Public power activists push for change in New York, Maine, across the United States

For Daniel Atonna, access to public services is a personal matter.

Atonna, who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, said her family couldn’t always afford to heat their home. Some nights when the heat wasn’t there, he and his sister accompanied their mother to her night shifts at a nearby nursing home. The two slept in the lobby of the facility, making sure they could stay warm.

Now 24, Atonna said his family’s experiences with private power companies have, in part, inspired his work organizing a different system in New York: public and run utilities. the government.

“These private utilities are not up to the task,” Atonna said. “They can’t even maintain the current energy grid, let alone prepare us for the future.”

Atonna is the political coordinator of For The Many, a grassroots organization advocating for progressive causes in the Empire State. The first step toward a new statewide energy economy, he said, could be the Build Public Renewables Act. The legislation passed the state Senate in June, but the Assembly did not take a vote until the end of its final session, leaving the bill in limbo.

The law, if signed into law, would expand the reach of the New York Power Authority, a utility that supplies electricity to public buildings and schools. This would allow the utility to serve businesses and homes across the state, which would require an eventual transition to exclusively renewable energy sources and significant infrastructure investment.

New York’s law is one of many efforts across the country to implement public power sources. These utilities generate about 10% of the country’s electricity, according to the American Public Power Association, and proponents are looking to increase that percentage.

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Activists are also mobilizing in other states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan.

Organizers at the municipal and state levels say the practice would eliminate the profit incentive that accompanies private utilities, while making it easier for customers to hold companies accountable for their service.

Opponents, meanwhile, remain concerned about the investment costs associated with a switch to public power, and many doubt that such a model will deliver on its promises.

“With major projects underway from private investors and the benefits consumers are seeing, there is no reason to upset that by allowing NYPA into the fold,” said Gavin Donohue, Chairman. of the Independent Power Producers of New York trade association, in a statement. statement. “Why change the competitive procurement process when independent private energy companies are more than willing to continue investing in New York?”

The History of Electric Utilities in the United States

To trace the history of utilities, it is important to start with the first American electrical networks, created in the 1880s.

At first, electricity was a luxury reserved for the wealthy through private utilities, according to Michael Menser, director of urban sustainability studies at Brooklyn College.. But it didn’t take long for access to spread, with cities building their own networks for public and private services, he said.

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Over the next few decades, public power grids spread, with big expansions in the early 1920s. But, soon after, their fates would change as private utilities quickly began to buy out their public counterparts, a Menser said.

Michael Menser

While public grids still exist nearly a century later — notably in Nebraska, the only state fully served by a consumer-owned electrical system — Menser told USA TODAY he’s seen a recent resurgence in the will to create more such public services.

Although Menser identified a range of possible explanations for this change, he described racial disparities in services and climate activism around renewable energy as key drivers.

“When climate change intensifies, storms and fires have also increased,” Menser said. “In many cases, the private utilities don’t seem to be accountable after the event. So that’s another thing that made people realize that we need a much more accountable entity.”

A governor’s veto in Maine

Wil Thieme became interested in the issue of public services after realizing that it centered on two subjects close to his heart: monopoly ownership and sustainability.

Thieme, of Cumberland, Maine, learned of the push for public power in July 2021 and has since been elected co-chair of the Maine Public Power campaign.

Democratic Governor Janet Mills vetoed a bill in July 2021 that would have, with voter approval, authorized the replacement of the state’s two largest power companies with a utility. In his veto letter, Mills expressed concerns about the legislation’s funding and regulatory plans.

Solar power station at dusk.

“There may be a way to create a utility with a professional board that is clearly eligible to issue low-interest, tax-exempt bonds that would save taxpayers money, to achieve better connectivity with solar and other renewable energy, and to advance the climate goals of this administration,” Mills wrote at the time. “But LD 1708, hastily drafted and hastily amended in recent weeks without strong public participation, is a patchwork of political promises rather than methodical reform of Maine’s complicated electrical transmission and distribution system.”

Since then, Thieme has told USA TODAY that Maine Public Power is collecting signatures in support of a statewide referendum that could override Mills’ veto. They face strong opposition from private utility companies, he said.

“They lobby aggressively against anything that could potentially hurt their bottom line,” Thieme said. “It’s not great when you’re trying to get real progress, so a change is going to be very helpful in getting the climate bills through.”

The opposite view: private utilities may provide the most efficient route to achieving sustainability goals.

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“To achieve our climate and grid modernization goals, we need everyone to work together,” said John Flynn, president of state utility Versant Power, during legislative testimony in May 2021.. “We have no time or money to waste on polarizing fights.”

Marie-Therese Kane, an organizer with We Power DC, said many in the public energy movement have joined in the search for drastic action to tackle climate change. With a utility company, Kane said there is a unique opportunity for direct accountability, particularly for meeting climate goals, that does not exist to the same extent in a privatized system.

“Many people are disappointed with mainstream environmental organizations’ emphasis on individual behavior change or incremental units — efforts that ignore political reality,” Kane told USA TODAY. “Movements for public power have an opportunity in something that can attack the systemic causes of something like climate change.”

A fight “worth fighting” in New York

Proponents of public power still face significant hurdles — even after sparking conversations in some state houses.

In New York, for example, opposition to additional public services begins in the organization that activists are trying to expand. Justin Driscoll, Acting NYPA President and Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul’s nominee for the permanent positionopposes the Build Public Renewables Act, much to the annoyance of the organizers.

“NYPA does not believe we have a cost advantage in developing renewable energy generation,” Driscoll said at a July special hearing on the law. “The bill’s mandates, such as directing NYPA to develop renewable energy projects and provide energy services and placing limits on what NYPA can charge for that energy, are simply unworkable. .”

Yet for Atonna, the need for public services in New York — and the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act — remains clear.

“It really is an agency that is uniquely positioned to do amazing things right now,” he said. “What we need to do is unleash its full potential.”

And now what?

“Just because something’s public doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good,” said Aaron Eisenberg, 31, another member of Public Power New York. “But the fight for a democratically responsible public institution and service? It is worth fighting for.”

Melissa C. Keyes