How Did the Build Public Renewables Act Get Passed?

A DSA-led coalition just passed a major climate justice law in New York State. Two campaign organizers tell us how did they did it.

This spring, a coalition of climate justice organizations led by DSA activists successfully passed the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) through the New York State legislature. It was the culmination of a years-long campaign to make the state the first in the nation to pass a climate justice law that supports publicly-owned renewable energy production and green union jobs. Details about what’s contained in the legislation can be found on the Public Power NY site here.

It is somewhat surprising that a bill that directly challenges the interests of a major private industry with close ties to many powerful politicians actually got passed. To help DSA members understand how and why the campaign to pass BPRA succeeded, Socialist Forum spoke with two leading campaign organizers, Stylianos “Scott” Karolidis of NYC-DSA and Timothy Karcich of Suffolk County (Long Island) DSA. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Socialist Forum: Tell us about the origins of the campaign. When did people start talking about working to pass a climate bill, and who was involved?

 Scott Karolidis: In 2018 or 2019 the New York City DSA Ecosocialist working group was in the early stages of forming. At that point it was kind of unfocused, working on issues regarding the environment and ecosocialism in general. A few folks started coalescing around the idea that we should do a public ownership or a public power campaign. The idea came that we would do a few different bills at the state level to try and change energy grid and politics in New York. One of them was inspired by another comrade, Shay O’Reilly, who had the idea of addressing the fact that New York State already has this huge public power authority, the New York Power Authority (NYPA). It just doesn’t do anything. It’s been completely hamstrung by laws that restrict what it can build and what it can do. But it’s actually kind of amazing, it’s the biggest public power entity in the United States. It originally did all of that massive hydroelectric power building under Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was the governor. The idea was that we should expand it. So there was originally a bill to expand NYPA’s authority to enable it to build. That was in addition to two other bills. One of them was called the Downstate Power Authority Act, and the other would have banned ESCOs and done other regulatory things. Eventually over time those bills consolidated. One of them became the New York Utility Democracy Act (NYUDA), which would essentially take over ConEdison to form a downstate power authority that would cover the Westchester County area, the New York City area, and ideally link up with a democratized Long Island Power Authority (LIPA). The other bill was the BPRA, which took all of those things from the ESCO ban and expanded NYPA and consolidated it into one bill. That was in 2019 or 2020. From there, it snowballed and became a different beast.

Tim Karcich: My main contribution to the bill was talking with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1049 to get them onboard with BPRA, or at least neutral. So I came in later, but I do have some family history with the grid. My dad worked for LILCO, which was the Long Island Lighting Company. Before they closed down, he worked at the Shoreham Power Plant in their environmental department for a little while. so I jumped at the chance to work on the campaign when another member of ours told us about it. I’m also involved with the Reimagine LIPA campaign here, which is kind of like BPRA for this power authority on Long Island.

Socialist Forum: Where did the specific policy ideas in the bill come from?

Scott Karolidis: In addition to Shay O’Reilly’s idea I mentioned earlier, I think everyone in the working group knew that climate change is a big problem. We recognize capitalism and the profit motive as a major driver of climate change. If we want to deal with climate change, we need to move to a public electric grid because it’s never going to be more profitable to do clean energy than it is to do dirty energy. Neoliberals can incentivize it all they want, it’s just never going to work. That was the real core of the bill. We have this power authority in the state, it makes a lot of money, and it’s flush with cash. Let’s use it to sell bonds so that it can build instead of using ratepayer revenue and money. All of those together formed the core idea that we need a public takeover of the electric grid so the public is making the decisions about how energy is produced and distributed.

Tim Karcich: There was a big struggle to get the most impacted unions like IBEW and UWUA Local 1-2 on board with the campaign. It’s easy to get, say, a teacher’s union to be in support of something like this. At first, people like IBEW Local 1049 Business Manager Patrick (“Paddy”) Guidice were not into BPRA. It took a while for them to come around, but we were able to convince them once the just transition language in the bill was going to stay in the bill.

Socialist Forum: What were some of the main strategies and tactics the campaign adopted to push the bill forward?

