The Grid, Greens, and Growth: The Fight For Industrial Prosperity and a Critique of the Public Power New York Coalition
By Brian Wilson
May Oswego’s new progress
In industries today,
Make our future more prosperous
In every way.
-Excerpt from Ode To Industry by Mrs. J. F. O’Connor, first published in the Palladium Times in 1927
In this age one of the major fights for socialists is the growing tide of neo-feudalism, or put differently, the ever growing power of the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate). This sector is the class of the rentiers, dragging down the industrial economy through the rents they charge and the debt they push onto the public. Policies that drive down the cost of doing business while also improving the workers lives, such as Medicare 4 All (or regional versions such as the New York Health Act), Childcare for All, debt cancellation, rent control, and public power would be major blows to this sector and allow for American reindustrialization. New York State has a coalition pushing that last measure, known as Public Power New York (PPNY). It is composed roughly 50/50 of green non-profits and New York State DSA Chapters (though not all chapters it should be noted). It is doing this by pushing a bill in the NYS legislature called the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA). This bill nominally allows the state-run New York Power Authority (NYPA, created by FDR during his time as governor and precursor to him doing this at the federal level with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)) to build out utility scale renewables by and for the people. The coalition markets itself and this bill as a democratization of the grid and a blow against the corporate greed of the fossil fuel industry. However, this bill cannot be called a true public power bill. This, in addition to PPNY’s green ideology of anti-nuclear and 100% renewables, makes it so this act will not free us from chains of neo-feudalism and dirties the name of public power in a time where it needs broad support.
To understand how the policies PPNY propose would fail at implementing public power, we need to understand the current structure of the U.S. grid. Where other countries, such as Canada, went down a route of publicly controlled utilities, the U.S. initially opted for what is described as a vertically integrated grid. In this grid a private sector monopoly owns the utility but is tightly regulated by the state. The monopoly’s profit is a fixed percentage based on its capital investment and rate increases have to be approved by the regulator. This system was straightforward and guaranteed reliability, at the cost of the monopolies overbuilding and overfixing in order to increase their capital investment, and thus profit. Due to this, and the general trends of neoliberalization, in certain areas of the country the monopolies were separated into generators and transmission operators and then subject to less direct oversight as before. The market would provide the oversight instead of the state. The now merchant generators auction their power and power related services and in theory the most competitively priced electricity that serves the needs of the customer gets sent to the ratepayer. This setup is generally referred to as “deregulated” and the auction runners are known as either regional transmission organizations (RTOs) or independent system operators (ISOs). This is in scare quotes because as Meredith Agwin described in her great book on this topic, the opaque and byzantine laws governing this space make calling it “deregulated” farcical.Meredith Agwin, Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of our Electric Grid, https://www.amazon.com/Shorting-Grid-Hidden-Fragility-Electric-ebook/dp/B08KZ51SDP Though each RTO area has its own rules, Angwin points out that in general the auctions have caused utility rates to increase, not decrease, and due to their incentive structures has caused an over reliance on intermittent renewables and just-in-time natural gas to the detriment of firm reliable baseload.
The solution, it seems, is to make the grid public so that what gets built isn’t based on market forces but what the people actually need. However, PPNY promises more than it delivers. It makes no mention of RTOs in its BPRA bill or its outward facing marketing. Nor does it mention NYISO, the RTO for New York. New York State does have NYPA, which both directly sells to some customers and participates in the auctions. If BPRA had NYPA take over all of the generators in the state, you would remove a whole section of this market (NYPA would be the only auction participant) and that could be a backdoor way in removing the market system.I should note that there could be legal complexity here that I do not understand that would prevent this from happening this way. This series of events is stated to illustrate PPNY’s non-engagement … Continue reading Sadly, this cunning maneuver is not what PPNY is trying to do.Note, PPNY does have a bill it is pushing known as the NY Utility Democracy Act, that by its own description seems like it would be a public takeover of utilities. However, this bill would only allow … Continue reading
To understand this point we have to look at what the BPRA would actually do. PPNY is not trying to take over the whole grid. Rather it is only trying to build out, not even take over, utility scale renewables. Their marketing often claims that, under current law, NYPA cannot own more than six utility scale renewables projects. This is not 100% true. The portion to the law that they are referring to is this (emphasis is my own):
any CCA community through an energy services company or other entity that is authorized by the public service commission to procure and sell energy products to participants of a CCA program, provided that the authority shall not, pursuant to the authority in this subparagraph, finance more than six renewable energy generation projects and have a per-project electric generating capacity in excess of twenty-five megawatts.
