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How New York could build public electricity without taking over dirty factories

As rising utility tariffs squeeze New York’s working class and power plant owners seek to swap oil for other fossil fuels, calls have risen in the nation’s largest city to completely suppress the motivation of profit and seize the means of electricity production.

But a government takeover of the city’s utility infrastructure wouldn’t be straightforward – high costs, lengthy legal battles, and that’s before you took on the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with fossil fuels. cleaner alternatives. Power outages, electrical accidents and pollution would become a political responsibility for anyone in power.

But Brad Lander, the progressive Brooklyn city councilor who is now running for comptroller, believes he has found a way to get past that and start producing clean, public electricity almost immediately.

Lander plans to spend $ 500 million over the next eight years to install 25,000 solar panels on the city’s rooftops. The city would own and operate the panels through a city-run utility that, given the amount of electricity it would produce, could negotiate better rates with Consolidated Edison, the private utility giant. who controls the city’s transmission lines.

The new city-owned entity would pay rent to landlords and landlords in exchange for rooftop space and bear all installation costs, making it an easy sell.

“It seems so obvious, but no one in the United States that I can find on any scale is doing it,” Lander said. “It sounds so simple, given, on the one hand, an appetite for public power and, on the other hand, the clarity we need to make a giant solar expansion on rooftops.”

New York is far from the only place where progressive supporters are calling for a public takeover of public services. Similar campaigns are underway in places such as San Diego, Chicago and parts of Maine.

But the five boroughs face unique challenges. A dense cityscape with unstable weather and limited green space, the chain of islands and peninsulas that make up New York City offer few ideal spaces for large, renewable plants. The city’s main source of zero-carbon electricity, the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear power plant, was shut down permanently last month. Meanwhile, it will be at least three years before a series of offshore wind turbines are put into service off Long Island.

This means the city is more dependent on fossil fuels than before at a time when reducing emissions from heating systems in buildings or cars requires electrifying devices and cars – adding even more demand to the grid.

Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

Brad Lander, a member of Brooklyn’s Park Slope ward, is the leading progressive candidate for controller.

In this context, Lander’s proposal looks like “an exciting plan,” said Ashley Dawson, professor at the City University of New York and author of a new book on public utilities, “The power of the people. ”

“IHe is absolutely right about all the obstacles to installing solar power in New York and the resulting slowness in the city, ”said Dawson. “The fundraising ideas seem reasonable, the incentives for homeowners seem strong, the promise of green jobs will be appealing to unions and climate justice organizations, and of course, the idea of ​​creating a public alternative to Con Ed is completely in accordance with public authority. New York countryside. “

The proposal promises to create “thousands” of jobs, streamline the city’s licensing process for solar panels and work with firefighters to create new rules for installing and using batteries to store. additional electricity. This is the second major climate speech from Lander, who presented the first decarbonization plan for the 2021 elections late last year and won the progressive climate group Sunrise Movement’s approval last month.

The plan does not address the more than a dozen private power plants within city limits that burn oil or gas and come online when demand dwarfs supply on the grid. But the new offering would almost certainly make the city less dependent on them. Many details will have to be worked out with the next mayor. But as the city’s financial czar, the comptroller would exercise direct control over funding for the program, which Lander says could come largely from bonds, city pension funds, or federal infrastructure grants. .

“There is nothing necessary from Albany to implement this program,” Lander said.

Negotiating tariffs with Con Edison, who would still need to distribute electricity produced by the panels, and lobbying other city agencies to update regulations would be a natural consequence of the size and influence of the new municipal utility in the city, Lander said.

But assuming Con Edison would be a flexible concessionaire with a new public entity may be wishful thinking, warned. Pol Lezcano, solar analyst at energy research firm BloombergNEF.

“Frankly, that sounds really good as a political proposal, but once you dig a little below the surface you will find a lot of loopholes,” he said. “Ultimately, the dependence on Con Edison will be there no matter what, unless they basically want to buy all the utility poles and lines and handle all of the city’s electricity flow, which, I don’t think they’re ready. for.”

Instead, Lezcano said the next controller could set up a buyers program where the city negotiates cheap wholesale prices for solar panels and installation and allows homeowners and homeowners to register. . Nonprofits like Washington, DC-based Solar United Neighbors, for example, have lowered prices for panel installations by about 20%, he said.

It sounds so simple, given, on the one hand, the appetite for public power and, on the other hand, the clarity we need to make a giant solar rooftop expansion.
Brad Lander, New York City Comptroller Candidate

“If you had half a billion dollars for solar power in New York City, you might instead want to pay in full for a small number of demonstration projects in underserved communities,” said Noah Ginsburg, director. from the nonprofit Solar One, which helps install signs in low-income neighborhoods and housing projects. “But I love the idea.”

But as the city seeks offshore to have the bulk of its renewable energy generated by giant turbines, Lander said it was important to consider that two of the largest companies selected to build these turbines belong to their respective governments. . Danish government controls just over 50% of shares Ørsted. The Norwegian government holds a 67% stake in Equinor.

“The point is, we are talking about offshore wind provided by state-owned companies, but not by our government,” Lander said. “The Europeans are doing it and they are not doing it just with electricity in Europe, but with energy produced by the wind from New York.”

Public ownership of electricity, he said, could start with rooftop solar power, but could eventually house more of the city’s energy system.

“If you municipalized our utilities tomorrow, you would have a transportation system that would be a perfect fit for public ownership, but you would buy your electricity largely from fossil fuel power plants, and you still wouldn’t have the capacity. in the city to produce a lot of clean energy, ”Lander said. “Hopefully we could build something that could grow and evolve.”


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