It’s time for Public Power
Why these two bills should be Albany’s top priority
The past year has given New Yorkers a lot to worry about.
The state budget that was recently passed is a tremendous step toward fighting those overlapping crises that are affecting our city and state. The activists, community members, and legislators who made this possible should be proud of what they accomplished.
But the work in Albany is far from over, and now is no time to rest on our laurels.
New York has a chance this year to fight climate change at its source and make our city more resilient for the future.
The main hurdle? Overcoming the power of the for-profit corporate utilities that poison our communities, demand sky-high rates for dangerously bad service, and accept climate catastrophe as a side effect of their greed for profit.
As climate change accelerates, storms like Hurricane Sandy — which destroyed over 300,000 homes and killed at least 48 New Yorkers — will only become more powerful and more frequent. Rising sea levels mean that, by 2050, large storms like Sandy could flood up to 25 percent of the city, and parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan would be permanently at risk of flooding during typical storms. And flooding isn’t our only problem. Our electrical grid has been mismanaged and neglected for decades, and we pay the price whenever there is extreme weather. Last August, high winds from Tropical Storm Isaias plunged over 130,000 New Yorkers into darkness, with tens of thousands still without power several days after the storm.
It’s not just storms that push our electrical grid to the brink. In 2019, 50,000 New York City and Westchester residents lost power in the middle of a heatwave, including 30,000 people in Canarsie, Mill Basin, and Flatbush, where Con Ed deliberately shut off power to protect other neighborhoods. Add onto this the times that our electrical system has failed even without extreme weather — like the blackout that hit Manhattan’s West Side in 2019 — and a clear picture emerges of a dangerously neglected grid.
Blackouts are more than just nuisances. When the power goes out, medicine like insulin spoils, families lose weeks’ worth of groceries, and seniors and people with medical conditions can’t use the electronic devices they need.
To keep New York City safe, we need to fight climate change at the source and repair our crumbling electrical grid to prevent catastrophic blackouts.
This year, New York has the chance to do both.
That’s because the corporations that let our electrical system fall apart are the very same ones that pump millions of dollars into fossil fuels.
The culprits are Con Edison, National Grid, and all the other for-profit utility companies throughout New York. These corporate utilities are controlled by Wall Street investors and operate like every other for-profit corporation: they cut costs wherever possible, funnel millions straight into the wallets of investors and executives, and aggressively lobby against any threat to their profits, in this case, clean energy.
When we take our power back from these corporate utilities, we can move aggressively to repair our crumbling electrical infrastructure and provide electrical service that’s affordable to all New Yorkers. We can invest in 100 percent clean energy and create a surge of new, good-paying union jobs to get us there. We can finally shut down the fossil fuel plants that poison New Yorkers and overwhelmingly harm working-class and poor communities, which are disproportionately Black and Brown.
How do we get there? Two bills that the legislature could pass this year would together kick Wall Street investors out of the driver’s seat and take back power for the working people of New York.
The New York Build Public Renewables Act, A1466-A, (sponsored by one of the co-authors of this op-ed, Assemblymember Robert Carroll) would take the existing state agency that powers public buildings, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), and put it to work for New Yorkers across the state. Instead of doubling down on fossil fuels like private utilities do, NYPA would provide 100% renewable energy directly to any New Yorker who wants it and would be democratically controlled to make sure the public interest is put ahead of private profit. The sister bill (sponsored by Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani), the NY Utility Democracy Act, would complete the job by converting Wall Street-run corporate utilities into truly public utilities, governed by and for the people they serve.
This isn’t a pipe dream. One in seven Americans already gets their power from a public utility instead of a corporation, and the 2,000 communities across the country who’ve enacted public power on average pay lower prices for better service, according to the American Public Power Association. This makes sense; when you stop shelling out $15 million per year to a single CEO and even more to Wall Street investors, you end up with more resources for upgrading the grid and can charge customers less.
This past weekend, over 300 New Yorkers gathered at rallies across the city to demand an end to corporate utilities. New York’s legislators should heed their call and pass NYBPRA and NYUDA this year, before these corporations pour millions more into new fossil fuel infrastructure and before their continued negligence causes even more catastrophic blackouts.
The threat posed by climate change is serious. If we let Wall Street investors and fossil fuel executives decide when we start using 100 percent renewable energy, it’ll be too late to save New York from disaster.
For the sake of our city, our wallets, and our future, New Yorkers must move to public power.
Robert Carroll represents Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Ditmas Park, and Borough Park in the New York State Assembly.
Zach Cassidy is an activist with the Ecosocialist Working Group of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America. He lives near the Brooklyn waterfront and recently earned his Masters in Public and Urban Policy from the New School.
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