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Albany Whiffed This One Crucial Climate Bill

There's still a few hours for the Assembly to pass legislation creating publicly-owned renewable energy facilities.

A view of the The Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station in Lewiston, New York.

The Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station in Lewiston, New York, operated by the NYPA (Busfahrer/Wikicommons)

A lot of bold, far-reaching policy has fallen victim to Albany's intransigence over the past few weeks—protections for renters, protections for freelancers, and a move to make all new buildings in the state run on electricity—have all stalled out in front of a completely Democrat-controlled legislature.

And in these waning hours of the state's legislative session—it was actually supposed to end yesterday, but they're still legislating!—climate activists are making one final push to pass the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), which they believe is needed to get New York to meet the climate goals that it committed to in 2019. [UPDATE 6/4/22 10:27 a.m: The Assembly adjourned on Saturday morning, without voting on the BRPA.]

The BPRA would allow the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build its own renewable energy facilities, and to generate all of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2030. (The ability to build out its own infrastructure was limited by deregulation under the Pataki administration in the 1990s). Right now, almost all new energy generation in New York State, including several renewable projects, like wind and solar, are being built by private companies, whose energy is bought by investor-owned utilities, who then try to have the costs of those new projects pushed to energy consumers (us). Critics of the current system say that creates a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, where people are paying more for renewable energy, even as that energy ultimately costs less than the currently skyrocketing fossil fuels. That's where the BPRA would come in.

"It creates a possibility for power that is clean and affordable," said Rebecca Bratspies, founding director of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform at CUNY Law School, and a supporter of the bill. "Unlike the privately-owned companies, NYPA doesn't have to be answerable to shareholders, who not only want to profit, but want ever-increasing profit. And we see that one of their complaints is not that they're not making money, but that they need to make more profit."

Right now, New York State has committed to an aggressive, but not unfeasible goal of getting its energy entirely from renewable sources within the next eighteen years. But since passing the landmark climate legislation three years ago, the state legislature hasn't done much to promote the transition, with New York City still pulling 85 percent of its energy from non-renewable sources. (The inverse is true upstate, which is mostly powered by NYPA's massive hydro-electric dam projects and privately-owned nuclear power, providing cheap and fossil-fuel free energy to those already enjoying cleaner air). New York City should see its power mix significantly change after a contentious hydroelectric hookup to Quebec goes online in the next few years. But that still isn't enough for the state to reach its goals.

Under the BPRA, NYPA would be able to build out renewable energy sources without having to pass the bill directly to rate-payers, instead tapping into the state's sterling credit rating to finance the projects. Once complete, renewable energy would be far cheaper for rate-payers than the current mix (which includes fracked gas and the use of local peaker plants, adding another cost—contaminated air—to the equation).

So what's the hold up? Right now, the BPRA has passed the Senate. Supporters of the bill believe that if Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie brought the bill to the floor, it would pass. The speaker himself isn't so sure he has the votes yet, however. Heastie hasn't taken a position on the legislation, as groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (whose legislators and members have championed the bill), continue to apply pressure. While time isn't on their side, other environmental bills, like one banning cryptocurrency mining in fossil fuel facilities, have risen from the dead in recent days and passed the legislature. After the Assembly, the bill would go to Governor Kathy Hochul, who also hasn't taken a position on the bill.

Pushback to the legislation comes from the investor-owned utilities, who claim that the state big-timing into energy projects would stifle competition. Supporters of the bill say just the opposite is true—it would force the investor-owned utilities to innovate and not just continue funding projects by passing the buck to consumers (they might even have to use some money from their investors!). New additions to the bill before it passed the Senate included labor agreements, which pushed some unions from opposing the bill to simply being neutral.

According to CUNY's Bratspies, some form of the BPRA must pass—and soon—or the state will fail to uphold the climate commitments it has already made.

"This is such a sensible approach to say, 'Hey, we have this publicly-owned authority that builds and manages facilities. Let's say they too can build and manage renewable facilities,'" Bratspies said. "This moves us forward in our quest to reach zero emission energy by 2040, while at the same time, respecting and protecting other really important public priorities."

The legislature is already one day past its own self-imposed deadline, with many legislators possibly leaving Albany as soon as Friday night.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide levels are the highest in human history.

This story has been updated to clarify the difference between utilities and companies that own energy projects.

[Update 6/4/22 10:27 a.m.]

The bill failed to pass the Assembly.

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