This spring, socialists and allies in New York State passed legislation empowering the state to build renewable energy and create tens of thousands of good jobs. It can serve as a model for starting to build the Green New Deal at the state level across the US.

A road runs between wind turbines in Lowville, New York. (Ron Antonelli / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Four years after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal, the New York chapters of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and allies took what could be a major step in transforming that policy into reality.

It’s called the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), and its passage in the New York state budget puts public power instead of private corporations in the driver’s seat for the transition to renewable energy. The law mandates the state’s public power authority, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), to plan, build, and operate renewable projects to meet New York’s ambitious decarbonization timetable — 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030, 100 percent by 2040 — where the private sector fails to do so on its own.

But the BPRA is more than “just” a climate bill. It is part of an unabashedly socialist vision of how to build a better world. The BPRA turns the renewable energy transition into a tool for empowering labor, materially improving working-class conditions, advancing racial justice, and laying the groundwork for true democratic ownership of our energy systems. It also provides an important model for other states to follow and a demonstration of the power socialists can wield in designing and passing policy.

Power to the Public

Central to the BPRA is the role of public ownership and planning. Unlike other renewable energy legislation that hands the responsibility for a green transition — and resulting profits — to private investment and corporations, the BPRA puts the future in the hands of the public via the New York Power Authority.

Founded in 1931 by then governor Franklin D. Roosevelt with the express purpose of “giving back to the people the waterpower which is theirs,” the agency has become the country’s largest state-owned public utility, generating and transmitting up to a quarter of New York’s electricity, the vast majority of it created via hydropower. Between its extensive history in operating the most affordable and renewable utility system in the state as well as its ability to raise its own funds through AA-rated bonds, the NYPA is an ideal instrument for a renewable transition.

It won’t have to do this alone either. The BPRA allows the agency to maximize funding opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) through its “direct pay” provisions, which are predicated on qualities like tax exemption (which the NYPA already has) and meeting prevailing wage and domestic content requirements (which the BPRA mandates). Direct pay gives the NYPA access to clean energy tax credits by allowing the agency to claim the equivalent tax credits in the form of a direct payment from the Internal Revenue Service — essentially, a refund. This opens up the scale and scope of projects that the NYPA can engage in, as accessing those same tax credits pre-IRA would have required an elaborate public-private structure owned by a third party.

Public ownership is only half of the equation. Earlier in the year, Governor Kathy Hochul and interim NYPA CEO Justin Driscoll announced their intent to give Amazon discounts on its energy, and to deploy more than thirty megawatts of solar systems at five upstate prisons. It’s easy to see how the establishment could abuse the public renewable rollout to pick winners and losers, choosing which favored constituency to bless with the benefits of renewable siting, and whom to force a project on without concern for community needs.

This is because while the NYPA is publicly owned, its board and CEO are chosen by the governor, giving the board every incentive to stay on its boss’s good side. This leads to the absurd situation where Driscoll, who testified against the BPRA last year, is now in charge of implementing it — though the successful DSA-led push to have the Senate pull his confirmation vote has thrown his continued employment into limbo.

To combat this, the BPRA requires the NYPA to consult stakeholders like unions, community organizations, and climate and resiliency experts in a strategic planning process to determine where, when, and how it builds new renewables, which it will then formalize into official plans. Each plan requires three public hearings and a sixty-day comment period, with the first to be published no later than January 2025 and every two years afterward, with annual updates and additional hearing and comment periods. These offer organizing opportunities for DSA and its allies to combat the disinformation and astroturfing that so often accompanies renewable siting by mobilizing the public in favor of a socialist vision of a just and complete energy transition.

While the final text of the law fell short of DSA’s more encompassing demands — expanding the NYPA board to include many more seats reserved for labor and environmental justice reps, and democratic control of the hiring and firing of trustees — the BPRA is a meaningful step toward a truly democratic energy system.

Move Fast and Save Things

In 2019, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which legally binds the state to generating 70 percent of its electricity with renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. But since then, New York has taken no meaningful steps to reach the law’s goals, with elected leaders relying on the market to provide a solution. Under 5 percent of the state’s energy comes from wind and solar generation today — less than a fifth of the wind and solar production of Texas — with few shovel-ready projects on the horizon.

The BPRA changes that: the NYPA is now “authorized and directed” to build the renewable production necessary to meet the timetable of the CLCPA. Effectively, it requires the NYPA to fill in where the private sector has overwhelmingly failed, aggressively building up the state’s wind and solar to supplement the agency’s ample hydropower capabilities. The NYPA would then become New York’s primary renewable producer and provider, ensuring that the state’s energy future is in the hands of the public.

