Two years ago, New York enshrined the most ambitious statewide climate targets in the country. The legislation, called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requires the state to completely decarbonize its electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions from all sectors by 85% within the following decade.
A bill that’s currently gaining support in the New York legislature could set the state back on track to meet its goals. (The path has been bumpy, particularly because the state legislators haven’t come up with a payment plan for the CLCPA.) It hinges on the idea that the best way to decarbonize the state’s energy system is to make it publicly owned and democratically controlled. A new report from the policy tank climate + community project shared exclusively with Earther lays out exactly how it works, and shows that it could be a model for the rest of the country.
“As long as energy is treated as a commodity like any other, poor people, workers, and communities of color will suffer,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, who is a champion of the legislation. “Our energy and power systems must be accountable to the public so that we can build an equitable future, in New York and nationwide, free of corporate exploitation.”
The measure, called the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, has dozens of co-sponsors and is supported by the Public Power Coalition, which is led by Democratic Socialists of America chapters and local environmental justice organizations. It would essentially create a public option for electricity. To do so, it would expand the New York Power Authority, empowering it to build out utility-scale renewable energy generation and transmission infrastructure and requiring it to supply only renewable power.
NYPA is the largest state-owned energy provider in the U.S. It currently owns and operates one-third of New York’s high voltage power lines and provides up to 25% of the state’s electricity, the majority of which comes from hydropower.
Under the bill, NYPA would be required to fully decarbonize its existing energy infrastructure, decommissioning its fossil fuel plants by 2025 while rapidly increasing the state’s renewable energy generation. (The report proposes that the entity would have the right of first refusal for all renewable energy projects greater than 25 megawatts in the state.)
In addition to supplying power directly to customers who choose to opt-in, NYPA would also have to ensure that all publicly owned buildings—to which it is the sole provider of energy—run on 100% clean power by 2025.
As it does all this, it would also be required to adhere to strict labor standards and unionization for all its projects, and also to partner with worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses owned by members of disadvantaged communities to procure necessary equipment and appliances. The law would also forbid the entity from shutting off power for unpaid bills.
That NYPA is publicly owned and operated is important for two reasons. For one, as a state entity, it’s directly governable, unlike investor-owned utilities.
“We want to embark on an energy transition that is simultaneously rapid, equitable, and thorough. We want the energy system to be fully decarbonized, we want it to be maximally equitable, and we also want it to happen in less than 10 years,” said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and co-author of the new report. “In the private sector, the way to do that is to create incentives for investments and to regulate. With the public sector, it’s much more direct. You can ensure it happens.”
Unlike investor-owned utilities, which are required to make money for their shareholders, NYPA also has no profit motive. That would make it easier to ensure that the utility bills of low-income households stay low and that communities see the benefits of an energy transition.
“With NYPA, they don’t have always to go the cheapest option or choose actions that will make the most money,” said Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative and co-author of the report. “They are held to the standard of the public interest. That means that, for instance, instead of putting transmission through a place that may be cheapest but might have pretty significant environmental impacts, we can actually shift that framework because it’s not a profit motive that we’re going for.”
To ensure that it operates in an equitable manner, the report suggests that the law could come with a number of measures to boost democratic control. The authors suggest the state could create a multi-stakeholder board with seats for longtime environmental justice leaders or labor organizers who have a say in NYPA’s actions. They also propose that NYPA create community engagement hubs where residents can learn about new renewable energy plans and work opportunities and provide input on where new energy projects are sited.
The report estimates that the comprehensive proposals would create up to 51,000 jobs—including 16,000 permanent ones—and between $48.6 billion and $93.5 billion of additional economic activity. It could also serve as a model for the rest of the country.
In the state of Nebraska, for instance, the electricity sector consists entirely of public power districts, publicly owned utilities, and energy cooperatives. The state could implement a similarly ambitious timeline to move the grid to 100% renewables. The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells energy to 150 companies as well as utilities, could also take up a similar project.
If the bill passes and is successful, Bozuwa also said it could help show that the U.S. needs more public entities to control electricity—and that there’s no reason we can’t create them.
“We could see, for instance, federal money going to states so that they could set one up themselves so that they can build out public renewable energy in their states, bring down the cost, make it accountable to the people, and bring down energy poverty at the same time,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of how we could take NYPA as this state-based entity, take the principles that guide it, put it through a rapid energy transition, and use the federal level to unleash similar types of entities across the U.S.”
The Biden administration could use the New York bill’s model, Riofrancos added, to ensure that it meets the goals it has set since taking the White House, including the promise to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and ensure “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” meet the needs of communities who have borne the worst brunt of the climate crisis and pollution.
“By using a public institution ... you can directly ensure that projects and jobs are sited in the places that deserve them most, where working class and racialized communities have been the most impacted by not only the climate crisis but also the pandemic and economic recession,” said Riofrancos.
Through the power of the public sector, the U.S. has achieved massive energy goals quickly before. During the New Deal, for instance, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Cooperative system.
“It actually was able to bring lights on within 10 years,” said Bozuwa. “So we don’t need to create sticks and carrots for the private energy sector. We’re saying to the private sector, we’re going to outflank you, we’re going to make sure we transition the public sector faster than you ever would.”