Full Interview with Public Power Organisers on Winning the Build Public Renewables Act in New York
June 2, 2023
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Full Interview with Public Power Organisers on Winning the Build Public Renewables Act in New York

TUED interviewed two Coalition organisers, Michelangelo Pomarico and Patrick Robbins View the 40-minute interview here.

Lala Peñaranda (LP): Thank you, Michael Angelo and Patrick, for joining trade unions for energy democracy in this up close and personal interview on your incredible victory of for the BPRA, the Build Public Renewables Act, in New York State. Let’s start with an introduction. How did you get involved in this work?

Michaelangelo Pomarico (MP): Michelangelo, Pomarico. I'm the Engagement Coordinator for the mid-Hudson Valley, Dsa, which is the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which organises in Orange, Ulster, and Dutchess counties in New York. I am also one of the legislative co-chairs for the Public Power New York coalition. I was introduced to this campaign by Patrick, who so kindly invited our DSA chapter to go to a strategy retreat where the formation of the Public Power Coalition took shape in 2019, a very formative experience for me. This campaign generally was transformative from my experience as an organiser in developing those skills and getting more involved in the climate fight. I was lucky enough to have been involved in this campaign since its start 4 years ago.It's been life-changing.

Patrick Robbins (PR): My name is Patrick Robin. I use he/they pronouns. I have been working with energy issues since 2013, fighting against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.Over time, our experiences and my experiences with the energy system led me to believe that we were never going to have the energy system we wanted if we left it all up to the profit motive, and it was through that realisation that I started organising with the Democratic Socialists of America and encouraged the New York City Ecosocialist chapter to join the New York Energy Democracy Alliance. I remember that meeting very well where the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter came in and we formed the Coalition. I'm so so proud of everyone who worked on this.

I think that Michelangelo is definitely correct. A definitely honed my own personal experiences as an organiser– but that's also really underselling it. I think I am a completely different person than the person I was as a result of this struggle, and it's really beautiful to be here at the culmination of it.

LP: Beautiful. Let’s jump right into this profit motive. The Build Public Renewables Act mandates that the public sector step in where the private sector fails to deliver on the State's mandated goal to get to 70% of its power from renewable sources by 2030, so this begs the question, “Huh? Why would the private sector be failing?”. Can you tell us a little bit about the class enemy in this struggle for decarbonising the New York State economy? Who is this class enemy? And what's their track record on decarbonisation?

PR: Happy to we get into that. So this is going to vary state by state. In New York State, it's sort of a medley of class enemies. There is renewable energy capital. I'm going to very briefly talk about how renewable projects have been built historically in New York State (and in many parts of the country). Many renewable energy projects, particularly utility-scale projects, are funded through tax equity swaps where you have to enter into a bargain with giant banks, who can benefit from the tax breaks, the investment tax credit and the production tax credit that are available to people developing projects. These investors usually take something like 20-30% of the value of the project.

They're able to do that because they have a monopoly on capital. They have a monopoly effectively on the ability to build. Some of the biggest projects in New York State are, in fact, owned by Goldman Sachs. The other enemies, of course, are the utilities who have no interest in creating more renewable energy or bringing more distributed generation resources onto the grid, and they sit on the information that is necessary to build. It's considered proprietary information. Great system we have. It's really a perfect storm of oppositional class interests.

This is why, historically, we've been stuck at 5% wind and solar in New York State for a very long time, despite having this reputation as being a progressive state.

When we were thinking about this, we were looking at the landscape of New York and saying, “Ok, well, capital has historically had a giant monopoly on building projects. Are there institutions that could get around that are there institutions available to us that could be a vehicle for building public renewables?” We are very lucky to have a New Deal Era authority created as part of the New Deal to manage New York's existing hydropower resources for the public good, and we said, “Huh! It seems like the State is just sitting on this incredible opportunity. What would happen if we changed the law to expand that authority and make it a vehicle for the will of the people?” That’s what we took on. 

LP: That segways into the next question about the vision of the BPRA. In New York, this is class enemy with a capital C & capital E. This is some global class enemy shit because in New York State, we’re talking about being in the belly of the beast, home of Wall Street. But of course, also a Union town of class struggle.This system that you described sounds like a complete mess. What alternative does the Build Public Renewables Act offer to this for-profit shit show? Can you paint a picture of the New York State that we're fighting for, including BPRA and beyond? 

PR: I do think that this represents an opportunity to really chart a different course with respect to labour in particular. The bill mandates project-labor agreements, prevailing wage, applications to contractors and subcontractors, and I believe it’s going to lift working conditions for renewable energy workers in the entire sector, not just in NYPA projects. This is going to set a new standard within the sector as a whole– that was part of the reason why this bill was able to gain the labour support that it gained and why it was ultimately able to pass. 

The story of how we engaged labour is really worth telling for any organisers or activists that are seeking to work in this space.New York is a union town, but unions are still fighting a defensive battle in this State just as much as anywhere else. Many unions, at least initially, viewed the Build Public Renewables Act with some trepidation just because it's going to shake up the status quo.