As emphasized, the current law doesn’t stop ownership of renewables as much as it stops the finance of renewables. As others have pointed out, this is an important distinction. Finance is not the same as own. At a minimal best, it fixes the problem in the U.S. of renewables being funded by tax breaks only, allowing the FIRE sector to charge rents in order to access the upfront capital it holds. At its worst, this just allows developers to make money from the most profitable part of renewables generation, the construction, while NYPA gets to slap its name on it, a prospect PPNY seems to support. Also note that this does not entail NYPA taking over any renewable generation sites, meaning that the auctions and all their perverse incentives would remain. Now, you may be wondering about all the non-renewable power generation and if PPNY has a plan to incorporate these into a public power framework. The answer is no.
In the BPRA, in exchange for the meager ability to finance renewables projects, NYPA will be barred from owning anything deemed non-renewable. The definition from the bill is as follows, bolded emphasis my own:
THAT SUCH TERM [renewable energy] SHALL NOT INCLUDE ANY FORM OF FOSSIL FUELS OR COMBUSTION-BASED ENERGY WHICH RELIES UPON BUILDING NEW FOSSIL FUEL INFRASTRUCTURE OR EXTENDING THE USE OF FOSSIL FUEL INFRASTRUCTURE INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, NATURAL GAS, GREEN HYDROGEN FUEL, BIOFUEL, BIOGAS, BIOMASS, NUCLEAR, CARBON SEQUESTRATION AND RENEWABLE NATURAL GAS.
THE AUTHORITY SHALL PHASE OUT ITS USE OF EXISTING NON-RENEWABLE GENERATION AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE
To have such a caveat for such a meager, not even true public power, payout is not only absurd, but ignores the role NYPA has played in New York’s grid up to the present. For starters, the “phase-out” of fossil fuel generation in NYPA will not lead to closures, as the coalition hopes for, but NYPA just selling off its natural gas assets, the exact opposite of public power. This is because as you build out intermittent renewables you need a power source that can spin up quickly when the wind dies down or it gets cloudy. Currently, this is only natural gas. By banning NYPA from owning natural gas it allows the private sector to fill that role in the energy economy and profit greatly while we the people are stuck with underperforming renewables. The more critical problem, and the one that initially brought my attention to this coalition, is how this bill treats nuclear. As we can see above, the BPRA classifies nuclear energy as a fossil fuel and a combustion based energy source. Whatever your stance on nuclear power, this is simply false (I was told by someone close to the bill that this was a mistake that was going to be fixed, but as of publication it remains unchanged). The reason for this language, even though they may tell you otherwise, is that PPNY is an antinuclear coalition.
First, we can look up orgs involved in the coalition and past statements on nuclear energy. Of the 21 orgs, 11 have made some sort of publicly anti-nuclear statement ranging from simple fear-mongering to outright celebration of the closure of Indian Point.https://web.archive.org/web/20210223235346/https://twitter.com/NYCDSA_Ecosoc/status/1364362818 158530563http://beyondindianpoint.com/https://twitter.com/SaneEnergy/status/1247609111954575363?t=_F7vMek-6f9UzTV_dETvHw&s=19https://www.weact.org/2021/08/environmental-justice-leadership-forum-members-raise-concerns-about-the-infrastructure-investment-and-jobs-act/https://web.archive.org/web/20220312024639/https://www.newsday.com/long-island/politics/li-progressive-coalition-marks-30th-year-1.1217236https://twitter.com/mhvdsa/status/1413250326224904193?t=r82ASgX3dWNzS6A38H-lMw&s=19http://www.allianceforagreeneconomy.org/content/letter-cuomo-112-groups-opposing-nuclear-subsidies-ny The coalition itself also has made anti-nuclear remarks, taking the closure of Indian Point not as a moment of mourning for the union jobs lost and community destroyed by its closure, but as a callous chance to push BPRA. This is only the public-facing remarks. In a recent Twitter Space (vocal live streams on Twitter) activists try to reconcile the increase in natural gas use in the state due the the closure of Indian Point by trying to blame Cuomo for not having a plan. This is simply false. Anyone who was watching the situation saw the natural gas plants being ramrodded through to replace Indian Point before its closure. This is supported by the groundbreaking dates of the facilities being just before or even the same year of Indian Point’s announcement of closure.https://www.power-technology.com/projects/cricket-valley-energy-center-dover-new-york/#:~:text=The%20facility%20is%20the%20most,operation%20started%20in%20April%202020 … Continue readinghttps://www.power-technology.com/projects/cpv-valley-energy-center-waywayanda-new-york/ On top of all of this, when I attended a meeting of PPNY in an act of good faith to try and bring up my concerns, the icebreaker, the literal beginning of the meeting, was the following: “if you had to choose one which would you choose, green natural gas or nuclear?” This question belies the anti-nuclear attitudes of the group. Nearly all the responses (other than my own obviously) took the opportunity to bash nuclear, with one member even repeating debunked fear mongering about the security of Indian Point to terrorist attack.