Scott Karolidis: We came at it from many different angles. We did some issue-based canvassing around the bill, and lots of chapters across the state did that. There was a significant communications element, including a lot of social media. We were going viral on Twitter fairly often, and lots of people that don’t normally engage with this sort of stuff started engaging in 2022. Another big thing is that at one point we realized that under the formerly existing political conditions, it was unlikely that we would be able to pass the bill. So we decided to try to change the conditions. We had a big strategy summit in 2021. We had lots of discussions, and we decided collectively that we would avoid doing too much issue-based work in order to focus on electoral work. We decided to endorse David Alexis’s campaign against the incumbent Kevin Parker, who was the bill’s primary sponsor in the State Senate. We endorsed Sarahana Shrestha against the incumbent Kevin Cahill in the Mid-Hudson Valley. And we worked to have a kind of national Green New Deal slate that included Sarahana and David Alexis and Vanessa Aguduelo in the Lower Hudson Valley and a few other candidates nationwide.

The reason we made that decision in 2021 was because we needed more people in both chambers of the state legislature to help us organize there in order to pass the bill. We wanted to beat Kevin Parker, who was intentionally blocking the bill by holding onto it as prime sponsor so he could prevent it from passing. We had to dislodge or defeat some powerful Democrats. We failed to beat Kevin Parker, but we scared him a lot, and he “magically” unblocked the bill when he realized he was getting a very credible threat from David.

Another big moment was when State Senator Mike Gianaris of Queens got on board with BPRA, because he played a key role in bringing the labor unions around to the bill. This ultimately resulted in the state AFL-CIO writing the bill’s labor language, and the federation stayed neutral on the bill. We ourselves were not powerful enough to cause labor to talk to us, but we were able to pressure leaders in the state legislature who in turn pressured labor leadership on our behalf.

Socialist Form: It seems like the decision to focus on electoral fights to make the terrain in the state legislature more favorable to passing BPRA was the right one.

Scott Karolidis: Absolutely. I don’t think we anticipated to be as successful as we were in 2022. We just thought we’d win an election or two and that in itself would help us pass the bill. We didn’t realize all the side effects and ramifications of the electoral work that wound up happening. Another critical tactic was all of the lobbying we did. We decided to focus mainly on electoral fights but we didn’t want to just drop lobbying completely. So we agreed to form a small lobbying committee that would do that kind of inside work, which included me, Aaron Eisenberg, Patrick Robbins, Lizzy Oh, and a few other people in New York that took up this inside component of the inside-outside strategy at the time.

Socialist Forum: DSA played a leading role in winning BPRA, but it wasn’t the only organization involved. How did the Public Power NY coalition come into being, and who is part of it?

Scott Karolidis: DSA was already working with a lot of these groups under the Movement for a Green New Deal banner, progressive left climate groups including New York Renews which is very large. These are not really socialist groups, but many of them realize that if they want to tackle the climate crisis they also have to address the economy. Generally these groups agreed that the government should be in control of energy production and distribution, not private companies. So that’s how we were able to get a lot of these folks together but I would say DSA does the vast majority of work in the coalition.

Socialist Forum: Which groups and business interests came together to fight against BPRA?

Tim Karcich: At first the unions were against the bill. There were Climate Action Council meetings all around the state, and the unions brought a lot of people to the meeting on Long Island, like hundreds of people. It was pretty wild. And a lot of testimony was kind of nonsense like, “how are they gonna bring in the electricity, on trucks?” I met Paddy Guidice from IBEW Local 1049 there, I just shook hands with him and told him we’d like to have him at the table. I guess the person—to–person interaction combined with the push from Mike Gianaris is what helped to make the connection happen. A couple of LIPC folks and I went down to the Local 1049 office and had a real conversation with them. They were really concerned about NYPA not bargaining in good faith with their union contracts. That was a big problem for them. They were really concerned about becoming public employees. Those IBEW members have been in the private sector, and if they became public employees their pensions would have gotten screwed up, they’d go all the way down to the worst state pension tier. A 45-year old electrician doesn’t want to hear that their pension is going to get hit, right?