For decades prior to the BPRA, private interests had successfully lobbied to prohibit the NYPA from building and owning new utility-scale renewables. While the BPRA lifts the injunction, it will take time for the agency to build up the necessary expertise and capacity. To ensure that the renewable transition continues apace, the BPRA allows the NYPA to enter into public-private partnerships with developers with expertise in the field.

Here is where socialists writing the law once again makes a difference. Our language ensures that the NYPA can enter such partnerships only if necessary, and that the agency maintain majority ownership of any such project, including of any subsidiaries formed to implement it. In other words, the bill prioritizes public power over the interests of green capital.

Workers Make the World

DSA worked alongside the AFL-CIO to write gold-standard labor provisions to ensure that any job created to build public renewables is a union job, or as good as one in terms of wages, benefits, and protections. Renewable jobs are the fastest growing in the energy sector, but also the most precarious; most green workers chase projects across the country at the mercy of temp agencies for low wages, meager benefits, and minimal job security. This is in no small part due to low union density in the renewable field, especially compared to peers in the fossil fuel industry.

The BPRA requires that all public renewable projects be subject to project labor agreements, including the state’s existing public works and prevailing wage requirements. This puts unions in the driver’s seat for standards on BPRA projects and also raises the floor for green workers across the state. After all, if building public renewables nabs workers a better deal, private developers will have to increase their compensation packages to stay competitive.

The law also helps create pathways for unionization: project labor agreements establish the contracted union as representative for all workers on site, so contractors will get to experience the benefits of being part of a union firsthand — an important step in demonstrating that there is power in a union.

Much has been said about a just transition for fossil fuel workers; the BPRA makes that slogan a reality. The law requires that the NYPA enter into a memorandum of understanding with labor unions representing workers at existing fossil fuel facilities to protect their jobs, salaries, benefits, and titles in the event that their workplaces are phased out, while helping place and train them in new jobs where applicable. The transition is backed by a newly created Office of Just Transition in the Department of Labor, which is funded to the tune of $25 million a year to retrain workers in renewable energy fields. The BPRA is estimated to directly or indirectly create between 28,410 and 51,133 jobs — thousands of them union, many of them sustained.

Climate Justice for the Working Class

BPRA organizers worked with environmental justice organizations and communities to address the environmental injustices wrought by fossil fuels as we seek to build a livable future for all. That starts with closing the peaker plants owned and operated by the NYPA. These highly polluting fossil fuel–powered facilities were designed to operate just once or twice a year to help meet excess demand during peak times. Instead, they run on a regular basis, polluting the predominantly black and brown communities they were built around.

To get a scale of just how poisonous these facilities are, just look to the asthma emergency room visit rate among children from the Mott Haven and Melrose sections of the Bronx: it’s triple the citywide rate. Thanks to the BPRA, the NYPA must shut down all seven peaker plants by 2030.

The law also mandates that the NYPA-built renewable system maintain a reliable supply of electricity, especially in high-need areas served by gas plants. It was a climate-induced heat wave that overwhelmed New York’s decrepit grid in 2019, but it was the for-profit companies operating the system that decided to localize the blackouts to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx — the same working-class neighborhoods that host NYPA peaker plants. The BPRA aims to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.

In addition to decarbonization, the BPRA takes a major step forward in making green energy affordable for all. It establishes a program to make electricity cheaper for low-to-moderate-income customers by using money generated by NYPA sales of renewable energy to provide credits to over a million New Yorkers. This is an essential step to keeping heat, air conditioning, and lights on for those most in need as rates and utility debt skyrocket. The program is opt-out, meaning that customers will be automatically enrolled instead of having to jump through hoops like with most means-tested programs.

The Green New Deal Can Start Here

Public power utilities serve over two thousand communities across forty-nine states and five US territories, equivalent to one in every seven Americans. The BPRA provides a ready-made model for socialists and the broader left to transform all public power utilities into vehicles for job creation, labor empowerment, renewable generation, and climate justice.

Winning state-by-state BPRAs can alter the political landscape in favor of government-led climate action. But the true sea change would be using the BPRA as launchpads for a Green New Deal. With popular green public utilities as a beachhead, organizers and activists can advance even more Green New Deal programs like climate-proofing and retrofitting public housing, green public transit, and total public ownership of utilities and the electricity grid — all while creating potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs and materially improving the lives of working-class people.

With the Biden administration largely ineffective or even taking steps backward on climate action and Republicans threatening to take back the White House in 2024, state-level legislation offers the most promising path to enacting a Green New Deal. It took us four years to pass the BPRA in New York — to meet emission-reduction targets, we need to pass similar laws in every state by 2030. Daunting as that may seem, the blueprint is there, and the movement we built has already shown itself robust enough to win a second subsequent victory by whipping up an aggressive campaign to deny interim NYPA CEO Driscoll a confirmation vote. There is work yet to be done. But the decade of the Green New Deal can start now.


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