There were and are unions that know how to organise in the context that we have, and we do not want to interrupt that; we want to strengthen it. As a result, there were some conversations we had to have, first: who are the workers that are going to be most directly impacted by this bill? How, and what kind of language can ensure those workers’ support? Very often in the State, the Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO, will defer to the position of workers who are most directly impacted, in terms of state policy. We worked to gain the support of New York State United Teachers– I have to give them some love because it was their resolution that ensured that this rose to the attention of the statewide AFLO-CIO. For most of the Spring 2022, we were working through Senate Central Staff with the AFL-CIO to perfect the language that ended up making its way in its totality into the final version of the bill.

All of this work meant that the AFL-CIO was able to stay neutral. Once we had that guarantee of neutrality, we started expanding our outreach and really thinking about unions as representatives of working people, not just in the workplace.These are people who live in communities and they have environmental justice concerns as much as anyone else. 

The environmental justice concerns were a huge reason why 1199 SEIU ended up issuing a memo of support as well. We saw UUP [United University Professions], we saw UWUA [The Utility Workers Union of America]; there was a snowball effect of union support and we could not have passed the bill without it. I'm really excited by the lessons learned from this.

LP: Thank you, Patrick, and thank you for joining us from the airport I'm glad that we caught you just as you're setting off into the sunset to fight evil somewhere else.

MP: I’ll add something to that last question regarding the vision to moving forward. One of the inspiring and exciting things about the Build Public Renewables Act is that it is very much a scaffold that socialist organisers and the Left can organise on.

We have passed legislation that is going to make it easier to organise for a publicly owned energy system, starting with a build-out of generation and transmission projects to meet our State climate goals. I'm personally really excited for the potential doors this may open up for working with the trades specifically for a truly just transition because of the labour provisions that made it into the bill.

It’s incumbent on us as organisers not to assume that passing this legislation means our work is done. But rather, to see that the Bill Public Renewables Act is a tool for further organising and building the movement that we need to win a Green New Deal. The BPRA is a Trojan Horse of sorts. It advances the terrain in a way that is strategic and is going to make it easier for us to create potential future wins. As an organiser, I find that exciting. 

LP: Thanks for that addition. Let's get into the backstage organising of this campaign. Many trade unions around the world are imagining & organising towards something similar in their countries and states respectively. But it’s difficult– and we always look to inspiration wherever there are victories. Let’s discuss how this victory happened. As you mentioned, this was a four-year very intensive campaign. How did the campaign win the hearts of New Yorkers and create shifts in the political imagination of just what's possible and necessary? How did you sustain these impressively high levels of engagement and participation– in online organising but also on the streets across NY State? Lastly, what kept you going when the odds of passing this historic legislation seemed beyond reach? 

MP: Yeah. It’s important to contextualise that this fight was made possible because we had a really strong core socialist organising project behind it through the various DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) chapters across NY State being involved in the Public Power NY coalition. 

The coalition itself is a very unique and strong coalition space in the context of the climate Left in New York. We're a pretty democratic and collaborative coalition compared to some that I've been in. The coalition was able to move this bill forward strategically because we invested heavily in our relationships and partnerships. It’s important to emphasise that there was a really strong level of investment and development of leaders and organisers throughout the campaign, specifically in DSA. This is true of my own personal journey in DSA: joining the organisation with no experience as an organiser and coming off this four-year campaign more knowledgeable and with much more experience. As Patrick said, it was life-changing for every person involved in this campaign in terms of their own trajectory and how they see themselves in the movement.

When we talk about how this bill was passed, it’s important to underscore that it was not just a legislative campaign, but we really pursued a lot of multi-tenancy strategies to ensure victory. For example, we had a complex electoral strategy that DSA organised in 2022 through the “Green New York” slate of our existing incumbent socialists in office.

This is our slate of electives that DSA has been endorsing and getting into office over the last few years since around 2018. Our slate last year focused on a couple of very strategic races. One was David Alexis, who ran for State Senate against the BPRA Bill Sponsor Kevin Parker.

This happened because, at the time, Kevin Parker was very oppositional to the bill and wasn't moving it through the Legislature. David's race was a confrontation of that status quo and it gave us an opportunity to organise against our sponsor to push the bill forward. And it was an effective strategy. We were able to pass it in the State Senate last year largely because of the groundswell of organising that took place around David's race.

Another important race in the Green New York slate (and one I was personally involved in) was that of Sarahana Shrestha for the 103rd Assembly District here in the Hudson Valley, where we successfully unseated a 27-year incumbent, the chair of the Insurance Committee and who was oppositional at the time to the BPRA. Like many of us, Sarahana also was an organiser in DSA with the BPRA campaign. Her decision to run was a strategic choice that we made to advance our numbers in the legislature, specifically in the assembly. Throughout her campaign, we knocked on 56,000 doors and spoke to tens of thousands of people. At every step, climate was at the centre of our race.

Across NY State, we are dealing with an extreme crisis of affordability. This is especially true in the Hudson Valley. Under our investor-owned utility, Central Hudson, people have been facing incredibly high utility costs for the last year, with many people I spoke to paying upwards of $500, $600, $700, $800, and even more than $1,000 in their monthly utility bills. We're talking about people who are retired, living on a fixed income, who are getting $800 bills in the mail when they're only making $1,100 a month. How do you live like that?

