Public Ownership Of Utilities Up For Discussion At A Series Of Town Halls

Public Ownership Of Utilities Up For Discussion At A Series Of Town Halls
Blackout in Mill Basin, July 21, 2019 (Photo: Todd Maisel)

A cascading series of scandals involving local utility providers has more and more New Yorkers clamoring for publicly-owned power, and now they have some powerful allies.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, and several candidates for office spoke Wednesday at a town hall meeting in Flatbush held by the Movement for a Green New Deal coalition, a group of advocacy organizations including the New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise NYC, and 350 Brooklyn – part of a series planned over the next few months across the city.

City Council Member Brad Lander and Assemblymember Robert Carroll spoke at another town hall focused on exploring public ownership of utilities in Windsor Terrace on Thursday.

Among the coalition’s demands are to end the monopoly on consumer electric power held by private utility companies, and to take them into public ownership. The idea has gained steam in recent months after several scandals and controversies surrounding the city’s utilities, such as National Grid’s moratorium on new gas service and Con Ed’s power outages during last summer’s heatwave, including planned outages in neighborhoods of color. Con Ed and Optimum have recently raised their prices for plans despite residents across the borough complaining of spotty service, while National Grid has been seeking a rate increase since last year, in spite of the controversial, monthslong moratorium.

The solution, in the eyes of some, is publicly owned, democratically operated power.

“Power doesn’t need to flow from large corporate interests, it can come from communities,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, in a letter read by deputy Public Advocate Kashif Hussain.

The coalition highlighted three specific bills with supporters in both houses of the legislature to achieve their vision of public power.

The first would require the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to source all of the energy it provides to state and municipal properties from renewables.

The second would allow NYPA, a public authority that currently only sells power wholesale and to businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and other nonconsumer entities, to sell directly to consumers, and would require it to source all of its energy from renewable sources. Since NYPA is able to issue bonds as a public authority, it would be able to build out new renewable infrastructure without the use of taxpayer money.

The third, and meatiest, bill would take over and municipalize National Grid, Con Ed, and Central Hudson Gas & Electric, with a democratically elected board of trustees and guaranteed, rather than unpredictable, electricity rates. Power would be administered by a new “Downstate Power Authority” serving the areas formerly administered by those utilities.

“So, no more shutoffs, no more ridiculously high energy bills — we have the second-highest energy bills in the country,” said Daniel Goulden, of NYC DSA. “And most important, at least to me, we can start repairing the grid. There’s no reason that we need to have these blackouts every summer.”

The concept now has some degree of support from all three citywide electeds. Williams is onboard, while Stringer, who is running for Mayor in 2021 election supports “exploring the feasibility” of public power, according to his spokesperson.

“We no longer can be dictated by the energy companies, the people who make profits over pipelines and making sure that they continue to build a fossil fuel infrastructure,” Stringer said at the town hall.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also expressed openness to the idea, if somewhat more cautiously. After two consecutive weekend outages last summer, de Blasio criticized Con Ed as unaccountable to the public and broached the notion of a public takeover of the utility.

“They don’t give real answers and don’t feel they have to,” de Blasio said, according to Politico New York. “So I think it begs the question as to whether a private company should continue to provide a service if they are not accountable to the public.”

If the status quo remains in place, according to Goulden, ordinary consumers will continue being unwitting agents of Con Ed’s worsening of the climate crisis.

“Your electricity bill, which by the way Con Ed is increasing to build out more pipelines, is literally going to build more fossil fuels and you do not have a say in that,” said Daniel Goulden, of NYC DSA. “You’re all here because you’re concerned about climate change, but when you pay your electricity bill, you are making the problem worse, and you cannot do anything about it. That is fundamentally unfair.”