GELF Testimony on Public Power

Testimony of the Green Education and Legal Fund
to the Joint Legislative Hearing of the
Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions;
Assembly Standing Committee on Energy; and
Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation
To examine the role of State authorities in facilitating the development of renewable energy to meet the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA)

Thursday, July 28, 2022

My name is Mark Dunlea. I am testifying today as chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund (GELF).

We thank the Assembly committees for calling this hearing. We hope you convince Speaker Heastie to convene a special session this fall to pass the New York State Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) as the state Senate has already done.

GELF has long advocated for the expansion of public power, especially with renewables, to greatly speed up the transition to a carbon-free future while ensuring affordable prices and living wage jobs. The state’s continued reliance upon the private sector has resulted in the state falling far short of the renewable energy goals first set by Governor Pataki two decades ago and makes it unlikely that the state and the planet will be able to avoid climate collapse.

On behalf of GELF, I testified in February 2018 at the state budget hearings in favor of Part GG of Governor Cuomo’s proposed Transportation and Economic Development (TED) Article VII budget bill to allow the state Power Authority, to “finance, plan, design, engineer, acquire, construct, operate or manage” renewable energy projects.

GELF endorses the similar goals of the BPRA (A01466D / S6453), though we support faster timelines (e.g., 2025) and much more of an overhaul of the structure of the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to create democratic control. We also support a strong role for municipal power authorities building and owning renewables in addition to NYPA.

I was the Green Party nominee for State Comptroller in 2018 where I called for public ownership and rapid expansion of renewable energy in New York. I am presently the co-chair of the EcoAction Committee of the Green Party of the United State. In my Comptroller campaign, I advocated for the “state setting ambitious goals for building publicly-owned renewables and allowing local governments to propose how many projects they could deal with. This would provide local financial investments and good-paying construction and maintenance jobs in the local community – as many as 5 million statewide according to the Jacobson report. The local governments would take the lead on siting and the state on financing and regulatory approval. Either NYPA could own it or local governments can create community ownership models such as municipal power systems or worker and consumer cooperatives. Municipal systems drove the expansion of renewables in Germany.” I first campaigned for a municipal power public system for Albany County in 1981.

I was also the campaign manager for Howie Hawkins in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign when he first proposed a Green New Deal for New York, combining a ten-year timeline to transition to zero emissions with an Economic Bill of Rights, guaranteeing a living wage job, single payer universal health care, affordable housing and the right to education (including college). It called for public ownership and democratic control of our energy system.

Climate Change Requires Public Power

Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. The United States and the rest of the world are facing a climate emergency. We need a society-wide mobilization similar to what the U.S. did in World War II. After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt launched an emergency restructuring of our entire economy at a rapid speed, launching a government-coordinated social and industrial revolution.

Public ownership of utilities can accelerate the renewable energy transition at the scale needed to meet our closing climate deadline for action. Just last week it is announced that the carbon budget – how much can be emitted globally before we exceed global warming of 1.5 degree C – is now less than 7 years at the current rate of emissions. It’s simply too late to provide piecemeal incentives and then wait expectantly for a market controlled by fossil fuel interests to voluntarily deploy more renewables. New York State’s efforts over the last two decades to provide piecemeal incentives for renewable energy have resulted in only 5% of NY’s electricity coming from wind and solar.

Publicly controlled energy is the most effective way to ensure a transition to affordable, renewable power in a way that supports workers and prioritizes the well-being for all individuals. Two thousand cities and towns across the U.S. already have public control of their utility grids.

Public ownership and democratic control of our energy system is needed to accelerate the shutdown of fossil fuels and transition to clean renewable energy. It can provide the speed and scale needed to meet our rapidly closing deadline for climate action. We need to make energy decisions not based on maximizing profit and a high rate of return on investment but on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in energy efficiency for instance is the most cost-effective and job-creating energy approach – but it does not maximize private profit.

Public ownership of energy is nothing new in America. Municipal utilities – including more than 50 in NYS as well as the NY Power Authority – have existed since the 1880s. Los Angeles has a municipally-owned system serving 4 million residents. Much of the country received electricity through the federal rural electrification program begun by FDR in 1936. Currently, four federal Power Marketing Administration and the TVA generate and transmit power to utilities in 33 states. Boulder is a recent example of using public ownership for climate justice.

Public and cooperatively owned utilities serve 49 million people in the United States, at lower costs and with generally more reliable service. In fact, the entire state of Nebraska runs fully off of public power after the state expelled the for-profit utility in the 1940s because of its extortionist rates.

Public ownership will reduce the cost of the transition to a clean energy future. Public energy has been cheaper to finance and operate. Public ownership enables the local community to democratically decide what projects are built and where, while providing local jobs and building community wealth.