Even with all this, they will deny their antinuclear stance, stating that the bill does not stop nuclear getting built in the private sector, only the public. While this is true, I will lay out the reasons why the private sector will not build nuclear power and that public investment is needed (it is also weird for a group half-composed of self-described socialists to leave a means of power production to the private sector). Also, this ignores NYPA’s history. NYPA has experience building and operating nuclear plants. To deny them from ever being allowed to do so again for only the ability to finance new renewables projects is absurd. To see why, we need to look at how a nuclear public power regime can kickstart the reindustrialization America needs, and how a renewables one cannot.
Nuclear energy is clean (emits no harmful oxides or greenhouse gasses while in operation), firm (runs a majority of the time regardless of the weather), reliable (fuel is stored on site), safe (has some of the lowest deaths per power generated in the utility industry), and dense (needs much less space to produce energy, especially when compared to renewables).https://www.engineering.com/story/whats-the-death-toll-of-nuclear-vs-other-energy-sources There are many great articles debunking the common anti-nuclear talking points so I won’t be spending time … Continue readinghttps://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/02/nuclear-power-is-clean-safe-and-cheap-we-need-it-to-stop-global-heating.html Additionally, nuclear is cheap to operate once built, even claimed to be “too cheap to meter”https://nuclearbarians.substack.com/p/the-nuclear-titan-ft-bret-kugelmasshttps://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/students/history-101/too-cheap-to-meter.html This claim has some historical baggage, originally stated by the early regulators of nuclear energy, and is worth … Continue readinghttps://drive.google.com/file/d/1a18mLFyU5byjVf75owhnnSYRmvGnx-AN/view?usp=sharinghttps://drive.google.com/file/d/1RxYL6_aIOlF6Ny4KrHnVqZHlnfigFRXw/view?usp=sharinghttps://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdfhttps://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_08_04.htmlhttps://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1hULIRHX8xX6Fj-94fuENFRKNWkU0FfPWG_IhEvUqKYA/edit?usp=sharinghttps://www.americanactionforum.org/daily-dish/happened-electricity-becoming-cheap-meter/ and provides thousands of good union jobs. As the grid developed, however, all of these positive factors have gone unrewarded.
In the vertically integrated grid, the incentive structures allowed large projects with long payoff horizons, like nuclear, to be profitable. Long capital was incentivized. The problem was, ironically, that the nuclear industry was not making enough money from building nuclear power plants. This led them to actually advocate for superfluous regulation from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) so that more safety features had to be installed in order to extract more money for plant installations. Utility monopolies were actually okay with this because, as mentioned before, their profit was fixed to their capital investment. Since cost increases were due to federal regulation, it was easy to justify a rate increase. This led ratepayers to paradoxically associate nuclear power with “expensive” instead of the “too cheap to meter” power they should have been getting.
Then came the “deregulated” grid. First off, new nuclear energy was not, by and large, getting built. The incentives to build expensive projects like the now ballooning-cost nuclear were no longer present (the industry effectively shot itself in the foot). Secondly, the existing nuclear plants, now operating as merchant generators, faced new challenges. In RTOs the auctions favor natural gas and renewables over energy systems like nuclear. This causes the operators to lose money on them and want to shutter them. It is within the “deregulated” areas that nuclear plants have been shutting down. In New York, the only policy that saved the Upstate plants (Nine Mile, FitzPatrick, and Ginna) was the ability to sell zero emission credits like renewables do (Indian Point did not get access to this due to political reasons and was shut down accordingly).
So we see that both types of market structures fail nuclear. A true public power regime, along with a revolutionary overhaul of the NRC, could build nuclear much more cheaply, more quickly, and not have an artificial cost burden shifted to the customer. I am not the first to suggest this, and it is something that has been done partially in New York. NYPA built and operated the FitzPatrick and Indian Point 3 by and for the people until they were sold off during neoliberalization in the early 00’s.
