The Build Public Renewables Act takes New York State one big step toward a better future.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

[Previous: New York’s Green New Deal]

The wheels of democracy turn slowly, but sometimes they deliver a big result. This time around, New Yorkers got one such result.

As part of the 2023 state budget, the New York legislature passed the Build Public Renewables Act:

On Tuesday, New York lawmakers passed a law that, for the first time, authorizes the New York Power Authority — the largest state public power authority in the U.S. — to build renewable energy projects to help reach the state’s climate goals.

…The new law directs the New York Power Authority to plan, construct, and operate renewable energy projects in service of the state’s renewable energy goals… The Build Public Renewables Act includes several provisions to prioritize clean energy access for low- and middle-income customers, organized labor, and a just transition for workers displaced from fossil fuel projects.

Akielly Hu, “After a four-year campaign, New York says yes to publicly owned renewables.Grist, 4 May 2023.

I last wrote about the Build Public Renewables Act in 2022, when it passed the state Senate but failed to pass the Assembly due to procedural shenanigans, even though a majority of the chamber said they supported it. It was a frustrating disappointment—another year lost, when we already have so little time left to do something decisive about climate change.

However, the advocates of the BPRA—especially the Democratic Socialists of America and Public Power NY—didn’t give up. They regrouped, lobbied politicians, made calls, wrote letters, marched and knocked on doors. The upset victory of Sarahana Shrestha, an ecosocialist candidate who defeated a moderate incumbent in an upstate Assembly district, played a part in getting the BPRA in motion. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate-change law ever passed, also helped smooth the way by expanding tax credits for renewable energy.

The BPRA is the crucial implementation piece of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. That law, which passed in 2019, commits New York State to a 70% clean electric grid by 2030, 100% clean energy by 2040, and net-zero emissions across the entire state by 2050.

Those are big, ambitious goals, but they’re just empty words without the state doing something concrete to back them up. With the passage of the BPRA, New York can begin putting steel in the ground to make them a reality.

What the Build Public Renewables Act does

The New York Power Authority, the largest public utility in the country, was created in 1931 by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s state-owned but self-funding, not reliant on tax revenue. Because public utilities don’t have stockholders who demand a profit, they’re often able to offer lower rates than private competitors like Con Edison.

The NYPA operates three large hydroelectric plants and a variety of smaller ones, including gas-fired “peaker plants” in New York City and Long Island that kick in at times of high demand. These plants have been a target of environmentalists’ ire, since they pump out air pollution that’s blamed for high rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the low-income neighborhoods where they’re sited.

READ: We won’t have to tell our children we did nothing

Under the Build Public Renewables Act, the NYPA has to issue an annual report on whether the state is on track to meet its climate goals. If it’s falling behind, NYPA is directed to build more renewable energy projects, either on its own or through public-private partnerships, to catch up. The law provides that these projects are to be built by union labor, with parts sourced in the U.S. if possible.

It reserves part of the proceeds from these energy projects to give bill credits to residents in disadvantaged and low-income communities. It provides funding to help employees of fossil-fuel industries who are losing their jobs to transition into renewable energy. It also mandates that the NYPA will have to shut down its polluting peaker plants no later than 2030.

Nothing in the BPRA prevents investor-owned utilities from building renewable power of their own or adding it to the state’s grid. Nevertheless, they lobbied against the bill and tried—but failed—to stop it becoming law, on the grounds that “it does not create a level playing field with the private sector.” Of course, if it’s true that private companies can do things more quickly and cheaply than the government, they should have no reason to fear competition!

New York ushers gas out the door

In another pro-climate measure, the state budget also includes a provision that bans fossil-fuel hookups in new construction. This clause takes effect in 2026 for smaller buildings and expands to larger buildings in 2029.

Buildings built after this date won’t have gas stoves, furnaces or boilers; they’ll use electric stoves and heat pumps. (There are also exemptions in the law for restaurants, laundromats, hospitals and a few other categories of businesses.)

This is a triple win: for the climate, for public health, and for the bottom line. It will reduce carbon emissions, eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution that makes people sick, and reduce costs for customers by switching to ever-cheaper renewables rather than ever-more-expensive fossil fuels.

The passage of this law, and similar ones in other blue states, should give any reasonable person hope for the future. Although the climate crisis is huge and pressing, there’s a way out in sight. We’re taking the steps necessary to transition into a low-carbon, and eventually a zero-carbon, economy. We should have started long ago, but we’re finally in motion, and better late than never.

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...