Public power coalition enlists support of prominent Queens legislators in Astoria

Max Parrott/QNS

Approximately 100 New Yorkers gathered in Astoria on March 5 for a town hall focused on the campaign to replace New York’s privately owned utility with a public system, controlled by a democratically elected board. 

They were joined by several Queens legislators who officially announced their support of a trio of bills that would, in effect, enact a public power utility.

“I want to tell you that I’ve been very familiar with the problems of private power for a long time,” said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, brandishing a letter that he sent to Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins calling for public power in New York and for a tax on the wealthy that would generate revenue to implement a Green New Deal in New York. 

“I’ve been working closely with the [Democratic Socialist of America] Ecosocialist Group and others on combatting that and beginning to lay the groundwork for truly public power in New York,” Gianaris said.

As Con Edison lobbied for and passed rate hikes for all New Yorkers over the last six months, NYC DSA built a coalition of community groups behind a campaign to establish a downstate New York power authority to replace the private power provider. The town hall gave the DSA the opportunity to formally enlist like-minded legislators to line up behind the bills.

When DSA member Sarah Lyons asked Gianaris if he would co-sponsor the legislation, he agreed, joining Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim who co-sponsored the state assembly version. Assemblyman Brian Barnwell and Councilman Costa Constantinides also attended to express support.

The legislation would expand the New York Power Authority (NYPA), a public benefit corporation that currently provides utilities to businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. The most transformative of the three bills would establish a downstate power authority to take over the assets of all utility corporations across New York City and several other surrounding counties and operate in their place.

The advocates argue that the hundreds of millions in dividends per year that Con Ed pays its shareholders each year come out of the pockets of New York residents through rate hikes. They say that a public provider would help keep utility rates fair and reasonable.

Con Ed has claimed that the dividend payments are required to continue to attract investors needed to fund capital improvements and technological upgrades.

“We believe that the state should provide whatever is necessary in order to live a dignified life. Heat and electricity — those are not optional things. Those are necessary things,” said Zohran Mamdani, a DSA-backed candidate running for Assembly District 36.

Constantinides, who as councilman wouldn’t have a say on the legislation itself, connected the campaign to his Renewable Rikers bills in the City Council that would turn the island into a hub for renewable energy.

“I don’t want Con Edison to own that. It needs to be publicly owned,” Constantinides said.

Another one of the public power bills would call for a commitment to renewable forms of energy from all state and municipal-owned properties. Speakers argued Con Ed’s investment in natural gas would lock the city into a fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The environmental advocates are opposed pipeline expansion projects like the Williams Pipeline, but Con Ed on the other hand, has said that more pipelines are needed to end a gas moratorium they imposed on Westchester County and parts of New York City.

“We’ve shown there’s demand for Public Power in the community, and now we are working with the community to get the bills passed as soon as possible,” said DSA spokesman Charlie Heller on the future of the legislation.

The group plans to continue the enlist co-sponsors and solicit public testimony with a Bronx Public Power Town Hall on March 28.