So we did a lot of listening at that meeting. They saw that the bill was gaining steam and they saw that we were there in good faith and had always been there in good faith, like just waiting to have this meeting. We wanted to make sure they knew that if the bill was going to close down a peaker plant, which the BPRA does do, by 2030 that the members were going to get money for retraining or to just retire if that’s what they’d prefer. I remember telling this to Paddy and he was like, this is something that’s never happened before. When he first saw the labor language the AFL-CIO wrote for the bill, he said in the meeting that it was the best labor language he’d ever seen. And that was his concern, it was so good that it could never pass!

His job is to protect his members. If I put myself in his shoes, here’s this young guy coming up to you saying “let’s talk about public power, let’s talk about doing stuff that’s never happened before anywhere in the country, and just take what we’re saying on a leap of faith,” I can see why it took a year for him and the union to come around.

Socialist Forum: What about business and energy interests? Where did they stand on the bill, and what did they try to do to block its passage?

Scott Karolidis: Basically, if you were a private energy producer in New York State and you read this language and you had a brain, you would realize this bill was a direct threat to your interests. A lot of them told on themselves because in all the quotes they gave to the press, they said they could never compete with NYPA, which would do everything better, faster, cheaper. I personally would never admit that!

Socialist Forum: That sounds a lot like the arguments the private health insurance industry made against a public option for health insurance coverage.

Scott Karolidis: Yeah, it’s literally the same thing. So yes, private energy interests – fossil fuels and “green energy” alike – were against BPRA. A lot of legislators are very much in the pocket of these industries, whether they’re “clean” or not. If a corporation is willing to drop money into your reelection campaign and you don’t have any principles of your own, you love private industry. State Assembly member Amy Paulin was one of our biggest opponents. She was the chair of the corporations committee in the Assembly where this bill was last year. After the bill was passed afterwards she was saying things like, we are worried it would be competitive to our industry. She is identifying herself with private industry! So in addition to the private energy interests our opponents included lots of regular Democrats who are very cozy with private companies. It’s their ideology that they’re going to solve all the problems with “friendly” capitalism rather than anything else.

There’s a whole story about a fun legislative maneuver we used to get around Amy Paulin. I’ll tell you about it very briefly because I feel like it’s interesting. It’s this thing called “99ing” a bill, a procedure in the Assembly where you basically force a bill to come up in committee. We had Bobby Carroll do that last year, and Paulin was extremely upset about it because she was the chair of the committee and absolutely didn’t want it to happen. Carl Heastie was extremely upset about it. It passed out of committee because we had the votes. This year, the Assembly leadership changed the rules so that 99ing is significantly curtailed. They were so pissed about it that they have dramatically reduced the practice for every single legislator, it’s now very difficult to 99 bills in committees.

So that was fun. But Paulin and many other allies of the private industry were opponents. Of course, they made some changes to the legislation we weren’t happy about. The law that passed is not the original, perfect version we would like. What we really wanted is essentially a public takeover of energy production in the state, but we had to compromise in order to get something passed. The original version of BPRA included a clause called the right of first offer and refusal for any Request for Proposals (RFPs). This would have given NYPA the first go of new energy built in New York State, NYPA would have had to turn down a project before private companies could do it. That was a non-starter for most Democratic Party officeholders, who are deeply connected to private industry. So that came out. We had to take out the ban on ESCOs, building retrofits, and other things.

Tim Karcich: The bill had to compromise a little bit to pass, which is understandable. I’m very interested in the NY Utility Democracy Act (NYUDA). But BPRA was hard enough to pass, going for NYUDA right away seems like a mistake to me. I would like to pass it, but we need to think through what Public Power NY works on next, and we shouldn’t put NYUDA on a shaky foundation. So we’re talking about how to implement BPRA. I don’t really love electoral work myself, but I understand coming out of the BPRA fight that we have to move a bit slowly. I think the compromise was worth it, and it sets us up for fighting for things like NYUDA in the future.

Scott Karolidis: A really important thing to understand about BPRA and NYUDA is that we operate in the political conditions we have. We constantly had to grapple with that. We met every year of the campaign to discuss our strategy, meaning we constantly changed the strategy. We made decisions I didn’t always agree with. But it was great to be part of a democracy where you have to let a majority decide and then go along with it and try to make it work.

