Opinion: Brooklyn Needs Public Power

Blackout in Mill Basin, 2019. Todd Maisel/Bklyner

By Nicholas Boni

It’s time for Brooklyn to take its power back.

Our borough’s power grid is in shambles. Blackouts are as common as summer heat waves. Utility rates are astronomical, erratic, and ever-increasing. The East River, the Gowanus Canal, and the air around Brooklyn’s countless fossil-fuel power plants are all filthy with pollution, making our neighbors sick.

Who’s to blame for all of this? Our friendly neighborhood for-profit corporate utility monopoly, Consolidated Edison. Electricity is a ubiquitous need, and a service for which free-market competition makes no sense—nobody wants three different brands of power lines crisscrossing our skies, and nobody wants to make the “consumer choice” of not having a working refrigerator. For ConEd, this makes Brooklyners into a tidy, captive audience, ripe for the plunder. Without rivals or meaningful regulations, they have free rein to jack up our rates, cut our services, and neglect our infrastructure into dangerous levels of decay.

In 2019, ConEd’s recklessness caused massive power outages, after a relay substation failed in Manhattan. According to reporting by NBC, ConEd knew in 2013 that the infrastructure was overloaded, requested and received a rate increase to repair it, and then scrapped the renovation project. In the aftermath, neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn—including my area of Flatbush—were left in the dark for days as the company picked and chose who got to keep the lights on and who didn’t. Surprise, surprise—it was the poorer, Blacker and browner neighborhoods who lost out. Regulators fined the company $25 million, ConEd made $1.3 billion in profit that year, and Brooklyners faced a brutal heat wave without air conditioning, fans, lights, or a way to keep food or medicine cool.

Blackout in Mill Basin, July 21, 2019 (Photo: Todd Maisel/Bklyner)

This year, profiteering by corporate utilities could take shape as a new fracked natural gas pipeline running through North Brooklyn. There is an obvious risk of a spill polluting the soil and groundwater of entire neighborhoods, and the associated cleanup costs paid for by you and me, customers and victims. But installing new natural gas infrastructure in 2021 is even more insidious than that: the Climate Act, signed into law in 2019, dictates that New York’s electrical grid must be carbon-free by 2040, making fossil fuels an obsolete power source. Why, then, would a utility company invest in infrastructure it knows will never serve its useful lifespan? Because it can charge its customers to build it, profit off of it for twenty years, and then charge its customers to tear it out—the environment and common sense be damned.

We need to take aggressive action to combat climate change. The last seven years have been the hottest seven years on record, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA also concluded this year that it is “likely that climate warming will cause Atlantic hurricanes in the coming century [to] have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes, and . . . they will be more intense.” For Brooklyners near the waterfront, there is no time to waste on dirty pipelines for short-term profit. Despite this, ConEd committed less than 10% of its capital investment to renewable energy sources between 2019 and 2021, according to public company documents.

If we want to survive, it’s time to kick corporate utilities to the curb, and put the people in charge of the power grid. Public power is democratic control over utilities, with the primary mission of dependable, affordable energy—not profit for shareholders.

We can take power into our hands by supporting two bills in the New York State Assembly: N.Y. Build Public Renewables Act (NYBPRA), and N.Y. Utility Democracy Act (NYUDA). Rallies are slated this weekend in Prospect Park and around the city in support of these bills.

The NYBPRA, sponsored by Brooklyn Assemblymember Robert Carroll, will expand the purview of the New York Power Authority, our existing public power entity. The new law would push NYPA to provide 100% renewable energy to all state and municipal buildings, and would empower NYPA to sell clean electricity directly to residential customers—at lower rates, with no profit motive, and without vindictive service shut-offs for those who struggle to pay their bills.

The NYUDA, sponsored by Queens Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani and Brooklyn Senator Julia Salazar, would mandate the transition of New York’s power grid to public ownership and oversight. The bill would create new utility territories based on principles of environmental justice and equity, and would set a timeline to phase out fossil fuel use across the state, while coordinating and scaling up renewable energy infrastructure to meet demand.

Public power is the one lightbulb over your head that ConEd doesn’t want to go off. But Brooklyners deserve a say in how critical city infrastructure is run. We deserve better utility service, we deserve lower rates, we deserve not to be exploited for private gain, and we deserve renewable infrastructure that enables us to have a future. For our city, our neighbors, our children, and ourselves—let’s take power into our own hands.

Nicholas Boni is a writer, photographer, musician, and DSA organizer living in Flatbush.

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