Gotham Gazette

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National Grid Saga Highlights Need for Public Power

joint industry board elect industry

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

For six months, National Grid has held New Yorkers’ gas hostage in an attempt to force through an environmentally-disastrous pipeline that those same New Yorkers fiercely oppose. Last week, Governor Cuomo finally pushed back against National Grid, in a letter threatening to revoke the company’s license to operate downstate. Considering that National Grid has stranded 1,100 households without gas in the freezing winter under false pretenses, it’s a necessary first step.

But if the next step is to give that license to another private corporation, Cuomo will only be handing the keys from one con artist to another.

Currently, our utility system—the means through which our energy is delivered from generators to users—is controlled by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs). These are private corporations whose primary goal is to make as much money for their shareholders and executives as possible, at their customers’ expense and instead of funding necessary infrastructure improvements and the just transition to green energy.

The real story behind National Grid’s so-called “gas moratorium” illustrates its priorities perfectly. In May, the company claimed that it had to stop hooking up new gas connections, leaving businesses unable to operate and residents unable to heat their homes, because of a gas shortage that could only be remedied, they say, by the construction of the Williams Pipeline.

It’s a compelling story, save for one small inaccuracy: there is no gas shortage. Report after report show that gas demand is flat, and would actually decrease were National Grid to follow sufficient energy efficiency measures. The company’s own regulatory filings show that even after adding 12,000 more customers than predicted in 2017, gas use was 35% lower than expected. They’ve even been selling surplus gas to third parties for the last five years—hardly the actions of a company about to run out.

They are, however, the actions of a company trying to make money. And the Williams Pipeline would make National Grid a lot of money.

While the so-called “gas moratorium” is a particularly egregious example of how private utilities prioritize profits over people, National Grid is just doing what all Investor Owned Utilities are designed to do: generate profits. It’s not an exception, it’s the rule. A glance at New York City’s other major IOU, Con Edison, confirms this.

When massive blackouts shook the city earlier this year, ConEd came under fire for its failure to repair ailing infrastructure until it had literally burst into flames. One of ConEd’s many justifications for a 2013 rate hike was a $350 million program to modernize old relay systems, including the West 65 Street substation whose failure left over 72,000 people without power on July 13. ConEd got the rate hike and we got higher bills, but despite making around a billion dollars a year in profits, they never funded the relay repair project, and never made the repairs.

ConEd won’t reveal where that $350 million went, and is actually requesting another rate hike this year. We have some idea where that money went, as they are still able to pay $9.5 million a year to CEO John McCavoy, six figure retainers to each of its board members, and $846 million in shareholder dividends.

Stronger regulations can’t change the fundamental incompatibility between private profit and public need. The only solution is to wrest power from multimillionaire shareholders and put it in the hands of the public. This is the goal of Public Power NYC, and a central plank of the Movement for a Green New Deal coalition: to replace these IOUs with a Public Utility that prioritizes people over profits.

As Western Queens City Council Member Costa Constantinides wrote last week, more than 2,000 communities in the United States, including the entire state of Nebraska, get their power from publicly-controlled utilities, providing power to one in seven Americans. These public utilities have already been proven to be cheaper and more reliable than privately-owned utilities and have been leading the charge in the transition to renewable energy our planet needs to survive.

Constantinides is one of a rising number of elected officials who support bringing utilities under public ownership and, as chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee, his voice carries some additional weight in New York City. However, the change we need can only come when our representatives in Albany wake up to the failure of the status quo.

State Senator Kevin Parker and Assembly Member Michael Cusick, as the chairs of their respective state committees on energy policy, have the opportunity to fix the fundamental flaws of our investor-owned system, and we call on them to lead on bringing our utilities under public control.

To be sure, no public utility is perfect, and existing public utilities must go further to combat climate change. But the difference between private and public utilities is that they can go further, because they can be truly democratic and accountable to the people they serve.

We only have to look at the incredible aid work in the face of disaster by groups like Occupy Sandy to see what democratic control could look like. When the storm hit, it was ordinary people who came together, ultimately setting up an extensive relief network that provided thousands of meals and delivered vital supplies. They didn’t run the numbers to make sure it was profitable, demand payment in return, or blame storm victims for their circumstances. They just came together, pooled their resources and skills, and helped each other survive.

Imagine if this community solidarity could be harnessed before disaster strikes, and used to shape systems with the same values that made those relief efforts possible. A truly democratic and accountable public utility will make decisions in, and only in, the public interest. It will prioritize safety, reliability, and affordability. It will decarbonize as quickly and comprehensively as the planet requires. And it will do this all with union workers making good wages and full benefits, with provisions to hire from—and invest in—the marginalized communities who have been hurt most by the last century of private, polluting energy regimes.

This is what Public Power makes possible, and why it will be a vital part of any Green New Deal—be it for New York, the United States, or the world. The engines of private profit have been driving our energy system for decades, and they’ve nearly run our planet off a cliff. They need to be replaced with the engines of public good, powered not by thirst for private profit but by the desire to meet our communities’ needs in the best and most sustainable ways possible.

Charlie Heller is a member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, Ecosocialist Working Group; Jamie Tyberg is a member of New York Communities for Change; and Alex Beauchamp is a member of Food & Water Action. On Twitter @NYCDSA_Climate, @jtbrg, and @AlexAtFWW.

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