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Green Dealings

Green New Deal Advocates Just Won Big in New York. Here’s How They Did It.

Passing the Build Public Renewables Act into the state budget took years of organizing and canny political strategy to build support for public renewable energy generation.

Zohran Mamdani gestures while speaking.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, who supported the BPRA, speaks as people gather for a rally and press conference about housing for asylum-seekers in October 2022.

Four years after setting climate goals, New York has finally passed some bills to make good on them. Climate organizers this week can claim major victories in an otherwise depressing state budget passed over a month behind schedule. Among them are the country’s first statewide ban on gas hookups in new buildings, a “cap and invest” program selling greenhouse gas allowances to polluters, utility debt relief, and a boost in funding for public transit, including a pilot program for free buses. But perhaps the most notable win is a mandate that the public sector step in where the private sector fails to deliver on the state’s goal to get 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

The Build Public Renewables Act mandates that the New York Power Authority, or NYPA, generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030, phasing out its six gas-fired peaker plants five years ahead of its previous 2035 target. It further empowers the state-owned institution to build and own renewable energy infrastructure. The years-long fight over the BPRA highlights just how tough passing climate policy can be even in what might seem like ideal conditions, like a Democratic supermajority and a virtually unlimited cache of federal tax credits to expand renewables via the Inflation Reduction Act.

In deep blue New York, establishing climate goals at all required ousting right-leaning Democrats who caucused with Republicans, handing the GOP a de facto majority in Albany. After finally passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, New York’s Democratic supermajority repeatedly failed to pass legislation making good on its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 85 percent by mid-century. Public power has been a rallying cry for the eco-socialist caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, who in New York saw the opportunity for NYPA—the largest state-owned public utility in the country—to build clean energy in a way that wouldn’t be dictated by the whims of profit-seeking shareholders. The broader Public Power NY Coalition was formed in late 2019 to make that happen.

Building the coalition necessary to pass the BPRA has been a multiyear, mammoth effort. In addition to protests, canvasses, and phone banking, the campaign led by Public Power NY—which includes a number of environmental justice organizations, unions, and community groups, in addition to NYC-DSA—turned public power into an election issue. DSA in particular led the charge to primary Democrats over their positions on it. David Alexis primaried Senate Energy Committee chair Kevin Parker largely over his failure to move the bill forward last year. Alexis fell short, but Sarahana Shrestha—who’d worked on the public power campaign as an organizer with the Public Power NY Coalition—gave DSA its first win upstate after campaigning on the issue in her bid for Assembly District 103. BPRA advocates also enlisted national elected officials they’d helped elect, including Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to put pressure on Hochul and other lawmakers.

“I don’t think there was an option to come out of this budget without BPRA,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, a DSA member who has represented Astoria, Queens, since winning his seat in 2020. “The governor would never be mistaken for an eco-socialist, but was the first to propose the idea that BPRA should be in the budget. What we passed,” he told me, “is indicative of the power that eco-socialists have built across the state—power that, despite caricature, does not exclusively live online.” Like a number of progressive and DSA-aligned legislators, Mamdani voted no on the “Big Ugly” omnibus bills Hochul put forward as a means of voicing opposition to its lack of tenant protections, walk-backs on bail reform, and failure to raise taxes on New Yorkers making more than $5 million.

Getting the best possible version of the BPRA was a battle in its own right. Campaigners fought to revive elements of the BPRA Hochul’s office had proposed nixing in her earlier “BPRA lite” proposal. Elements from the original BPRA proposal rescued in negotiations include labor protections written by New York’s AFL-CIO that preserve existing collective bargaining agreements for NYPA workers, and prevailing wage provisions for all projects that apply to contractors and subcontractors. Under the bill, as well, NYPA will dispense $25 million to the Department of Labor for training programs for the renewable energy workforce via a newly established Office of Just Transition. “This has the potential to fundamentally lift working conditions for the entire renewable energy sector for the state of New York,” said Patrick Robbins, coordinator of the New York Energy Democracy Alliance, which is part of the Public Power NY Coalition.

Another key factor in BPRA’s ability to make it over the finish line this year was the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress last summer. That came between the bill’s near-win last year—after it passed the Senate, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie refused to bring it to a vote there before the legislative session ended—and this year’s victory. Thanks to the IRA’s changes in how investment and production tax credits are structured, NYPA and other public power providers can now take advantage of expanded incentives for wind and solar development. Before, those tax breaks were only available to private developers with massive tax liability, which excluded even major private sector developers. What’s been cited by Republicans as cause for alarm about the IRA—that it could disperse some $1 trillion—is great news for NYPA: there are no hard limits on how much federal support they can get to build renewables. Mamdani called the IRA “an important tool for us articulating the urgency of the BPRA,” noting that it creates “new streams of funding that could be used for NYPA. By not passing BPRA we were leaving money on the table.”

Federal climate spending, that is, sweetened the pitch for New York policymakers only because campaigners urged them to take full advantage of it. Acting NYPA President and CEO Justin Driscoll spoke out against BPRA last summer, citing the institution’s inability (at the time) to take advantage of federal tax credits among several other reasons. The measure’s supporters still worry he could pose a barrier to implementation; a proposal to reform NYPA by expanding its board to include labor and community representation was cut from the final version. “The passage of this bill is the culmination of years of work by organizers on the ground,” Robbins told me. “The IRA contains mostly market incentives for building out renewable energy. That’s good and important, but without policy change to drive this then you’re not going to get anything done.”

As they keep a close eye on how the BPRA is implemented, those who fought for it hope New York can be a model both for other states and for how to implement the IRA, pushing public power providers to rapidly roll out clean energy and meet climate goals that the private sector won’t, because it doesn’t trust renewables to feed the bottom line. “The BPRA and a revamped NYPA,” Robbins said, “can be an example of IRA implementation that is guided by and energized by an alternative vision of the energy system that we want.”