A bill that would have substantially increased renewable power generation for the state of New York was killed at the 11th hour by politicians with deep financial relationships to corporate interests. It’s a classic political story — but this one involves factions of Democrats, and some of those corporate interests include the renewable energy industry.
And even though the bill was defeated, there are signs from this fight that the centrist Democrats in power are beginning to feel the heat from climate activists.
“It’s definitely a conversation about private profit versus the public good,” Stylianos Karolidis, an organiser with New York City Democratic Socialists, told Earther.
The Build Public Renewables Act deals with the New York Power Association (NYPA), the state’s public utility. NYPA was first formed in the early 1930s to regulate the state’s hydropower generation, but a cap was later put on the number of projects the public corporation could build and finance each year. The BPRA would, in essence, take those handcuffs off the authority, allowing it to build and finance public renewable energy projects with the goal of providing all-renewable energy to its customers by 2030.
“The core of the bill is a public entity building and owning renewable generation,” Karolidis said. “NYPA happened to be the best public option.”
NYPA is a pretty good vehicle to work with. It’s the largest state-owned public utility in the country and it provides power to huge entities like the state’s public transportation system and universities. NYPA is also a great financial bet: It’s got a stellar bond rating and would be able to easily finance the gargantuan investment needed to build out renewables projects without passing costs to ratepayers, which investor-owned utilities are able to do. Many of the projects laid out in the legislation, Karolidis said, would eventually pay for themselves following that up-front investment, thanks to the fact that renewables have no long-term fuel costs like fossil fuels do. The bill also comes wrapped up with labour provisions to help engage unions for the work needed to be done, as well as mandates that NYPA offer energy at a 50% discount to low-income customers.
The bill’s benefits are “kind of like a win-win-win,” Karolidis said. “It turns on its head the incorrect motif that the government isn’t efficient at doing anything.”
A version of the BPRA was introduced last year and failed. But after months of organisers expanding the coalition involved in the bill, adding language on labour and low-income customers, and conducting a grassroots campaign to encourage lawmakers, the bill easily passed through the state Senate last week. Organisers said that they had enough votes to get the bill through the Assembly and to the governor’s desk for signing.
That wasn’t enough for Carl Heastie, the Assembly Speaker who refused to bring the bill to a vote last week, blocking it from reaching the governor’s desk for signing. In the same fashion, Heastie also nixed a bill that was modelled off of New York City’s successful ban on gas hookups in new construction. With lawmakers out of Albany until next year after November’s election, both climate bills are effectively dead.
Despite the state’s reputation as a climate leader, it’s hard not to feel the frustration about the pace of climate action in New York. Lawmakers in Albany passed one of the most ambitious pieces of climate legislation in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates that New York get 70% of its energy from renewables by 2030. But since then, politicians have largely dragged their feet on passing any actual plans to implement these changes.
Meanwhile, New York needs to more than double its renewable generation by 2030, while power demand is expected to rise exponentially, and fossil projects are moving off the grid. Wind and solar use remains in the single-digit percentiles, while fossil fuel use has risen since the pandemic, thanks in part to increased demand and the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant last year.
The conflict over the bill illustrates a central tension in trying to introduce new renewable energy on the grid: Who would do the best job at getting the projects we need off the ground? The current status quo in New York (and in most of the country) is that private energy companies and investor-owned utilities, encouraged by the state and federal government through incentives, will shoulder the bulk of the job. But advocates say it’s well past time to think of different strategies.
“The theory has been, and continues to be, if you maximise profit incentives for developers and jerry rig up a ‘market’ setup for them, that that is the best way to incentivise our way towards wind and solar production,” said Pete Sikora, the Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change. “In reality, the state has stalled very, very badly.”
Looking at the bill’s opposition, it’s pretty clear that public power has some deep-pocketed enemies. Utility interests as well as oil and gas interests, unsurprisingly, opposed the bill — but so did renewable energy groups representing private companies. In an opposition memo to the bill posted last month, the New York Solar Energy Industries Association (NYSEIA) said that the state’s current practices of encouraging renewable energy from private companies “have been and are successful, and there is no reason to have NYPA undertake the same types of projects.”
“If NYPA were to get into the renewables game, they would very rapidly outcompete everyone else,” Karolidis said. “There wouldn’t be a reason for private companies to do anything, because NYPA could do it faster, cheaper, better.”
The success of renewable projects could be tethered to forces outside of New York — something the BPRA looks to fix. Karolidis pointed out that if the federal government flips back to a Republican opposed to renewable energy, many federal incentives for renewable energy could disappear, further stalling their growth.
“A lot of these private companies are building very small power generation buildouts,” Karolidis said. “This is not a problem that’s going to be solved by 500 businesses — it needs one big, coordinated effort.”
Heastie has taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from utilities and the oil and gas lobby; it’s easy to pin his blockage of the BPRA, as well as the renewable gas bill, on his own financial interests. (Heastie said in a statement that his decision was based on a lack of votes for the bill — something the bill’s advocates strongly deny.) But his resistance doesn’t come in a vacuum: in New York, progressive legislation that passes through the Senate is often not guaranteed to reach the Assembly for a vote.
“What happens, routinely, is where there is a bill that has some corporate interests opposed to it, inevitably moderate and pro-corporate Democrats are going to be saying that they don’t like it,” Sikora said. “That’s true on every single issue — that’s always the case.”
Even if the bill is dead for now, that BPRA got this far is somewhat of a victory for grassroots climate action. New York’s DSA made climate a central platform in their support for candidates in this year’s election cycle, and many of the incumbent candidates facing primary challengers later this month are having to grapple with their positions on climate. The bill’s co-sponsor, State Sen. Kevin Parker, is a longtime centrist who is facing a DSA-backed challenger in this month’s primary — his first primary opponent since 2010. Parker said last year that the idea of public power helping to solve climate change was a “fallacy”; this year, however, he threw his energy behind this version of the bill, celebrating its passage through the Senate last week.
And there’s evidence that the public pressure is getting to the top Democratic brass, too. On Monday, Heastie said in a statement that he would convene a hearing on the BPRA at the end of July to get public input on the legislation, based on the Assembly Majority’s “support for the goals of the bill” — an unusual move.
“It’s a sign of pressure building,” Sikora said. “I’m sure they’re taken aback [by] just how pissed people are right now.”