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How the Build Public Renewables Act Stalled and What Lies Ahead for the Green New York Movement

Issue 272

An update on the fight for more public power in New York.

Erin Thibeau & Josh Karen Jul 5

As the final hours of the legislative session ticked by on Friday, June 3, supporters of the New York Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) were hard at work. The transformative climate-justice bill had sailed through the Senate but had yet to pass the Assembly. The Public Power NY Coalition — a group made up of climate organizations and several New York chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — were calling legislators in a final-stretch frenzy that saw multiple assembly members’ offices fielding 500 calls each. By the end of session, activists had confirmed 83 legislative supporters, more than the 76 needed for it to pass. So why did Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie fail to bring the bill to the floor for a vote?

New York is failing to meet its climate goals. By law, the state must achieve a 70% renewable-energy an energy grid by 2030 and 100% by 2040. Yet the state’s reliance on private industry has left us languishing at 4% wind and solar energy combined — one-fifth as much as Texas. BPRA is now considered the only feasible path forward to reach those targets.

If enacted, BPRA would enable the New York Power Authority (NYPA) — the largest public power authority in the country — to produce, own and sell renewable energy. Along with divesting from fossil fuels, NYPA would move to provide all state-owned buildings and public transit across the state with 100% renewable energy. It also would also be required to offer energy to low-to-moderate income customers at a 50% discount from private utility companies. 

A 2022 report by Climate and Community Project found that BPRA would create more than 50,000 jobs and up to $93.5 billion in additional economic activity while directing 35-40% of the investment-led benefits from decarbonizing the state’s energy system directly toward disadvantaged communities.

New York is failing to meet its climate goals. By law, the state must achieve a 70% renewable-energy an energy grid by 2030 and 100% by 2040. Yet the state’s reliance on private industry has left us languishing at 4%.

In response to its failed 2021 legislative push for BPRA, the Ecosocialist Working Group of the New York City chapter of DSA (NYC-DSA) crafted a two-pronged strategy to drive climate action:

  1. Elect a Green New York slate of seven insurgent candidates running as climate champions to replace the climate-denying Democrats who block these bills year after year.
  2. Leverage the electoral threat to pressure lawmakers backed by fossil fuel corporations into supporting or remaining neutral on the legislative push to pass BPRA.

This strategy was born from insights gained during the ecosocialists’ successful fights against fracked-gas plants in Queens and Newburgh, the legislative efforts for BPRA, and the popular response to the heatwaves and blackouts of 2019 and the catastrophic floods of 2021. It became clear from conversations with the state senate’s central staff that New Yorkers cared deeply about the climate crisis. That, combined with popular hatred of private-utility companies like National Grid and Con Edison, showed NYC-DSA that there was an opening to make the 2022 electoral cycle a climate election.

Together with the Public Power NY Coalition, NYC-DSA worked closely with legislators, central staff and different constituencies across the state to shore up support for the bill. One focus was enhancing labor provisions in the bill to engage unions in the work ahead and ensure that workers are not harmed by the transition to renewables. The New York State AFL-CIO had voiced opposition in a memo before the edits were made public. Later versions of the bill addressed their concerns, leading key trade unions to lift their opposition and become neutral. 

The strategy worked. With the unions no longer opposed and a primary campaign by DSA-endorsed Green New York slate member David Alexis breathing down his neck, Senator Kevin Parker, the chair of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee and one of the key roadblocks to BPRA, stepped aside. The bill passed the State Senate 38-25. Parker skipped the vote.

The State Assembly was a different story. Opposition groups including the Independent Power Producers of New York (the lobby and political arm for fossil fuel corporations) and the Alliance for Clean Energy New York (the lobby for renewable industry capitalists) mounted attacks — like having multiple social media accounts repeat the same false talking points that NYPA will “stifle competition and raise prices.” 

But the memos and attack ads didn’t stop the massive outpouring of support for BPRA. More than 1,000 supporters used NYC-DSA’s call guide to contact legislators (some even sending faxes!). #BuildPublicRenewables was the top trending topic on Twitter in New York for two days in a row. In the final moments of the session, DSA’s electeds were rousing support and making social media pleas. But the limits of having only six socialists in Albany became clear. Speaker Heastie refused to even bring the bill to a vote in the Assembly. Fossil fuel interests had blocked the best path for the state toward meeting the renewable energy goals it set in 2019. 

A victory for the Build Public Renewables Act would prove that we can leverage the power of government to democratize and make green our state’s energy supply.

Yet the unprecedented public-pressure campaign for the bill still validated NYC-DSA’s approach. Speaker Heastie called for a special hearing on July 28 “to review this subject and get additional public input” because “we agree with the goals of the Build Public Renewables Act.” This kind of hearing is rare (and unprecedented, considering it was called by the very person who shut down the bill).

This is a crucial moment for climate action in New York State. The failure to pass major climate legislation for the third straight year will be a stain on certain legislators’ records, which voters will not forget in the primaries. If, as socialist Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani says, “organizing is the act of punching above your weight,” it’s clear that NYC-DSA must replace climate deniers in Albany with climate organizers in order to break any future impasses on desperately needed legislation. 

And our movement can use the pressure of the primaries to force Heastie’s hand so that after the special hearing, he recovenes the Assembly — where the majority supporting this bill can pass it and Governor Kathy Hochul can sign it into law. 

This victory would prove that we can leverage the power of government to democratize and make green our state’s energy supply. It would establish New York as a climate leader and inspire other states to follow suit. And it would prove that a robust public sector can meet human needs more efficiently and affordably when led by progressive policies.

What we’ve accomplished so far is heartening. We have the power of organizing in hand to fight for a liveable future for all New Yorkers.

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