The reason this is all so important is the fight for industrial prosperity mentioned in the beginning. The “power at cost” of a public power regime combined with the “too cheap to meter” of a properly regulated nuclear power program would drive down both the cost of living and the cost of doing business immensely. Cheap, accessible power is what has brought industry to communities in the pastDr. Robert L. Perkins, Oswego’s Legacy: Lost to the Ages, https://www.riversendbookstore.com/book/9780991143610, and it is what will bring them back again. This is not to mention the direct number of jobs created from such a nuclear buildout; thousands upon thousands of good, high paying, union, community supporting, industrial jobs. The not truly public renewables buildout PPNY is pushing cannot accomplish such things. Renewables are intermittent, and the storage (battery only if they have their way) buildout required to counter this is not feasible. Also, despite the lowering price of renewables, costs have not gone down. Industry cannot be supported by such a power source. Additionally, despite claims of otherwise, renewables mostly generate temporary construction jobs and very few permanent jobs. Just look at the parking lot of a solar or wind farm vs that of a nuclear plant. They can claim they are generating tens of thousands of union jobs, but this fact plus the fact that not one union in the utility sector has publicly signed onto supporting BPRA brings strong doubt on this claim.
To this point I have not mentioned climate change or the environment once in this piece. This is in contrast to PPNY, who almost exclusively markets BPRA as a climate bill. This does not make sense because energy policy is not inherently climate policy. Just because a site emits greenhouse gasses does not mean it isn’t worth bringing into public ownership. This is unless your goal isn’t public power, but to push a green agenda of 100% renewables and dismantling nuclear. By primarily using a climate centric framing, they can push their bill using the Malthusian, apocalyptic language of the climate end times as a thought-terminating cliché. If you oppose this bill and try to bring up criticisms, you are just slowing down our reaction to climate change and are just a shill for the fossil fuel industry or a NIMBY. This article is not going to argue about climate change, but others have pointed out the overblown nature of this language is used to justify eco-austerity and is out of touch with working class environmentalism.Leigh Phillips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, … Continue readingMichael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, https://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Never-Environmental-Alarmism-Hurts/dp/0063001691 The average person is more concerned with the end of the month, not the end of the Earth. Their framing leads them to mischaracterize the current climate goals NYS has put in place. Though the 2030 70% renewables target does not include nuclear, the 2040 100% emission free target does. By mischaracterizing both goals as renewables only, it allows them to pretend that nuclear is going to be phased out anyway and that their anti-nuclear policies are justified, instead of what they truly are and make New York State’s already unrealistic climate goals even harder to achieve.
This coalition is going to find their apocalyptic language will not work on the people on whom they need it: the rural workers. Renewables have an extremely large footprint and in NYS the only place that you will have enough land is Upstate. There is not a lot of open land, however, so the land that will be used is farmland, forests, and wetlands. It is ironic that a group that claims to be so dedicated to the environment is willing to destroy so much of it in the name of climate change. Rural people do not want this, as evidenced by the growing number of groups dedicated to opposing these projects.https://www.facebook.com/groups/stopsolarfarms/?ref=sharehttps://www.facebook.com/StopIndustrialSolar/https://www.facebook.com/groups/CitizensForSensibleSolar/?ref=share We have been constantly lied to, about how these sites will be managed to maintain the rural aesthetic, about how the sites will affect property values, about the actual economic impact of these sites. We have been bullied by developers, have seen zoning boards bribed off, concerns about toxic runoff blown off, and local approval processes taken away. Rural people do not want this. Rural people want good, permanent jobs; not temporary construction jobs. They want to see the countryside preserved, not paved over with gray solar panels. Many see nuclear as a way to achieve this.https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/10EJ9jFh3uZJKWKaaB5VV4MS_EXmK4sIJhwWw-NW9s8E/edit?usp=drivesdkhttps://drive.google.com/file/d/1oBjCq9Iuluu5GMgvD1NK499huWkQYseJ/view?usp=drivesdk This is part of a wider network of unpopular measures that PPNY is aligned with, such as the banning of wood for home heating (a reliable and cheaper option for many in Upstate), full electrification of heating and appliances (which when tied to intermittent renewables makes them unreliable), and demonization of car usage (which is the only way rural people can get around, haul stuff, and get to work). Though PPNY claims its bill has popular support, I believe most people they surveyed do not have a full understanding of the ramifications of this bill. That may be the greatest sin of this bill; by tying public power to unpopular environmentalist demands, it damages the policy in general and will make it harder to implement in future. That this bill isn’t even truly about public power makes this all the worse.
