s project portfolio and customer base, and putting it in competition with the private solar and wind developers that are now doing most of the buildout of renewable energy in New York State. 

It might be more accurate to call it a climate justice bill. In the marketplace of renewable energy, BPRA would lay the groundwork for a public option. Among the recent revisions to the bill is language that would enable the sale of low-cost NYPA power to low- and moderate-income households across the state, with priority for those in “disadvantaged communities” as defined by state climate law. 

NYPA already sells low-cost power, generated mostly by upstate hydropower facilities, to government and business customers, and sells the excess to utilities on wholesale energy markets. In its current form, BPRA seeks to redirect NYPA’s excess power toward the households that are most in need of affordable energy, at a 50 percent discount on their utility’s power supply rates. The bill would also require NYPA to be the sole power provider for state buildings by 2030, and municipal buildings by 2035. 

Public power supporters are currently blasting Heastie as a “climate denier” in the wake of the bill’s death through inaction — and the Speaker has indeed kept multiple important climate bills from coming to the floor for a vote this year. But for all its grassroots appeal, BPRA isn’t an obvious game-changer on climate action, as measured in progress on reducing emissions. The case that Heastie is holding back progress toward state climate goals is much more clear-cut on the failure of the All-Electric Building Act, a measure that would ban fossil fuel systems in newly constructed smaller buildings statewide as of 2024.

Buildings are the single largest driver of climate pollution in New York State, accounting for roughly a third of the state economy’s greenhouse gas emissions. The so-called “gas ban” bill would have enacted a clear policy recommendation in the state’s Climate Action Council’s draft scoping plan for meeting New York’s climate targets. Every home built with a fossil fuel furnace is one that will eventually need retrofitting: The draft scoping plan calls for an eventual shift in sales of replacement heating systems away from fossil fuel burners and toward high-efficiency electric heat pumps, and without that shift, it will be impossible for New York to meet its climate goals.

Governor Kathy Hochul included a version of the gas ban in her executive budget for 2022, and the bill had support from the state Senate, but efforts to pass it as part of the budget died in the Assembly. An opposition group called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, boosted by gas-industry labor unions and supported by most of New York’s investor-owned utilities, ran a fierce public campaign to prevent the bill from advancing in this year’s legislative session also. 

In a region where only about 10 percent of newly constructed homes are currently built with heat pumps, the All-Electric Building Act would have prevented tens of thousands of new homes from locking in decades’ worth of future emissions from fossil fuel heating systems, starting in just a year and a half. The bill was a centerpiece of climate advocates’ hopes for 2022 far beyond the smaller coalition supporting public power, and its failure to pass will be counted in millions of tons of carbon.

“It’s the lowest of low-hanging big fruit left,” Sikora says.

By contrast, BPRA is not necessarily a bill that will dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions — and if it does, that payoff will probably be a lot farther down the road. 

Supporters say giving NYPA a role in renewable buildout will help New York stay on track to meet the climate goals enshrined in the state’s 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. They also point to NYPA’s ability to issue low-cost bonds as a competitive advantage for the authority over private developers.

But the lack of state ownership of development isn’t the biggest factor currently holding back the pace of renewable buildout in New York. Nor are construction costs: Although many solar and wind projects have been mired in logistical delays, including a federal solar panel tariff issue that prompted a Presidential executive order this week, the economics of power are already shifting in favor of renewable energy. In much of the world, it is becoming cheaper to build a new solar farm than it is to operate an existing gas power plant, a trend that began even before war in Ukraine drove gas prices sky-high. 

Solar and wind developers say that the biggest barriers to the swift buildout of clean renewable energy in New York are challenges in project siting, timely permit approval, and transmission — all factors that NYPA and the companies it contracts projects out to would have to contend with also. Developers often face fierce pushback from communities and local government on utility-scale renewable projects.

“There are barriers to wind and solar projects getting built in New York, but this bill doesn’t solve them,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of Alliance for Clean Energy New York (ACE NY), in a statement on behalf of the renewable power producer association. “NYPA should be focused on the needed upgrades to the transmission grid to enable the interconnection and delivery of clean energy -— that is the right role for NYPA.”

Some climate-minded energy experts are cautiously optimistic about the bill.

