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New York Is Actually Getting a Green New Deal

A massive win for public power amidst a bleak conclusion to state budget negotiations.

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)

Those in New York who champion the idea of public ownership—that the state should own and operate the necessities that make modern life possible (hospitals, schools, transit, power plants, etc.)—often look at the governorship of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the beginning of a transformational period in American life as a whole, where the beginnings of the New Deal were felt amidst a worsening economic outlook in New York State.

In 1931, Roosevelt created the New York Power Authority (NYPA), a public-benefit corporation meant to provide affordable power to New York's residents, and bring the state's frayed grid into the 20th century. And for almost 100 years, the NYPA has done just that—generating affordable and mostly renewable energy to millions of people throughout upstate New York from its network of massive hydroelectric dams, while also spewing dirty fossil-fuel power for those in New York City. The NYPA, which ultimately fell under the influence of the privately-owned utilities that dictate New York's energy policies, got out of the building stuff game decades ago. New York's leaders, flush with campaign donations from those private utilities, thought that energy generation in New York State was best left to the private sector. Price-gouging, natural gas lines, and profits being used to lobby against laws that would protect the environment and air quality followed. 

But buried within a budget that does little to alleviate the misery facing many New Yorkers dealing with a deepening affordability crisis, was a ray of hope. After four years of intense organizing, New York has passed the Build Public Renewables Act—getting New York's Power Authority back into the energy game, with a mandate to build renewable energy projects (using union workers) to help provide New York's residents with cheap, clean energy and accelerating New York's ambitious timeline to decarbonize its grid by 2040. 

Last year, the State Assembly failed to back the proposal after it passed the State Senate—leading to an extraordinary special session during the summer where advocates pressed the state assembly speaker to let the bill receive actual public testimony. The New York Power Authority's interim chairman, Justin Driscoll, testified against the proposal—saying that the authority didn't want to build renewable projects, with a major reason being that it couldn't qualify for certain tax credits that private utilities could utilize.

Two things have changed since the summer that pushed the proposal over the edge. The passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act allowed the NYPA to apply for those credits, and a larger coalition of unions got behind the bill.

In January, Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a slimmed-down version of the proposal, without the mandate to build and any of the labor standards that brought the unions on board. Advocates kept fighting, and now they've won.

Shovels are not ready to go into the ground just yet, as another battle awaits. The part of the original BPRA that Hochul left out included democratization provisions for the leadership of the NYPA, which meant far more say from local communities and electeds on how the authority is run. Instead, the NYPA remains in the thrall of the executive—and as we previously noted, Driscoll, Hochul's CEO, has already come out against the BPRA. But Driscoll still has not been confirmed by the State Senate, with several senators already declaring they won't support him unless he puts his full support behind publicly-built renewables. Is Hochul ready for another bruising confirmation battle? The State Senate won last round, and this time, the future of the planet is on the line. 

Some privately-owned (but publicly accessible) links: 

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