QNS: Astoria elected officials, climate activists demand Albany pass the New York State Build Public Renewables Act

Originally published in QNS.com on May 18, 2021.

Elected officials and a coalition of climate activists rallied outside NRG’s fracked-gas peaker plant, where they’re proposing an upgrade to the existing turbines, to demand that the New York state Legislature pass the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, in Astoria on May 17.

If passed, the legislation would require the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the nation’s largest public energy provider, to lead a mass buildout of 100 percent renewable energy powering at least 75 percent of the state and create tens of thousands of green union jobs in the process, according to advocates.

The measure would require NYPA to fully decarbonize its existing energy infrastructure and decommission its fossil fuel plants by 2025 while rapidly increasing the state’s renewable energy generation, according to advocates.  

Additionally, the publicly owned and operated energy supplier, which currently provides up to 25 percent of New York state’s electricity, would have to ensure that all publicly owned buildings run on 100 percent clean power by 2025.  

Elected officials and the Public Power Coalition, which is led by the Democratic Socialists of America and local environmental justice organizations, say that given the rapid deterioration of the climate, time is of the essence. They are urging the state Legislature to pass the bill by the end of this session in June.

Astoria resident and community organizer Elizabeth Oh pointed out that power plants in New York State emit 27 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year — 6.4 million tons in Queens alone — impacting New Yorkers’ health and contributing to global warming.  

“The New York State Build Public Renewables Act will allow New York state to build wind and solar, which we currently can’t because it literally is illegal, and service low-income communities at a locked-in utility price,” Oh said. “So, it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything. It’s revenue-neutral and will generate 51,000 new union jobs.”

City Council candidate Tiffany Cabán called for 100 percent renewable energy and the complete divestment from fossil fuels, an major point in her campaign for District 22. She said that environmental justice is also racial justice because environmental pollution disproportionately affects Black and brown communities.

Cabán, a public defender who narrowly lost the race for Queens district attorney in 2019, underlined that the bill is also an economic recovery plan.  

“We are experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Recession. So this is also a ‘New Deal’ moment, and the New Deal started right here in New York. And we can create thousands of good union jobs right here in our city by passing this legislation,” Cabán said. 

Democratic District Leader Zachariah Boyer called out Democrats who are stalling the bill in the Assembly and said that New York could not afford to leave thousands of union jobs on the table. The bill is currently in the Energy and Telecommunications committee.

Boyer, who lives two blocks away from the power plant, shared that he has been suffering from asthma-like symptoms after moving to Astoria. 

“My doctors are walking me through figuring out what’s wrong with my breathing. It’s going to be asthma. We all kind of know it. We live in ‘Asthma Alley’ right over here,” Boyer said. “Every time I get up in the morning and I see the plant, I know, and I believe we can do better.”

Last year, the national energy company NRG announced that it intends to upgrade the 50-year-old turbine at the Astoria plant, which it shares with Con Edison and the New York Power Authority, with new natural gas-fired power, claiming that the addition of new technology would provide “immediate clean air benefits.”  

However, residents, elected officials, and climate activists say the proposed 437 megawatt power plant would prolong “Asthma Alley” in Queens and the Bronx, degrading air quality even further.

Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani said that electricity is a public good — something people need to survive in today’s world — and that utility companies should be publicly owned and controlled.  

“And yet we have people being priced out of their basic human rights,” Mamdani said. “We have people whose dignity is being left aside so that we can prioritize CEOs’ profits. And what this bill would do is start the battle legislatively for the future that we all deserve and for the future that we are here today to demand.”

Addressing those who claim that the bill can’t possibly create new jobs and simultaneously address the climate emergency,  Mamdani emphasized that the it would make the air cleaner in pollution-burdened western Queens.

“This legislation would combat the climate crisis. This legislation would protect working-class people’s bank balances. And this legislation would create more jobs for those very same people, prioritizing people who will be laid off as this climate crisis accelerates and as the fossil fuel companies begin to shut down.”

Assembly member Emily Gallagher, who is fighting the north Brooklyn fracked-gas pipeline and an LNG plant in her district, stood in solidarity with Queens residents.

“So not only am I here because I share your air and I share your water, and I share the same public health concerns, I’m also here because we are having the same fight about the future in my district that you all are having here,” Gallagher said. “And I think  this is really important because they want us to think that this is the only way, and they are unimaginative, and they don’t put any real effort into shifting away from fossil fuel.”

ssemblyman Robert Carroll, also from Brooklyn, said that passing the bill is instrumental to making sure that New York meets the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). CLCPA, a landmark climate legislation, went into effect in January 2020, and calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040 remain loud. 

Carroll pointed out that 30 natural gas power plants keep being proposed in New York, even though the state is supposed to reduce emissions by 80 percent in the next 19 years.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Carroll said. “Because no shareholder would be investing billions of dollars in pipelines and plants if they thought that technology was going to become obsolete in less than 20 years. So the only way that we’re going to meet the goals of the CLCPA is to put the power of the people and the power of the state of New York behind those goals and actually create public renewable power.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos emphasized that the CLCPA should not turn into an unfunded mandate.  

“We need a serious commitment. Money behind the legislation that allows us to build the renewable energy, the renewable future we deserve,” Ramos said.

Ramos and Mamdani recently introduced a bill, the Clean Futures Act, to ban all new fracked-gas power plants from being built in New York. It is currently in the Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

When QNS asked NRG Vice President Tom Atkins about the bill, he said it’s “short sighted.”

“Especially given what’s recently happened in Texas and California last summer,” Atkins said, “to think that you can just put a moratorium on all new natural gas electric generation is a recipe for disaster for New York.”

State Senator Michael Gianaris said that he was proud of the CLPCA, but residents should be concerned about words  without deeds behind them, especially when the government is involved — referring to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling in 2006. 

“And what happened? Government ignored it for 15 years until we finally got it done this year,” Gianaris said. “We cannot wait 15 years to make sure that we’re moving toward compliance with CLCPA. When a community makes it clear it has to be done, that’s when elected representatives respond. We are here responding today. We’re going to take that message to Albany and make sure everybody else hears it.”

Read the full story online at QNS.com here.