The State of Public Power in 2023

AS THE WORLD marches closer to that 1.5C degree of warming threshold, socialists must ask ourselves: how are we going to combat capitalism’s relentless push towards further exploitation of our planet and communities?

One answer? Let’s stop paying billion dollar private companies to pump fossil gas into our homes and burn coal to turn on our lights, and instead demand our utilities be publicly owned. 

In Maine, San Diego, Milwaukee, New York, and right here in Washington, DC (just to name a few), the fight for public power is on. Public power looks different in different communities, cities, and states, and the campaigns to win it do too. So as the DSA continues our fight to realize the Green New Deal, we have much to learn from both the incredible wins and the unfortunate setbacks the fight for public power has seen this year. 

Pine Tree Power Ballot Initiative in Maine

A statewide ballot initiative in Maine to establish Pine Tree Power―a nonprofit cooperative utility company owned by Mainers―failed on election day this November. The outcome is a sad reminder that for-profit power companies will always be willing to invest more in maintaining their political power than in giving us access to affordable and reliable clean energy.

The public power campaign was run by Our Power, a coalition of largely environment-focused nonprofits and member organizations across Maine, and faced steep opposition from Maine's foreign investor-owned utilities. Outspending Our Power by 40 to 1, the utilities dominated the airwaves and hired paid canvassers to advocate against the ballot initiative. Two We Power DC organizers went to Maine to help Pine Tree Power canvassers knock doors―and heard from some voters that they were the first non-paid canvassers to show up. The silver lining is that Maine voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to prohibit foreign-owned companies (like Maine’s utilities) from spending on ballot initiatives in the future. 

Results of Maine's 2023 ballot initiatives two and three, as reported by NPR. Ballot question two, which banned foreign campaign funding for ballot initiatives, passed with 347,301 votes (86.4%) to 54,837 (13.6%). Ballot question three, which would have established a non-profit publicly power company, failed by 282,362 votes (69.8%) to 122,340 (30.2%).

Ballot initiatives can be risky: they can make a big splash and set up transformational change, but they also demand intensive campaigns with strong ground game and huge financial resources. So, while Pine Tree Power isn’t a reality yet, the massive effort by the campaigners brought public power into the conversation statewide and mobilized over 110,000 Mainers to vote in support of the initiative. The power they built, and the lessons other public power organizers can learn from their campaign, will carry the movement forward to a win on the next demand. 

Build Public Renewables Act in New York

Organizers in New York faced a very different question than those in Maine—how to make their already established public power authority, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), part of the just transition. In a four year campaign that culminated in the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) this May, organizers with the New York DSA and the coalition Public Power New York demanded NYPA make significant changes to meet the state’s climate goals and ensure workers were brought in by the changes—not disenfranchised. 

The BPRA mandates NYPA to build renewable energy projects that phase out fossil fuels to meet New York’s already-established decarbonization goals. These renewable projects will eventually replace decades old fossil gas “peaker plants” currently owned and operated by NYPA, which spew pollution into largely Black and Brown working-class communities. And it ensures labor is part of the solution by requiring workers to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement and mandating memorandums of understanding between labor unions and NYPA to protect pay rates, provide training, and ensure safety standards. It also gives automatic renewable energy credits to low and middle income utility bills. 

The campaign for this landmark legislation started in 2019 when DSA members advocated against yet another electricity rate hike from ConEd, the main private utility company operating in New York City. As their resistance grew through canvasses and town halls, organizers realized the need to implement a larger, statewide solution to the privately owned model that was failing New Yorkers. To make this happen, organizers built a coalition across the state, including key labor and environmental allies. Then, they built power inside the state legislature and on the streets through continued canvassing—and targeted primary campaigns—to get the BPRA passed in the state’s budget. 

Overall, the BPRA is a living example of the Green New Deal in action, and shows how organizers can use our public utilities to demand a just transition and decarbonization while also addressing critical environmental justice concerns. 

How is DC different?

