Jon McFarlane didn’t focus on the loss of cable or even light when the power went out twice at his home in Queens, New York amid the coronavirus pandemic last year. Instead, the civil rights advocate focused on getting the ventilator that sustained his 87-year-old father, a recovering Covid-19 patient, back online.
That kind of precarious situation and the feeling of helplessness it created is the rule, not the exception, for many of his low-income neighbors during power outages, said McFarlane. He feels the outsized financial burdens that power outages create for poor people, such as replacing spoiled food, aren’t “taken into account when prioritizing who gets power restored first.”
But that could change, McFarlane thinks, with the success of a growing movement to put the power system in the hands of everyday people. In 2021, a winter storm plunged 1.4 million Texans into darkness and foreboded future challenges for the U.S. energy system amid an accelerating climate crisis. In this context, “public power” activists are capitalizing on public momentum to force dialogue nationwide about a future free from private utility companies and fossil fuels.
In New York, a statewide coalition of grassroots organizations, nonprofits and labor groups called Public Power NY is preparing to introduce two bills in the state legislature in April 2021. If passed, the bills would put the state’s power system under public control. The bills would also increase the state’s reliance on renewable energy to help achieve its ambitious climate commitments.
That shift could set a powerful precedent for pairing democratic ownership with a clean energy transition in the United States. In the country, electricity production is the second greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The move would also represent a critical step toward environmental and racial justice for the low-income communities and communities of color most vulnerable to power outages and the climate crisis. “This is a way to redistribute power toward the multiracial working class…and save the future for ourselves,” said Gustavo Gordillo, an organizer with the grassroots group New York Communities for Change and a public power activist.
Despite their political differences, many Americans share a frustration with the energy system. A majority of them, New Yorkers included, favor renewable energy over fossil fuels. However, the latter account for 80 percent of the nation’s energy consumption. And especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many Americans have struggled to pay their utility bills.
Yet even as they’re promising Americans cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner energy, selling their neighbors on “public power” can prove difficult for activists. Energy systems aren’t the sexiest topic or the easiest to understand, and the history of alternatives to private or investor-owned utility companies is not widely known.
In fact, public power has existed in the United States since the late 17th century, and today public utilities operate worldwide, from Nashville, Tennessee to Costa Rica. Decarbonizing utility services also remains a critical and nationwide challenge, given that household energy use accounts for about one-fifth of all U.S. emissions.
“It’s like the stock market: we’ve all heard of it, but how many people know how to navigate it?” said McFarlane of the energy system. “A lot of people hear public power, they think it’s going to be a complex labyrinth of different agendas, goals and aims,” said McFarlane. In reality, he added , public power entails “a simple strategy” of enabling people to “regulate our own resources.”
James Gallagher, however, sees a number of pitfalls in New York activists’ proposal for public power. Gallagher is a veteran of New York’s energy system and adjunct professor for energy regulation and restructuring at Clarkson University Graduate School of Engineering. He raised concerns about the proposal’s financial and legal feasibility, as well as its potential impacts on the reliability of utility services.
Gallagher believes there’s a way to reform the existing system to align private companies’ profit motive with “doing the right thing”. This means advancing the state’s ambitious climate goals and charging customers fairly, and doing so without a “major financial overhaul of the New York utility system.”
Yet activists remain unconvinced that a privatized energy system will put people and the planet’s interests ahead of profit, and want to see energy access treated as a human right.
Aaron Eisenberg, an organizer with the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, part of the Public Power NY coalition, dismissed Gallagher’s concerns. He knows that “just because something’s public doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better,” but felt confident that activists’ proposal could deliver on the promise of reliable, affordable, and clean energy.
Along with working to turn their proposal into law, McFarlane said, New York activists’ next steps are to focus on educating their base and local communities about their vision for public power.
Gordillo said he feels hopeful that a public power victory in New York is within reach. Such a victory, he believes, could help broaden the possibilities for what U.S. social justice and climate activists can accomplish.
In any case, the ability to “strategize, make noise, and move forward” around public power alone signals progress in McFarlane’s view. “Now’s the time for people to say we’re not going to live under the cloud of these wealthy investors. And I’m glad to be a part of that,” he said.
This article was co-published with New York Focus.