As a result, we had so many powerful conversations that allowed us to expand the political imagination of the electorate, specifically around this issue of public power and the State's role in building renewable energy. 

When we look at the history of this campaign, a powerful contribution was the organising we did in a legislative context of talking to people specifically about public power. It was an inside strategy of organising electeds through our socialists in office and other progressives to move the bill forward. The campaign was fundamentally grassroots both in terms of the Public Power NY coalition and also through these electoral fights that brought the issue to tens of thousands of people across the State.

Raising awareness about what is possible was not really a central part of the conversation prior to this campaign getting off the ground. It was not just a legislative campaign but rather a broad, multi-tendency strategy. It was not any one thing.

We've been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of weeks: we can't point to one thing that won this campaign. It was really everything coming together. It was a culmination of many different tactics and strategies that made it possible. It's impossible to remove anyone thing and say that we may have been able to win without it. It took trying and pursuing every tactic to make it possible.

LP: Let’s talk about public ownership in your organising discussions. There’s a rhetoric that frequently arises when people talk about public ownership: it’s something from a bygone era or a pipe dream, something that can happen somewhere else but not in New York State, home of Wall Street. How did you talk about public ownership and energy with people across New York State? How did you approach the political and technical importance of public ownership in energy? 

MP: We have to contextualize that we have a really massive crisis of affordability. When we talk about public power, both in the political and in the technical sense, what we are really talking about is eliminating the profit motive from our energy system. I think this is an inherently popular and working-class message to talk about with people who are struggling just to make ends meet and pay their bills. It strikes a chord to talk about what a publicly owned energy system could mean for them.

Public ownership is also a public safety question regarding the sustainability of our communities in the climate crisis. For multiple years now, we’ve experienced summers with blackouts and brownouts across the State followed by harsh winters. One recent winter, we organised door-knocking following a massive ice storm that left many people in our district without power for up to 5-6 days. We had emergency warming shelters where people were temporarily housed while they waited for heat to return to their homes. 

Throughout these extreme weather events, we were always centring a historical and a current context of what public power looks like.

Nationally, where we have examples of public power in the US, we know that the reliability and the outage times for utilities are a lot lower when they're publicly-owned compared to a for-profit system. We now know that in New York State, climate is a popular and urgent issue. In our last election cycle, we passed Prop 1, our ballot measure to ensure that we have a constitutional right to clean air and clean water. It actually received more votes than the Governor on the ballot, which is incredible. 

This tells us that New Yorkers across political affiliations overwhelmingly care about climate. It is an urgent issue because it is impacting people in their everyday lives: the cost of heating their home and keeping their lights on, extreme weather events putting their family in harm's way, etc. The conversations we were having around public power were about our ability to have an energy system that puts people and the planet above profit. 

The conversations were about ensuring that we are investing in an effective and climate-resilient grid while lowering energy costs. There are just so many good arguments for a publicly owned system. We found those conversations be really powerful: it was overwhelmingly a class issue. And a generational one, of people thinking about their kids’ future or their grandkids’ future. 

LP: DSA comrades are characterising the BPRA victory as step one of a fight that continues, saying, “This is just the beginning; we're just getting started. What's next for the Public Power campaign? What are the anticipated challenges and dangers ahead in terms of capital’s attempts to corporatise, water down, and disarm the BPRA? This danger is especially prevalent wherever Public-Private Partnerships exist. What's the importance of keeping the pressure on and the movement organised?

MP:  We just won, and we have. Are we are ready, like figuring out what is the next phase of the campaign? One obstacle we are recognising is the leadership structure at the NY Power Authority.  The authority is currently helmed by Justin Driscoll, who was a lead attorney at the authority under the previous Cuomo administration. He is now sitting as serving as an interim executive of the authority. He has a track record of donating to Republicans who have served the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The Board of Trustees is also made up of people appointed by Cuomo. They’re all holdovers from that administration and are not equipped and don't have the core interests of getting this bill implemented as their prerogative.

Our advantage going into this fight around the leadership of the Authority is that we have, again a strong scaffold to work off of. The bill includes requirements around Public-Private Partnerships, such as NYPA owning a majority stake in all the projects that they are a part of as well as robust public oversight through multiple public hearings and public comment periods around their planning process that involves state agencies. 

It is incumbent on us now, in this next phase, to start having the bigger conversation and say: “Ok, we've passed this transformative Green New Deal legislation in New York State. What kind of leadership do we need at the New York Power Authority in order to ensure that its potential is fully met?” We can rely on the mandate of the legislation to make the case that we need leadership that really believes wholeheartedly in implementing this legislation the way it deserves–  and the way that New Yorkers needed to be implemented in order for it to be fully realized.

That’s why we are demanding to #DumpDriscoll. We need to see an executive at NYPA who is not going to just support this legislation but also lead on it and ensure that NYPA is leading the nation in publicly owned renewable energy.