The fight for public power in DC is unlike those in New York and Maine. Unlike New Yorkers, DC residents have no public power authority we can demand improvements from. And unlike Maine, we cannot pass a referendum that requires spending to implement. DC’s public power campaign, We Power DC, has to take our utilities―Pepco and Washington Gas―to task by campaigning to pass and fund legislation through the DC Council. 

However, Pepco, our electricity utility, is a distribution utility. It does not own power generation assets; rather, it buys power from generation companies across the mid-Atlantic region’s energy grid, PJM. Most of the power it buys comes from fossil gas-fired and nuclear power plants―a consequence of (1) the legacy of a nuclear energy buildout decades ago, (2) ten years of cheap fossil gas displacing coal power generation across the country, and (3) PJM administrators’ lack of capacity to add solar and wind energy resources to our grid―despite immense developer interest in doing so.

Graoh showing Pepco's energy mix between 2015 and 2021. Renewable energy sources have not increased substantially.

So, the data suggest that the process of decarbonizing DC is not substantially under DC’s control. This is the substantial difference between public power in DC and the campaigns we saw in New York and Maine: a DC municipal utility can promote a citywide buildout of rooftop solar and battery storage resources, but it cannot deliver 100 percent decarbonization without a regional decarbonization push.

Data showing installed capacity and changing power mix used by PJM, Pepco's energy supplier, in 2021.

The goalposts of our citywide public power campaign must be different. While decarbonization here requires regional action, a city-wide public power campaign can still fight for what a private distribution utility will refuse to provide: affordable, democratically controlled energy that allows DC’s communities to live in dignity. And a publicly governed utility in the District would expand our influence in the design of our regional energy grid and demand a permanent shift away from fossil fuels. 

There is an added political hitch: DC remains a colony under Congress’s thumb. Legislation that municipalizes Pepco―and/or phases out Washington Gas―must not only pass DC Council over the objections of our local opponents. It must also avoid pushback from both houses of Congress and the President. Absent DC statehood, continued progressive influence over national politics remains an essential condition for the success of local organizing in the District.

So why this fight?

At its very core, public power is a transformational ecosocialist demand. It targets the billion- dollar companies funding the ongoing climate crisis and questions why we are lining the pockets of shareholders with the dimes of “ratepayers” (the industry’s favorite term for the working class). 

It demands we shift control over our energy grid directly into the hands of the people, giving us democratic ownership of the utility industry. Public power also has incredible potential to transform the material conditions of the working class by ending inhumane utility shutoffs, forgiving utility debt, and lessening the cost of living crisis by stopping rate increases. It’s also key to transforming the energy sector itself, from ensuring clean energy is union-built and -operated to correcting historical environmental racism in operation of the electric grid and in the placement of energy generation infrastructure.

Private companies will never prioritize people, but democratically governed public utilities put people at their very core. The utility industry knows how powerful this demand is ― that’s why they’re spending millions to stop the public power movement in its tracks. We don’t know about you, but, to us, that sounds like just the kind of fight socialists can and must win. 

As the climate crisis worsens around us, the DSA must meet the moment and continue to demand the transformation of our energy sector. The DSA is the mass movement organization that has the political power to answer this call. Winning long-term, transformational campaigns like public power is not only how we improve our cities and states now, but also how we build momentum to strengthen our organization and the socialist movement. 

Good news: we’re well on our way! Delegates at the national DSA convention in 2023 voted to continue the work of the Green New Deal Campaign Commission (GNDCC) and its Building for Power campaign, which includes organizing around public power. 

To win this fight, we need everyone in—from the national level to local work in our towns, cities, and states. If you’re based in the DMV, join your neighbors in We Power DC, our campaign for public power in the District. We’re looking for organizers to help us build connections with labor unions, chat with DC residents about their utilities, research and draft legislation, and more!

If you call somewhere else home, investigate what kind of ecosocialist organizing is going on around you and get plugged in to win the Green New Deal. And if you’re interested in getting a campaign started, check out Building for Power, the GNDCC’s campaign to win big ecosocialist demands like public power across the country. 

Our energy system is the battleground of the Green New Deal, and the DSA must engage now to shift power to the people and build the just transition with the working class. 

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