Energy & Environment

Public power supporters amping up the pressure on Kathy Hochul

Some environmentalists and state lawmakers say her climate proposals are not good enough considering looming dangers.

The Robert Moses Hydroelectric Dam in Lewiston, NY.

The Robert Moses Hydroelectric Dam in Lewiston, NY. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul says her $216.3 billion proposed budget does a lot to battle climate change, but elected officials and environmentalists to her political left say New York is still falling short on preparing for looming environmental disaster. Progressive legislators want to speed up her proposed timeline for banning fossil fuel infrastructure in new buildings. A coalition of advocacy groups wants billions more for renewable energy development and programs aimed at addressing long-standing environmental inequities. They also want the governor to get behind a bill to expand the role of the New York Power Authority in state climate efforts. 

The Build Public Renewables Act aims to encourage renewable energy development in the public sector by expanding how the public authority (which already operates a lot of the existing state energy portfolio) can operate while transforming it into a much bigger green energy power producer. State lawmakers and their political allies have renewed efforts in recent weeks to move the bill to the top of the state legislative agenda, but a majority of Democratic lawmakers and the governor have yet to get behind it.

There is still a chance that some form of the proposal might get included in the budget. The influential Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus included it in a 71-page “People’s Budget” released the day before Hochul delivered her budget address Tuesday. “NYPA is currently not allowed to own or build new utility-scale renewable energy projects, nor is it allowed to directly sell energy to individual households,” reads the caucus proposal. “This is a huge barrier to increasing renewable energy and keeping down energy costs.” 

Lawmakers are holding budget hearings in the upcoming weeks to examine the executive budget proposal. After that, each chamber of the state Legislature will release their own one-house budget proposals, and negotiations with the administration will accelerate in the weeks before the April 1 state budget deadline. 

A state panel meanwhile is developing plans to meet the goals set by the state’s landmark 2019 climate law, but it remains an open question whether the state is developing enough capacity to provide all the electricity New York needs to make a green revolution happen in the future. This requires a lot of new renewable energy sources to provide electricity in a way that conforms to a 2019 climate law. “I don't see us meeting our goals of the (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) without empowering the New York Power Authority to build, own and operate renewable energy generation,” Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn, who is sponsoring the bill in his chamber, said Friday. “I don't see the market on its own producing enough energy, and we need to have a full-throated effort.”

The Hochul administration has yet to discuss its take on the Build Public Renewables Act despite a December letter sent by 55 members of the state Senate and Assembly, according to Carroll. She has expressed a willingness to consider legislators’ ideas, but a spokesperson for the governor could not be reached for comment by publication time about what qualms she might have with the bill. Private industry has key roles in some of her most touted efforts on climate, including new transmission lines to connect downstate folks to Canadian hydropower as well as new off-shore wind initiatives. The New York Power Authority has significant roles in her environmental initiatives as well – just not as much as some of her critics want.

Public power boosters say the Build Public Renewables Act could do a lot more to promote green energy at a good price. The state power authority gets funding by issuing bonds. It already provides about a quarter of the electricity generated statewide through its existing portfolio of renewable and fossil fuel infrastructure. Allowing it to legally develop more green projects would help speed up state progress toward meeting the goal, established in the 2019 state climate law, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. More public power would also help address economic and racial inequities stoked by fossil fuels, bill supporters say. “Low income New Yorkers and disadvantaged communities deserve the same access to low cost power NYPA already provides,” Patrick Robbins of the advocacy group the New York Energy Democracy Alliance said in an interview. 

A huge impediment to the Build Public Renewables Act at this point appears to be the simple fact that there are not yet enough legislators supporting public power. “‘Let the smart people in the private sector figure it out,’” Carroll said of colleagues’ response to his proposal. Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. Some key lawmakers say they are still familiarizing themselves with the details of the bill. “I’m 100% committed to a shift to renewable energy and am open-minded towards any and all possible ways to achieve this goal,” Assembly Member Amy Paulin, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions that is currently considering the bill, said in a statement. State Senate Energy Committee Chair Kevin Parker, who is sponsoring the bill in his chamber, did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Advocates of the bill have taken increasingly dramatic steps in recent weeks to build support as new research paints an increasingly dire picture of what climate change will do to the Empire State and beyond in the absence of dramatic action in upcoming years. Carroll and Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes were among the people arrested at a recent climate action protest in New York City. Other bill supporters shadowed Hochul at a recent event in Albany about offshore wind development. Her environmental proposals are not bad, public power boosters say, but they add they fall short of moving fast enough against climate change. “It's a good sound bite to say ... the largest offshore wind farm on the East Coast – or in America,’ and that's true,” Carroll said of Hochul’s climate plans. “But that in and of itself will not come close to (providing) the kind of energy we need to produce.”