Eight-hundred and sixty thousand people lost power when Tropical Storm Isaias hit New York City in early August. It did not have to be this way. Isaias was not a particularly potent storm. The blackout was a product of the decrepit state of the city’s electric grid and the failure of investor-owned electric utility Consolidated Edison, New York’s monopoly power supplier, to put public interest over private profit.
Sweeping changes are necessary in the age of climate catastrophe.
Now more than ever, access to power is a life and death matter. With climate change intensifying both storms and urban heat, we need to build resilient energy systems oriented around the public good, a task that utilities like ConEd have stymied for decades. As New Yorkers face dangerous heat waves and the COVID-19 pandemic — both of which disproportionately affect Black and brown neighborhoods — the need for public power is clearer than ever.
ConEd has a long history of failing to upgrade the city’s electric grid. After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York in 2012 the state mandated the utility perform a $4 million study on how to improve reliability during heat waves and other extreme weather events. The review was completed in 2014. Taxpayers gave the utility $350 million in 2016 to perform the upgrades recommended by the review, but the grid overhaul was never completed. This from a company that makes over a billion dollars in annual profits and pays its CEO over $15 million annually.
Instead of using their outsize profits on fixing failing infrastructure, utilities like ConEd spend money on lobbying to keep their corrupt practices and fossil-fuel infrastructure in place.
In July, the FBI arrested Larry Householder, the Speaker of the Ohio State House of Representatives. Householder was the chief architect of HB6, a law passed in 2019 that gutted Ohio’s renewables and energy efficiency laws while bailing out several coal and nuclear plants. The law was a multi-billion-dollar giveaway to FirstEnergy, an investor-owned utility that has resisted climate policy for decades. As the FBI discovered, Householder received over $60 million in bribes for his work on HB6.
While the Ohio case is extreme, it is far from anomalous. The nation’s 10 largest utilities spent about $1 billion on charitable giving from 2013 to 2017, money intended to cement political support for fossil fuels. According to a report from utility watchdog Energy and Policy Institute, the utilities’ charitable gifts were intended “to manipulate politics, policies and regulation in ways designed to increase shareholder profits, often at the expense of low-income communities.”
This corporate corruption afflicts communities of color in the most immediate and damaging way. During the summer of 2019, for example, ConEd shut off power during a heatwave to tens of thousands of people in predominantly low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Areas of New York where power was cut off, like Canarsie and Flatlands, have some of the highest percentages of residents at risk for heat-related deaths.
This risk of mortality results from the histories of segregation and racism to which these communities of color have been subjected: their residents are poorer and less able to afford the high bills that come with running air-conditioning frequently, and their neighborhoods have less cooling green space than more affluent, whiter parts of the city. The blackouts are part of a broader structure of environmental racism in the city which includes the disproportionate siting of polluting facilities like waste transfer stations and bus depots in communities of color
How should New York rebuild its energy infrastructure to avoid the chronic injustices produced by the city’s decrepit, profit-driven power system?
After New York’s infamous blackout of 1977, pioneering energy policy analyst Amory Lovins assessed the reasons for the fragility of the city’s electric grid. “Our electric systems are so brittle because they depend on many large and precise machines rotating in an exact synchrony and the power they generate is delivered through a frail web of aerial arteries, which accident, human failure, or human malice can sever.”
For Lovins, the lesson of the 1977 blackout was “to avoid too much centralization and complexity.” Building energy resiliency — and avoiding catastrophic collapses like the 1977 blackout — meant embracing what Lovins called “soft energy” pathways: shifting from the large, centralized forms of energy generation and consumption that have characterized the grid since the early twentieth century to distributed renewable energy resources and energy efficiency.
Today Lovins’s words are more timely than ever.
The solutions to build energy resiliency are available now. They include the large-scale deployment of rooftop solar, which could jointly generate enough energy to meet half the city’s demand for electricity at peak periods. Solar power, combined with storage batteries, is far less vulnerable to disruption than today’s grid, which relies on distribution of power from centralized fossil-fueled power plants to buildings throughout the city. Community solar projects like Sunset Park Solar in Brooklyn make these benefits available to low-income communities of color — in the process slashing residents’ exorbitant utility bills and providing employment for members of economically-marginalized communities.
Community solar projects offer exciting opportunities to see what a resilient energy infrastructure grounded in principles of just transition would look like, but they need to be scaled up dramatically since only about 1 percent of households in New York City are powered by solar.
In response to the blatant failures of ConEd, the New York Public Power Coalition introduced a series of Public Power bills in the state legislature last year that would vastly expand the existing New York Power Authority (NYPA), a state agency that provides power to public housing in the city as well as city and state university campuses. The new Public Power authority will have a mandate to use 100 percent renewable energy and will convert investor-owned utilities like ConEd and National Grid into publicly-owned, democratically run utilities.
We need a rapid and just transition beyond fossil fuels. We are only going to get such a transition if we can wrench control of our energy systems out of the hands of profit-seeking corporations with a strong stake in continuing business as usual. The struggle for democratic control over energy production, distribution, and use is the key front in the fight for a better, sustainable world.
Truly sustainable energy production will only be possible if power is taken out of the hands of gargantuan profit-seeking corporations like ConEd and their flunkeys in the halls of state. Ordinary citizens and communities must control their power. In order to make this power shift, we need to stop thinking of energy as a commodity and instead conceive of it as part of the global commons, a vital element in the great stock of air, water, plants and collectively-created cultural forms like music and language that should be regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole. Our collective future depends on public power.
Ashley Dawson, a professor at the City University of New York, is the author of People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons(O/R Books, 2020).
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