Nuclear power plants are cathedrals of industry, from which American reindustrialization can flow and the destruction of the FIRE sector can commence. Imagine the human flourishing that can be achieved from the bountiful affordable electricity of nuclear power harnessed by a true public power regime. PPNY stands in the way of this flourishing by pushing a false public power that is unreliable, expensive and, like the serfs of yore, more dependent on the weather. As socialists, we must push them out of the way.
–Brian Wilson is a lifelong resident of Oswego County and a member of Syracuse DSA and Nuclear NY. If you have any questions or comments about the article, or want to help in the fight for nuclear preservation and expansion, feel free to reach out at AntiInfantry[at]protonmail.com.
–Image by Fox Green at https://spacecommune.com/
|↑1||Meredith Agwin, Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of our Electric Grid, https://www.amazon.com/Shorting-Grid-Hidden-Fragility-Electric-ebook/dp/B08KZ51SDP|
|↑2||I should note that there could be legal complexity here that I do not understand that would prevent this from happening this way. This series of events is stated to illustrate PPNY’s non-engagement with the current grid structure and how to truly make the grid public.|
|↑3||Note, PPNY does have a bill it is pushing known as the NY Utility Democracy Act, that by its own description seems like it would be a public takeover of utilities. However, this bill would only allow NYPA to purchase renewable generation sites, not all generation. Additionally, it seems the coalition is spending no time to actually push this bill, favoring BPRA instead. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s7243|
|↑14||https://www.engineering.com/story/whats-the-death-toll-of-nuclear-vs-other-energy-sources There are many great articles debunking the common anti-nuclear talking points so I won’t be spending time going through a lengthy defense of my claims here. If critics are concerned about the waste, they should identify where all the spent solar panels and turbine blades are going to go in 20 years, the history of mining abuses, tell us about how it is fair for countries to go through U.S. backed coups for lithium access, the disasters, tell us about all the people who die from combustion related illnesses when nuclear gets shut down and replaced with fossil fuels, as it has been in California, New York, and Germany and compare that to the actual number of people who have died/been injured from radiation from accidents.|
|↑17||https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/students/history-101/too-cheap-to-meter.html This claim has some historical baggage, originally stated by the early regulators of nuclear energy, and is worth discussing a bit. The quote came up when discussing one of the earlier nuclear power plants built in the U.S., Point Beach One, built relatively cheaply for about $580 million in 2007 USD. This plant was built before overregulation so its initial costs and operating costs were much lower, and thus “too cheap to meter.” Plants built after the regulatory clampdown will have a much higher upfront costs and operating costs comparatively to ones built earlier, thus leading the anti-nuclear crowd to use this term to mock nuclear power. That is why sensible regulatory overhaul is needed, to get us back to plants that are reasonably priced. Additionally, socialist tax policy, either a land-value tax or worker monopolization of groundrents, would pay for new plants through capturing the land value increase from the infrastructure investment, not through rate increases to the ratepayer (effectively a tax on the working class). It is also worth discussing how electricty prices are compared across generation sources now. A common metric to use is Levelized Cost of Electricity, or LCOE, which is the lifetime amount of power a source produces divided by its lifetime costs. Looking up LCOEs will usually show that nuclear is higher than renewable sources (see EIA citations below). However, there has been much critique about its application to renewables and energy sources in general. Namely, LCOE does not include the buildout of dispatchable sources necessary to backup renewables (see Agwin’s book mentioned above), use a timeframe of only 30 years which penalizes energy systems that last longer (like nuclear that can last up to 80 years if not longer), and overly punishes newer building vs existing building, especially power sources that have high upfront costs like nuclear (see links below that get into this further). Additionally, LCOE does not reflect what the ratepayer actually pays. For example, Nuclear NY put together data from NYISO showing the amount of subsidy needed for each energy source to reach the cost of the marginal cost setter in NY currently (in this case natural gas) and showed that existing nuclear is one of the most cost effective, and that new nuclear is on par with offshore wind and rooftop solar.|
|↑24||Dr. Robert L. Perkins, Oswego’s Legacy: Lost to the Ages, https://www.riversendbookstore.com/book/9780991143610|
|↑25||Leigh Phillips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, https://www.amazon.com/Austerity-Ecology-Collapse-Porn-Addicts-Progress/dp/1782799605|
|↑26||Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, https://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Never-Environmental-Alarmism-Hurts/dp/0063001691|