“I think it’s got a lot of great components to it, it has a lot of merit,” says former state Senator Jen Metzger, a Rosendale resident who is now a policy advisor for New Yorkers for Clean Power. “I think the principles behind this bill are really important — democracy, transparency, and equity.” Also important for climate goals, she says, is that the bill would enact a timeline for NYPA to sunset its existing fossil-fueled peaker plants. 

But Metzger is skeptical that BPRA would do much to speed buildout, or improve on the often-fractious relationship between renewable energy developers and the upstate rural communities they seek to build in. And any new renewable power NYPA builds will be more costly to supply than the cheap energy now coming from its hydropower reservoirs, which have long since been paid off.

“NYPA is a big statewide utility. It’s a big bureaucracy,” she says. “I don’t a priori see why it would be any different from any other statewide body in terms of its accessibility by communities, or its communicativeness with communities. I think you can try to create that.”

A group of researchers at the Climate and Community Project took a more optimistic view in a recent report on the impact of giving NYPA a larger role in renewable buildout, writing that the authority is better poised than private developers to create “transparent, mutually beneficial relationships with community partners.”

It remains to be seen how enthusiastic NYPA will be to embrace a beefed-up role in New York’s energy landscape. The authority is currently under the temporary leadership of interim President and CEO Justin Driscoll, whose predecessor Gil Quiniones left for a private industry job last October

On Twitter last week, with BPRA in the spotlight in the state legislature, Quiniones admitted he had not read the bill, but expressed interest and some thoughts on how NYPA could rise to the challenge of expanding its power generation and customer base.

“NYPA provides a unique competitive advantage for New York State. Any proposed legislation must leverage its strengths and unique attributes while preserving and enhancing its balance sheet and the capacity of its people — and work in partnership with NYSERDA and the private sector,” he wrote.

Big, Bad Utilities?

New York’s private utilities have been on the front lines in other recent legislative climate battles, both for and against climate action. They have been a strong (though not 100 percent unified) force opposing the All-Electric Building Act. Another climate bill, the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act, passed with broad support from utilities and their affiliated unions; the bill would allow utilities to build and own clean-energy thermal district heating systems in denser neighborhoods. 

But although they have featured prominently in arguments both for and against BPRA, utilities have kept a low profile on the bill.

Multiple news stories written about BPRA in the past week have claimed — in error — that utilities are opposing the bill because it would put them in competition with NYPA for renewable buildout. But in New York’s deregulated energy system, the utilities that are responsible for the distribution of electricity are mostly prohibited from owning and building power generation projects. The bill’s opposition is mainly coming from private energy developers represented by ACE NY and Independent Power Producers of NY (IPPNY). 

In a brief statement, Con Edison spokesperson Karl-Erik Stromsta told The River that the utility supports a “comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach” to renewable buildout, and “has not taken a position on the Build Public Renewables Act.”

To add to the confusion, both advocates and opponents of BPRA have painted New York’s large utilities as villains in their messaging about the bill, possibly in an effort to capitalize on widespread public anger at rising utility bills. “Private utilities have been driving up prices on the most vulnerable New Yorkers in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Assemblymember Michaelle Solages in a statement supporting the bill. On the other side of the issue, an anti-BPRA ad circulating on social media claimed that “utilities stifle competition and raise prices,” and lumped the bill in with a different measure — which also failed to pass — that would have given private utilities the power to do more renewable buildout.

A long-term goal for many of the public power advocates behind BPRA is to put New York’s private utilities in public hands, but the bill itself would not bring that about. 

How to Get Things Done

At the hearing on July 28, the state Assembly — and people all over New York — will have a chance to learn more about public power, and what it might mean for ratepayers and communities as well as for climate efforts. 

Eisenberg says that unless climate advocates keep up intense pressure on Heastie and other individual legislators, the state will keep punting on tough climate bills.

“Frankly, being conciliatory and accommodationist does not work. It has not worked,” he says.  

Sikora agrees. To get big climate bills passed, he says, climate advocates need to build and flex their power. He wrote recently, in a history of the successful effort to pass the gas ban in New York City, that the key to getting big bills through a reluctant legislature is building a broad, racially diverse movement that is grounded in local communities, pushes hard on elected officials, and rejects the kind of genteel insider access politics that has long held sway among prominent climate and energy advocates.

“We need more organizing. Better, more hard-hitting targeted campaigns across the state in diverse constituencies,” Sikora says. “The impact that we’re having — you can certainly feel it, if you’re an elected official.”