One of the things we’re really clear-eyed about is that one major goal of BPRA is to change the political conditions in the state. For a long time, we couldn’t get labor on board very easily because they have contracts with private industry, and they were happy with a lot of those contracts. They didn’t want to be public employees. The socialists couldn’t give union members jobs, but National Grid could give them jobs. We are changing the paradigm so now the socialists, through the capacities and mechanisms created by the bill, are the ones giving them jobs. When they get the job retraining, and full titles, and the same pensions and benefits and salaries in the new jobs through the just transition provisions, they will know to credit DSA for this. They know that DSA is the group that stands by their word when it comes to the promises we make to labor. When it does come time to start talking to them about how ConEdison is a bad deal for New Yorkers, we can say that we know you guys like your contracts, but can we work together? We would need labor in lockstep with us to do NYUDA. When it comes time to do that, we can point to BPRA and hopefully the many new unionized energy projects under NYPA that they’re happy with and say, look at what we did before. Let’s do it again.

Socialist Forum: The primary election challenges were one big way DSA was able to change the political terrain. It also seemed like developments in federal-level politics also helped to make passage of BPRA possible, namely certain provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the influence of left-wing New Yorkers in Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman.  What role did federal policy and politics play in this process?

Scott Karolidis: The IRA provision that really helped was “direct pay.” Before the IRA, private companies got tax incentives to build renewable energy. Public companies already weren’t paying taxes, so they weren’t really more competitive when it came to building energy projects. Under direct pay, the federal government just gives money to public companies to build renewable energy. Now, if you don’t have a public company in your state building renewables, you’re leaving an infinite amount of money on the table. Direct pay is written in such a way that a state could get up to 30% of your renewable energy projects paid for by the federal government.

This boosts the competitiveness of public companies. Now, they’re not just not costing the state tax incentives, they’re covering 30% of project costs through Washington. Now, they are extremely competitive with private industry. A funny story about that is DSA was a little bit personally involved in terms of forcing Chuck Schumer to that deal. There were widespread internal reports that Chuck Schumer was giving up on doing a climate deal with Joe Manchin, that he just wasn’t trying that. Basically he was saying, Joe Manchin doesn’t wanna negotiate, but it was really Schumer who was just giving up. We didn’t get particularly involved because we had our hands full with our electoral work, but some folks were supportive behind the scenes in pressuring Schumer. There was a staffer sit-in at Schumer’s office, demanding he do his job instead of giving up because it’s hard. A few other federal allies were instrumental in pushing Schumer not just on negotiating IRA, but on including direct pay too.

So yeah, that was really helpful. In terms of federal, we had been working on federal electeds for a really long time. Not just AOC or Bowman, but also Reps. Grace Meng and Adriano Espaillatt who spoke in favor and signed a letter during the Assembly hearing last year. Right. A lot of these mainstream Democrats were like this is Democratic climate policy, sounds great. It was really beneficial that we did a lot of federal outreach.

Tim Karcich: I’ve been critical of AOC and Jamaal Bowman at times, particularly regarding the Israel stuff. But I have to say the moment I first knew that BPRA was going to pass was when their letter to Governor Hochul made the New York Times. When the first draft of the state budget came out in February, the coalition was excited that what we called “BPRA-lite”was in it. It had no labor protections at all. It was a trash bill, but you could see a version of BPRA in there. Over the next couple months, the Senate passed the stronger version of BPRA again. I think the federal electeds did push it over a hill, and that put the heat on Hochul. They should get some credit for that, and it was a big deal for us.

Scott Karolidis: We work really closely with the Socialists in Office (SiO) committee here in New York. We have a committee with them, we spend a lot of time organizing them, we work really closely with them. We worked with them to organize federal officials. I don’t think people like Reps. Grace Meng, or especially Sean Ryan, who DSA State Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha has a relationship with at this point, are used to getting asked to do things by organizations like ours. Usually the thing people ask allied electeds to do is co-sponsor or vote for a bill. But we were reaching out to Jamal Bowman and AOC and telling them, we need you to sign this letter, we need you to organize your colleagues, we need you to call the governor. I think in a way AOC and Bowman were happy to have this kind of direction from us. They didn’t do everything we asked, but we were very persistent. We gave them lots of different asks and we organized them. They were people to organize just like everyone else that we had to organize, and they in turn organized their colleagues. That was really effective, and it’s a big lesson.

