How many people aren’t anxious about rate increases on their electric bills? Who didn’t get concerned over the Fortis takeover of Central Hudson in 2013? And among those who have taken matters into their own hands and installed solar panels and photovoltaic, there’s a lot of confusion around net metering. It seems like consumers just can’t win. But there’s hope on the horizon. The State of New York has followed the ban on fracking with a process called Reforming the Energy Vision, with the central tenet that our energy supply can and should be restructured through Community Choice Aggregation. This is a great idea. We in Saugerties should get on board without delay.
It’s a bit of an alphabet soup, but here are the basics: The New York Public Service Commission (PSC) has initiated a process called Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). It concerns changes to regulations and infrastructure regarding the delivery of electric power, designed with efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in mind. According to the PSC website, the initiative will lead to “regulatory changes that promote more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewable energy resources and wider deployment of distributed energy resources such as micro grids, on-site power supplies, and storage. It will also promote greater use of advanced energy management products to enhance demand elasticity and efficiencies. These changes, in turn, will empower customers by allowing them more choice in how they manage and consume electric energy.”
One of the initiatives coming out of REV is a transformation in energy supply called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). At an informational meeting held in Kingston on Jan. 28, I learned a lot about the CCA model from the regional group promoting it: Citizens for Local Power (CLP), which was formed to fight the Central Hudson takeover. That fight was lost, but CLP has gone on to become an advocacy and resource group on energy issues and sees CCA as a promising tool for developing a more locally-based clean energy economy.
CCA allows municipalities to pool the electricity demand of their residents and businesses to procure power on their behalf and to support and invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Municipalities can choose to adopt it individually or as part of a group of towns and cities in a region. The bigger the group, the more leverage it has in terms of purchasing power. Through a public hearing process, the CCA determines its own energy priorities and means of power production, with renewable energy the preferred (but not required) method. Communities can choose to build out solar, wind, hydro, and/or thermal energy generation, tailored to their particular circumstances and preferences. In this respect it’s a scaling up of the energy supply choices many individual consumers have already made.
CCAs can use a variety of tools to achieve their goals, including power purchase agreements with local and regional energy suppliers, revenue bonds to support local investment, and rate design offerings to customers that wish to invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy in their home or business. CCAs reinvent the utility franchise without replacing existing providers, which would continue to distribute the power produced or supplied by the CCA, at least into the foreseeable future. And it’s not theoretical or even experimental: Over 1,300 communities in six states, including our neighbor Massachusetts, are successfully producing energy using the CCA model, some since the 1990s.
The advantages of CCAs are many. First, renewable power supplied by a CCA tends to be 10-15 percent less expensive than it would normally be, and at least equally importantly, rates are stable as they are not subject to the volatility of the oil and gas markets. Second, it reduces the impact on the climate from greenhouse gases. Third, it keeps more money in the pockets of rate-payers and in the community instead of ending up in some corporate headquarters elsewhere (if not in an offshore tax haven). Fourth, it avoids the waste involved in the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the large utilities, as CCA energy is produced based on surveys of where and when the need exists and new technology can be sited strategically. Fifth, it can be structured to provide ownership shares for its customers. And finally, it provides training and green jobs locally.
There was a lot of support from Ulster County officials and community groups for the CCA model and for Citizens for Local Power at the Kingston hearing, including from Ulster County Legislator Chris Allen and Saugerties property owner and climate expert Tom Weismuller. He and Kathleen Nolan of Catskill Mountainkeeper both mentioned the possibility of combining heat generation with electricity production as we restructure our approach to these essential aspects of life in the Northeast, mentioning hydro and thermal as locally available sources.
So how do we wrest control of our energy supply from Central Hudson? It turns out that it’s relatively easy. Since municipal authority underlies the authority of utility companies to supply us with power, municipal authorities can change the arrangement! No one has to march or protest or go to court. Local political will is all that matters, so it’s well within our abilities to achieve. What we as citizens of Saugerties have to do is educate ourselves and our Town Board and join this movement toward an energy supply that benefits individual users, the larger community and the entire planet.
We in Ulster County are incredibly fortunate in having local advocacy group Citizens for Local Power ready, willing, and able to educate, train, and assist with planning our move into this new model of energy production. If you want more depth, go to www.citizensforlocalpower.com, which includes links to successfully-operating CCAs in other states and information about how you can make your views known to the PSC.