New York has a chance to generate all its electricity from clean energy by 2030

14 06 2022 | 09:27Ross Barkan

It has been, for progressives in New York, a trying year.

Major pieces of legislation that were supposed to reshape the state to safeguard the working class have stalled out. A bill to create a statewide single-payer healthcare system is no closer to passage than it was several years ago. A push to guarantee new protections for tenants as rents soar in New York City could not find the votes. And ambitious legislation to combat climate that did have the votes to go through the state legislature was halted by the speaker of the state assembly.

Unlike in Washington, Democrats in New York have no one to blame but themselves. The party holds supermajorities in both chambers, the state senate and state assembly. Progressives have grown their clout in each. A handful of socialists occupy seats as well.

The trouble is that institutional forces – those aligned with the real estate and fossil fuel industries in particular – have plenty of clout, too. The left is stronger, in numbers, than it’s ever been, but the state’s power brokers are centrists or those most hesitant to challenge entrenched power structures. This is true in other Democrat-run states too, but it’s been sobering in New York where progressives have nurtured such high hopes for change.

The left, of course, has gotten much further in New York in the last few years than it had in the previous decades. In 2019, Democrats took control of the state senate and immediately passed a large number of bills that had been bottled up for years. Legislation to help tenants, reduce the use of cash bail, and protect voting rights and women’s health all easily passed the body and were signed into law. In 2020, the pandemic hit and ambitious legislating was put on hold. The 2021 session was more of the same.

This year offered hope. The Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, would mandate that the state’s public power provider, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030 and establish a process through which it can build and own renewables while closing down polluting infrastructure. The state itself could build out wind and solar energy. With its high bond rating, the NYPA could easily finance projects. Passage of the bill would have profound national implications. New York would be a leader in the fight against the climate crisis and inspire other states with Democratic governors to follow their lead. With Republicans poised to retake Congress, state-level action is crucial.

Independent power producers, who fiercely oppose the BPRA, currently build out new power generation infrastructure beyond NYPA. Solar industry trade associations fought the bill bitterly. They have made inroads in the legislature.

In turn, a strange thing happened: the BPRA amassed the votes to pass the state assembly – it had already passed the senate – but was never brought up for a vote before the end of the legislative session in early June. The speaker, Carl Heastie, claimed the votes were not there because, apparently, the more than 80 lawmakers who backed the bill did not inform him personally they would vote that way.

Advocates and supporters, however, were certain they had the votes. At first glance, it would appear Heastie had a point, since it is theoretically true the speaker cannot know who will vote for what if he has not been told about the intentions of each lawmaker.

But that’s not how lawmaking really works in Albany, the state capital. There are hundreds of bills and the speaker cannot personally hear from all legislators before one is put on the floor for a vote. Rather, most Democrats vote reflexively with the speaker unless the bill has an organized constituency in their districts that opposed it. There is no popular, grassroots outcry against the BPRA. Most New Yorkers don’t know what it is.

Why did Heastie claim the votes were not there? Some moderate Democrats are wary of passing any far-reaching bills in an election year. Organized labor had opposed earlier versions of the bill, but the New York AFL-CIO had agreed to stay neutral this time. Governor Kathy Hochul may not support the BPRA either, but she would be hard-pressed to not sign the bill if it reached her desk, especially if New York’s large environmental movement and progressive infrastructure mobilized for it.

The good news is that the legislation may not be dead for 2022. Though lawmakers depart Albany in June and typically don’t reconvene until the new year to pass bills, Heastie requested the chairs of the assembly’s committees on energy, corporations and environmental conservation convene a hearing on 28 July. A hearing may mean a special session – a chance to get the BPRA to Hochul’s desk before 2023.

If the Democrats in Albany act as they should, New Yorkers will begin to get the government they deserve. With climate cataclysms here, the political system can’t afford any more delays.

  • Ross Barkan is a journalist based in New York City. He is the author of Demolition Night, a novel, and The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York

New York has a chance to generate all its electricity from clean energy by 2030