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Public Power in a Green City

The fight for renewable energy cannot hinge simply on a shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind power. In cities like New York, the fight for democratized clean energy has begun.

If solar panels were put on all suitable rooftops, New York City could meet half the demand for electricity at peak periods exclusively with renewable energy. Photo: NYC.gov

Wildfires are raging across much of the American West, torching over 5 million acres of forest and displacing tens of thousands of people, while hurricanes stack up in the Gulf of Mexico and barrel toward the extensive and vulnerable fossil capitalist infrastructure of the Gulf Coast. We are living through a compound crisis, with multiple, overlapping forms of climate catastrophe battering the country.

These supposed “natural” disasters are driven at bottom by capitalism’s relentless incursions into and exploitation of the environment. The coronavirus pandemic, for example, has its origins in land grabs and deforestation that unleashed previously boxed-in pathogens, triggering new forms of disease. At the time of writing, it is unclear exactly how this year’s savage round of wildfires and hurricanes will reshape the country, although there are strong signs that investors are growing increasingly nervous about vertiginously increasing risk in red-hot real estate markets like California’s. City life is already being dramatically reshaped by the compound crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

New York City — the United States’ original pandemic epicenter and still home to some of the highest total per-capita coronavirus deaths — faces an increasingly troubled future. Pundits have begun talking about a “revenge of the suburbs” as people chafe under lockdown in cramped New York City apartment buildings and try to figure out ways to escape to less dense places. A whole genre of literature has emerged speculating on dystopian urban futures in the wake of the pandemic.

Journalist Ross Barkan’s observation that “the whole urban project seems in question” sums up where we find ourselves. In spite of this looming social and political catastrophe in New York, there are efforts afoot to reimagine the city in the wake of the coronavirus. For example, Farhad Manjoo’s article “I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing” describes the unexpected benefits of car-free streets brought on by the pandemic, including plummeting air pollution and a dramatic decline in pedestrian fatalities caused by cars. For Manjoo, a car-free Manhattan could serve an exemplar of the benefits of liberation from the automobile in a moment of suburban revanchism. Yet this immensely attractive vision has a number of elisions. Most glaringly, it almost totally ignores the outer boroughs of New York, thereby perpetuating an elitism that unconsciously reflects and may entrench the geographically inscribed class and ethnic stratifications that fissure urban life. What elements of urban transformation would be foundational to a genuine people’s plan for urban revival in New York City? And how might such plans build on urban struggles for racial justice?

Public Power

Healing the wounds that scar cities like New York will require sweeping changes in many sectors, but energy is a pivotal one. Apart from the environmental threat that dirty energy poses, in New York City, it also helps to perpetuate the gross inequalities that mar urban life in the United States today.

For example, NYC has sixteen so-called peaker plants, which supply energy at times of “peak” demand, like on hot summer evenings when people try to beat the heat by sitting at home in air-conditioned apartments watching TV. These plants are extremely dirty, emitting twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as regular power plants and twenty times as much of the polluting gases that cause respiratory illnesses. Mirroring broader patterns of environmental injustice, most of the city’s peaker plants are located in low-lying industrial flood zones that border low-income communities and communities of color. Shutting down these dirty peaker plants will require the deployment of new technologies like large storage batteries, but it will also require social transformation. New energy systems need to empower city residents, both by creating well-paying jobs for frontline urban communities and by giving people genuine democratic control over institutions that presently answer solely to the wealthy and to their well-remunerated proxies in the political class.

New York City’s contradictory status as the nation’s most social-democratic city, the city with the most developed public infrastructure in the United States, and as the capital of global capital will make it both a cauldron of conflict and a potential beacon of possibility in the months and years to come. As I discuss in my new book, this is particularly true of struggles to reclaim the city’s energy commons, to shift not just from fossil fuels to renewable energy but to socialize and democratize the means of energy production. The city’s environmental justice movements have played a particularly key role in this fight to reclaim the energy commons — a reflection of the disproportionate burden that BIPOC communities in the city bear from life-threatening fossil capitalist infrastructure. These struggles show that the transformation of New York City cannot simply be about lifestyle enhancement for the middle classes. This kind of relatively superficial transformation will not generate genuine decarbonization of the city much less democratization of energy. We need more radical solutions.

If solar panels were put on all suitable rooftops, New York City could meet half the demand for electricity at peak periods exclusively with renewable energy. But solar power currently constitutes a paltry 2 percent of the electricity flowing into the grid in NYC. Across the state, only 6 percent of energy comes from solar and wind. We have a long way to go, in other words, despite the fact that the state’s clean energy initiative — the “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV) plan, which promised to unleash “groundbreaking regulatory reform to integrate clean energy into the core of our electric grid” — has been in place for over half a decade.

