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If Democrats Can’t Pass Climate Legislation in New York, We’re All Doomed

If Democrats Can’t Pass Climate Legislation in New York, We’re All Doomed

Preparing for a future in which Democrats lose the midterms without having passed climate legislation, green groups have begun to emphasize a line popularized during the Trump era: that cities and states will take the lead on cutting emissions. New York—which has had a Democratic supermajority for the last few years—is one of the states where that leadership should be easiest. Yet since passing a 2019 bill that set out the goal of generating 100 percent of the state’s power from zero-emission sources by 2040, New York has yet to pass a single piece of legislation to implement it.

That could change this week in Albany. The Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, could soon land on Governor Kathy Hochul’s desk. If she signs it, the bill would mandate that the state’s Roosevelt-era public power provider—the New York Power Authority, or NYPA—generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030 and establish a process through which it can build and own renewables while shutting down polluting infrastructure. If the bill fails to pass before the end of the legislative session this week, it won’t be Republicans to blame but Democrats ostensibly committed to climate action.

The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday evening, after it sailed through that body’s rules committee on Tuesday. It’s now up to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to bring it to a vote in that chamber. (Heastie’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story in time for publication.)

“BPRA will let the state build out wind and solar energy, which is going to create tens of thousands of good paying jobs. It’s a public option for getting your energy,” said Daniel Atonna, political director at the Hudson Valley nonprofit For the Many. The organization is a member of the Public Power NY Coalition, which has been pushing for BPRA. Other members of the coalition include Food and Water Action, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and several Democratic Socialists of America chapters across the state, whose eco-socialist working group has championed the bill. It’s also garnered support from Congressman Jamaal Bowman.

NYPA, Atonna said, is uniquely situated to build out a fleet of new clean energy infrastructure. The agency has a AA bond rating from the ratings agencies Fitch and Standard & Poors, meaning that it would have little trouble financing projects. Unlike what would happen if renewables were to be built by the state’s investor-owned utilities, the expense wouldn’t be passed down to households via a process known as “ratebasing,” whereby utilities can raise bills to finance new infrastructure if they get approval from the Public Service Commission. Currently, new power generation infrastructure outside of NYPA is built by independent power producers, whose trade association has been fiercely opposed to BPRA.*

New NYPA projects, if this bill passes, could include both utility-scale solar generation and offshore wind, transmission lines, electric vehicle chargers, energy storage, and green hydrogen. As elsewhere, green hydrogen is defined in the bill text as hydrogen “produced through electrolysis powered using one hundred percent renewable energy,” as opposed to blue hydrogen, which uses natural gas.

“If we’re going to meet our climate goals, we need the state to play a large role,” Assemblymember Bobby Carroll, a BPRA co-sponsor who represents parts of Brooklyn, told me over the phone. “We’re not just going to hope the market decides a certain project is bondable and profitable and thus will go forward,” he added. “There are a lot of projects that I don’t think will ever get built if we rely solely on a profit-driven model.”

Besides providing a potential model for other states, the bill could be a means of insulating New York against federal policies that are hostile to climate action. Should tax credits for wind and solar energy expire under Republican leadership, for instance, the road toward scaling up renewables could get a lot rockier over the coming years—even if costs continue to fall. The fact that development has to date been largely contingent on for-profit investor-owned utilities and third-party providers means that firms unable to reap tax credits may be less likely to build renewable energy installations. Those utilities that have been openly hostile to clean energy, meanwhile, could continue to double down on fossil fuels.

After an earlier version of the BPRA failed last year—alongside two other climate measures—its backers within and without the legislature worked on expanding their coalition, opening up conversations with environmental justice and labor groups, among others. New language added as a result of those conversations aims to safeguard low-cost power for low-income New Yorkers and those who live in disadvantaged communities and ensure that projects don’t violate Indigenous sovereignty. The bill also provides project labor agreements for the construction of clean energy projects and would democratize the process by which NYPA approves and locates new projects. Strengthened labor provisions, Atonna told me, helped to move labor groups from oppositional to neutral, and some from neutral to supportive.

“We could have written a bill that expanded NYPA’s authority to sell renewable energy and build new renewable energy projects, and that would have been great,” said Patrick Robbins, coordinator of the New York Energy Democracy Alliance, another Public Power Coalition member organization. “But what we’ve seen, time and again, is that the implementation of measures like this really comes down to ensuring that there are effective mechanisms within these agencies to keep them accountable.”

As in other blue states, the fight over the BPRA’s passage is a battle among Democrats, not against Republicans. For years, progressive priorities in New York were held up by a group of Democratic state senators who caucused with Republicans, the Independent Democratic Caucus. They were unseated in 2018, and several DSA members have been elected in the years since.

That—after years of organizing—helped clear the way for the passage of the Climate and Community Protection Act, or CLCPA, which established the state’s “100 by 2040” goal on renewable energy but depends on additional measures for implementation. “Sadly,” said BPRA co-sponsor and DSA member Assembleymember Zohran Mamdani, “issues are seen to get a turn, and CLCPA was seen as a major achievement—enough to consider climate having been acted upon.” Inaction since then is due to lack of a sense of urgency within his own caucus, Mamdani said. DSA sharpening its ability to work alongside elected officials while exerting pressure via protests and direct actions has provided a helpful corrective, he believes.

“What we’re dealing with right now here in Albany,” he told me, “is a microcosm of a fight within the Democratic Party about how to respond to the climate crisis: What kind of vision is required, and what role does the state have?”

With Senate passage out of the way, the ball is now in Heastie’s court. He can either bring the bill up for a vote before the end of the session this week or become New York’s own version of Joe Manchin. “In these next 48 hours, the decision of whether or not to pass this bill is a decision exclusively made by the Democratic Party within the Assembly,” Mamdani told me, noting the BPRA’s 61 sponsors. “There’s no one else we can blame.”

* This article has been updated.

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