In terms of lessons regarding lobbying or insider strategy, you can’t just get your electeds to co-sponsor a bill and that’s it. You must organize them to organize internally. Your electeds have power, and you need to act through them to use it. So it’s not just me asking Zohran Mamdani to tell Carl Heastie something’s a priority. It’s me giving Zohran a list of 10 other assembly members and asking him to talk to those people and ask them to sign on to the bill. We did that with lots of electeds, some that weren’t even Socialists in Office, like Anna Kelles or Michaelle Solages, who really came through in a phenomenal way.

Tim Karcich: For most of my political life I’ve identified as anarchist, and I still mostly identify that way, but as an organizer you have to think about what’s possible now. This campaign was hard, but it was winnable, and you have to do what you can to pass the bill. I wish we could just go straight to NYUDA or the New York Health Act or whatever, but we don’t have a majority for this yet and sometimes change is slow. I’m grateful that the just transition aspect of BPRA seems like a legacy bill to me, it’s a big thing. I just finished the book The Future is Degrowth and I’m a degrowther myself. “Just transition” is all over the literature, but what does it look like? Well, we finally have an example we can point to, and I’m extremely proud to have been a part of it. And it was won through electoral, you know, who knew?

I also want to mention that campaigns like this are something everyone can be involved in, you just have to play to your strengths. My thing was soft skills like talking to this labor guy who wasn’t super into the bill. It involved a lot of patient listening and waiting for your moment, and the moment eventually came because of the behind the scenes stuff that I wasn’t involved in. But, you know, no one else had success talking to him, and I contributed how I saw that I could. It’s gonna be a fun story to tell. I’m just very heartened by the just transition stuff and having won a bill that was winnable, and we did it electorally – for me that was kind of cool.

Socialist Forum: What advice would you give to DSA members or anyone else who might be interested in doing something similar in their states?

Scott Karolidis: I have two main pieces of advice. The first is to be strategic about everything. What I mean by that is don’t try to do just the most realistic or easiest or most practical campaign. You should be ambitious. You should try and push something that’s aggressive, that actually changes conditions. But don’t do the thing that’s absolutely impossible and you’ll never win. Be strategic. Choose something, whatever it is, that is realistic for you to win based on your existing capacity or the capacity you expect to have in the next few years. Everything you do should be building your organization up to eventually win some other goal. The way we talked about BPRA and doing the electoral stuff in service of that, and then even doing BPRA in service of NYUDA – having this larger strategic vision of what is the goal for our energy system in New York helped us figure out what are the constituent pieces of that goal. So that’s number one, be strategic.

Number two is to be hopeful. I think there’s a lot of doomerism in the climate world, a lot of doomerism on the left, and there’s a lot of good reason for it. But truly, if you don’t feel hopeful, if you don’t think you can win, then you’re going to lose. If you don’t feel inspired to do something with your comrades, if you’re not operating in a collective group and feeling good about it, then you are going to lose. You need to be hopeful. You need to believe in what you’re doing and you need to believe that you will win.

Tim Karcich: I very much echo those points. You also need somebody who’s a consistent face with the people who are your targets, an IBEW was a major target for us. I would consistently text Paddy, we had that meeting. I was consistently talking to him about this stuff and whether he took me seriously or not, I don’t exactly care about. But I was a face he could point to and tell his people that I was the guy representing this organization and coalition, and we have to start listening to them. To Scott’s point, don’t be afraid. Go out there and shake hands with the person you need to shake hands with and have the conversation. Listen and listen and listen and be painstakingly patient. It took a while for labor to come around. They had to see that the Senate passed it. They had to see that we had momentum throughout the summer and into the next legislative session.

We’re mostly happy with the bill and I’m happy with the relationship that I have with Paddy, because that’s going to play a part in the LIPA fight as well. Find someone who has good soft skills and who can be consistent, and just talk to people and be as friendly as you can. We’re on labor’s side here, you just have to prove that you’re on their side. I think we’re proving it and, I know for a fact that Paddy’s going to go to other union leaders and be like look at this bill, this just transition language is something we’ve been looking at and before the employers were telling us to get out of their face with that.

Aim high, and be outgoing and be consistent with relationship building.