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NEW REPORT: Building Public Renewables in the United States

Contact:

Johanna Bozuwa, jbozuwa@climateandcommunity.org, +1 603 667 0914, @johannabozuwa


New Report: Building Public Renewables in the United States

New York is on the precipice of passing landmark investments in public renewables — the United States should follow suit and move beyond tax incentives to comprehensive green industrial policy to build public renewables


March 29, 2023 — As debate swirls in New York and beyond over the future of renewable energy policy the Climate and Community Project and The Democracy Collaborative today released their latest report, “Building Public Renewables in the United States.” New Yorkers are in a budget battle with Governor Hochul over expanding the state-owned utility’s mandate to build renewables following new federal incentives. This new report builds on the emerging strength of public power campaigns like New York’s and advocates for a comprehensive national public renewables strategy.


The recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) expanded renewables tax credits and rebates while opening up the incentives to government and nonprofit entities. The previous incentive structure all but guaranteed private renewable ownership and offered big subsidies to Wall Street. The IRA’s federal tax credit expansion is a major win for public power advocates like those in New York, but the credits alone are far from the structural change needed. Despite recent openness to large-scale investment by Congress — see the CARES Act’s $2.2 trillion, for instance — the IRA’s $370 billion in clean energy transition investments are nowhere near the scale of funding necessary. The IRA also eschews planning in favor of opt-in subsidies and tweaks to existing market systems which rely heavily on private actors.


The report Building Public Renewables in the United States,” offers a public alternative by calling on the United States to develop a Federal Public Power Program to deploy a massive amount of public renewable energy across the country and invest directly into existing public, cooperative, and Tribal utilities. A public approach to renewable energy deployment would prioritize environmental justice and a planned energy transition, displace corporate energy power, produce thousands of union jobs, and ensure that energy is accessible and affordable to all.


“Investing in public power to quickly change the U.S. energy landscape is not a new idea. Public and cooperative power was a cornerstone of the New Deal,” said Johanna Bozuwa, report author and Executive Director of the Climate and Community Project. “The Rural Electrification Administration provided funds to start utilities where private industry refused to go and electrified almost all of rural America in just 10 years. That’s the speed and scale we need to decarbonize the grid in line with what climate science and justice demand.”


Public ownership of renewable energy is not just about decarbonization — it is about affordable energy and community control. Transitioning to renewables requires the United States to fundamentally shift its energy system, offering leaders the opportunity to reconsider who is in charge and why. The proposed Federal Public Power Program allows for renewable energy development that does not rely on intricate Wall Street financing and independent power producers or private utilities that have dominated the system to date. This means communities — not corporations — can lead the transition.


"Public power answers our century's most pressing political question: Will we let shareholders continue to run our energy systems for private profit, or will we give power to the people?” remarked Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, report author and professor at Georgetown University. “Corporate control over climate politics shows a clear playbook, with corporations working diligently to guarantee shareholder returns, ratepayer shutoffs, and pollution for all. No more. Our report shows that an energy system in the hands of workers and communities is not just technically feasible, but well within political reach."


Recently, pundits have called for vaguely defined ‘permitting reform’ to accelerate energy development, largely by gutting regulations and steamrolling communities. In contrast, this new report articulates why effective planning and democratic control over project siting could accelerate deployment and ensure communities have a say in the energy transition. With strengthened and more democratic capacity, the federal government can be the best planner and developer of renewable energy and infrastructure like transmission thanks to its interregional mandate, long-term planning horizon, and ability to absorb financial risk.

“Rebuilding the U.S. electric power system for a climate-changed future is a challenge of investment, planning, and imagination. Business as usual will produce a low-carbon energy transition that is too slow, too extractive, and for too few,” said Sarah Knuth, report author and professor at Durham University. “Our report advances a compelling alternative: public investment at the scale needed to truly transform how the United States generates, transmits, and plans electric power for a more just and resilient energy system.”


“The past century of our energy system — defined by clunky fossil-fueled monopoly utilities and deregulated generation markets — has left working Americans vulnerable to climate disaster, pollution, and utility bill debt,” added report author Grayson Flood. “Our report proposes a new era of bold public planning in the United States to instead develop an energy system that values good-paying jobs, justice, and democracy.”

The report builds upon public power campaigns across the country — from New York to Michigan to Maine to California — by proposing direct funding and federal partnership to meet climate and energy affordability needs nationwide. Campaigns are cropping up to demand that state and local governments utilize IRA investments to build public renewable energy. This report’s vision is a vital next step to advance public renewables and a just transition for all.

"As states and federal agencies begin implementing the Inflation Reduction Act, this is a moment of both pitfalls and potential for American climate policy. Our report contributes to an expansive imagining of what the public sector can — and should — do to meet the moment,” said Patrick Robbins, New York Energy Democracy Alliance Coordinator and report author. “We propose a public energy system where those who are most harmed by the existing energy system are able to both survive and thrive in the new one."



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The Climate and Community Project is a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. climateandcommunity.org


The Democracy Collaborative is a research and change-agent organization building a people-powered vision for a new, democratic economy run on shared prosperity and inclusion, not exploitation. democracycollaborative.org


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