Publicly-owned utilities don’t have the same motivations and incentives to continually expand energy production since they don’t have to generate a profit for shareholders. Therefore, a publicly-owned utility is more likely to yield to public pressure to eliminate fossil fuels than investor-owned utilities. Unlike their for-profit counterparts, these entities are ultimately beholden to the public and any profits are reinvested into the community’s schools, parks and public services.

We note that in New York, municipalities already have the right to establish or acquire an electric system that serves consumers/residents/businesses within the municipal corporate limit. Municipalities may “construct, lease, purchase, own, acquire, use and/or operate any public utility service within or without its territorial limits, for the purpose of furnishing to itself or for compensation to its inhabitants, any service similar to that furnished by any public utility company” N.Y. Gen. Mun. Law § 360(2) (2012). The state should provide assistance, including financial, to increase the number of such municipal power systems and for them to develop renewable energy and assist with local decarbonization efforts.

Pass and Strengthen BPRA

BRPA would enable the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to own and build new renewable generation, storage, and transmission, require NYPA to provide only renewable energy by 2030, and to provide renewable energy to all state-owned and municipal properties by 2035. As noted previously, we support a 2025 timeline.

BPRA includes requiring a ten-year climate and resiliency plan to be made public within two years with a minimum of eight public hearings within that time frame. In light of the climate emergency, we would reduce the time frame for the adoption of the plan to one year. And while we support public input, our experience is that public hearings by the state have not been an effective way to ensure the public is actually listened to.

We support strong labor and procurement standards for NYPA.

While we strongly favor democratic control of NYPA, we doubt that the proposed changes will be successful in meeting that goal. Section 3 expands NYPA trustees from 7 to 17 with the 10 additional members appointed 2 by the governor, 4 by the president of the Senate, and 4 by the speaker of the assembly based on recommendations by labor, advocates, experts, and people identified by clean energy hubs. We are more supportive of holding regional elections for NYPA positions.

We are more supportive of the legislation’s requirement for the creation of a democratization plan in “partnership with, and codesigned with, a statewide alliance of community organizations with at least five years’ history of working on energy democracy and implementation issues, providing funding for this alliance as necessary for their participation in the completion of the plan. Such plan shall ensure that the scale-up of renewable build out across the state occurs in line with the principles of energy democracy and transparency.”

GELF supports the provision that “The authority, in consultation with the New York state energy  research and development authority and the public service commission,  shall develop and conduct an energy efficiency and energy audit program to identify public buildings most in need of retrofits and efficiency measures. Such program shall provide for the installation of renewable heating and cooling systems, and, when feasible,  other  green  building projects as defined in section 58-0101 of the environmental conservation law, in public housing and public schools by the year two thousand thirty-five, prioritizing first public affordable housing and public schools  in disadvantaged communities.” However, we would speed up the completion date to 2026. The initiatives should include weatherization, demand management and other conservation measures.

We support the proposal in BPRA that NYPA provides renewable electricity to Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). However, the legislature authorized NYPA to take action along these lines two years ago but NYPA has apparently not been very interested in doing so. With the state requiring utilities and others to expand the use of renewables – which is essential – but having failed to actually bring significant new renewables online since the passage of the CLCPA, this has caused significant financial challenges for CCAs that prioritize renewable energy. With the increased demand outstripping supply, prices for renewables have been going up.

When I met a number of years ago with Richard Kaufman, the energy czar under Cuomo, he sought to defend the state’s poor track record on developing renewables on the challenge of trying to negotiate with the myriad of entities involved in owning and operating the state’s transmission line. I pointed out that the obvious solution was for the state – or NYPA – to take over the entire transmission system to improve coordination, speed up bringing renewables on line and lower costs for consumers. This still is essential.

The NY Utility Democracy Act

We support a NY Utility Democracy Act to transition all of the state’s distribution utilities into public ownership within two years.

New York State will, through either purchase or eminent domain, acquire all assets of all energy and gas utilities across the state. It would set a timeline for scaling down all gas infrastructure across the State while equally setting a timeline for scaling up renewable infrastructure to meet this new demand.

It would create democratically elected utility boards to oversee the operations of the distribution utilities. It would create new utility territories based on principles of environmental justice, equity, and energy democracy.

In order to meet the climate targets mandated by the state and to avert the worst of climate catastrophe, our renewable energy grid must be a distributed energy grid that is resilient in the face of greater and stronger storms. Investor-owned utilities’ entire business model is predicated on extracting as much profit from the current system. They rely on short-term profits, continuing, extending, and upgrading fossil fuel infrastructure, all to increase returns to investors. It is antithetical to long-term sustainability.