What would a genuine transition to renewable energy look like, one that brings with it not just environmental sustainability but social transformation for communities subjected to decades of environmental injustice and economic marginalization? Activists with Public Power NYC have been campaigning over the last year for a series of ambitious measures to transform the provision of power in the city and the surrounding region. The first of the bills the group has put forward in the state legislature calls for the state-owned New York Power Authority (NYPA) to provide 100 percent renewable energy to all properties owned by the city and state. This would massively accelerate the city’s transformation to renewable energy. The second, more sweeping bill mandates the expansion of NYPA so that it is able to own renewable energy generation (at present, it is required to solicit generation capacity from private companies rather than owning power itself). The most ambitious of the bills calls for the creation of a Downstate Power Authority that would include all the areas currently served by Con Edison and other regional investor-owned utilities, establishing a democratically governed and publicly regulated entity dedicated to the rapid build-out of public renewable power in New York. The new public power authority would guarantee electricity rates far lower than those charged by today’s for-profit utilities.

As radical as these proposals are, they have strong precedent. In 2017, for example, NYPA issued a request for proposals for large-scale renewable energy projects. New York State invested $1.5 billion in this scheme, making it the largest clean energy procurement by a state in US history. Tragically, however, New York City failed to participate, missing the opportunity to establish genuine municipal renewable energy projects that could have been developed in partnership with the communities that have borne the brunt of rising economic inequality and environmental pollution in the city.

Taking Action

Activists are not, however, simply waiting for the success of the Public Power NYC campaign. They are already working to establish socially just renewable energy infrastructure in New York City. To take one example, the Brooklyn-based environmental justice organization UPROSE is in the process of developing a solar cooperative called Sunset Park Solar that would generate renewable energy as well as economic development for the predominantly Latino local community.

As Elizabeth Yeampierre, UPROSE’s executive director, explains, “A lot of our environmental victories have been used by developers to promote displacement.” The solution to this green gentrification for Yeampierre is a broader mobilization of the community around just energy transition. While it has often been used to exploit and oppress the working class and people of color, the potential energy embedded in infrastructure can also be appropriated to revolutionary ends. It can become what the theorists of radical social movements like workers’ autonomy in Italy called “constituent power,” or the power of the people, although in this case, power has the double meaning of political and energetic power. The power of the people thus aims at the recapture and realization of the transformative political potential physically embedded in the infrastructures of industrial energy.

The Sunset Park solar co-op makes such revolutionary power particularly palpable. While few members of the general public have much grasp of details of their electricity bills such as the kilowatt hour, simply standing outside in the sunshine gives one an immediate sense of the abundant energy that the sun rains down on the earth every second of the day. For Hermann Scheer, one of the principal architects of Germany’s energy transition, solar energy — whether in its direct form or in indirect forms such as wind and biomass — has the physical advantage of ubiquity and superabundance, qualities that permit more efficient and decentralized supply chains that are also conducive to more democratic forms of control.

UPROSE’s solar co-op aims to harness this democratizing potential of solar radiation for the benefit of the community in Sunset Park. Net metering laws allow solar co-ops to feed power back into the grid, running utility electric meters backward and generating income for the community. In addition, the solar co-op will be linked to an UPROSE-initiated jobs program that will train half of the people installing the solar array. It is a concrete realization of the radical calls for climate reparations enshrined in New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 with a third of all state investments and jobs in climate and clean energy going to communities most vulnerable to climate change or most threatened by the transition away from fossil fuels.

This emphasis on support for frontline communities creates the paradigm for an environmental transition that emerges from the long-standing fights of low-income communities against both environmental injustice and displacement in today’s extreme cities. This transition will necessarily have to be intersectional, tackling transportation and housing — the city’s other two major sources of carbon emission — in tandem with energy infrastructure.

Ending fossil capitalism on the urban scale is foundational to future green cities. Cities cannot be sustainable unless they are also just, unless they eliminate the forms of irrational development and rampant inequality that characterize the extreme city. The fight for renewable energy cannot hinge simply on a shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind power. Instead, Public Power means democratized power.

How, some might ask, can we afford such ambitious goals in the midst of another massive urban financial crisis? The only response to this question must be that we cannot afford not to create these revolutionary forms of energy infrastructure. To settle for a return to the status quo, for so-called normality, is to return to a system whose social and environmental unsustainability is more apparent with every passing hour and day. At this point in the history of New York City, the only vision that is commensurate with the scale and scope of the compound crises of the present is a vision of a just and regenerative city.