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.