Picture a field of solar arrays in a small town in the Catskills, generating energy that stabilizes the price of electricity for local residents and helps reduce use of fossil fuels. Or imagine, as the price of battery storage goes down and efficiency goes up, getting a price break on power during peak energy usage, when your own battery back-up makes up for those air conditioners humming across the state and protects you from brownout or blackout.
These visions are possible elements of distributed power, what Jennifer Metzger of Citizens for Local Power (CLP) calls the wave of future, and it’s just gotten a nudge forward from the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC ‘s recent order legalizes Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) in the state, allowing residents of a region to band together and negotiate with power companies for better pricing and clean energy options.
Metzger said CCA is the first step in creating demand for renewable energy providers to step up with local installations on a larger scale than simply house-by-house solar panels or wind turbines. It also gives citizens more control over their energy supply by decreasing dependence on behemoth power companies that can’t easily address local needs.
Approval of CCA is part of the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statewide goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. CLP is working to organize a CCA in Ulster County, learning from a pilot program in Westchester County. Called Sustainable Westchester, the CCA has signed up enough municipalities to negotiate an agreement with power companies that helps members choose ESCOs (Energy Service Companies) offering green options and/or lower prices.
You might remember, back in 1996, when New York State separated power delivery (the poles and lines maintained by utilities such as Central Hudson) from power supply (the power plants, which the utilities were forced to sell to independent companies). The goal was to lower prices for residents by breaking the monopoly of the utilities and allowing customers to choose their own suppliers, at competitive prices. “It didn’t work,” said Metzger. Most customers, overwhelmed by the choices and lacking the time or clear motivation to research different ESCOs, allowed the utility to choose their supplier. The really good deals were sometimes offered by unscrupulous companies that cheated customers.
Now CCAs, equipped with knowledge and research, can help groups of customers choose ESCO’s that will truly lower the residents’ energy costs, with a provision that allows a switch to a renewable energy ESCO at any time. Sustainable Westchester, which signed up 20 of the county’s cities, towns, and villages, recently received bids from energy supply companies that beat out the 12-month average price from Con Edison and New York State Electric & Gas Company, including a 100% renewable option. If a new renewable energy source is constructed locally, customers can switch to that ESCO without penalty.
Long-distance transmission of energy from massive power plants involves an estimated 60 percent energy loss, a huge waste, said Metzger. Local renewable energy sources will be able to deliver virtually all the power generated. As battery storage becomes cost-effective, concerns about blackouts and brownouts will disappear, since microgrids can be isolated from the rest of the distribution system, when the system is overloaded from peak demand.
“The whole idea of local control over energy is powerful,” said Metzger. “There’s a hunger for a greater say in decision-making over where energy comes from. People can get a handle on costs and their unpredictability and the enormous potential of local economic benefits for local energy programs. There’s a process to create a CCA, and it won’t happen overnight.”
Strength in numbers
Each municipality that wants to join has to pass a law approving its participation in the CCA. Carl Chipman, supervisor of the Town of Rochester and president of the Ulster County Association of Town Supervisors and Village Mayors, is an advocate of CCA and has been facilitating some of CLP’s outreach efforts on the issue of distributed energy. “One municipality alone is a little speck,” he pointed out, “but if we join together, we can isolate our citizens from spikes in pricing. A couple years ago, in a real bad winter, our rates went from 6.5 to 12.5 cents per kilowatt, which hurt many of our senior citizens and working poor.” CCAs in six other states — Illinois, Ohio, Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — have been shown to protect customers from such rate spikes.
“It also makes a buying unit,” said Chipman. “We can get better prices on energy-efficient lighting, and we might be able to use the CCA to create our own power in our own area and serve the community the way we want to be served, especially with renewable energy sources.”
Metzger said renewable energy companies have been waiting for the PSC’s approval of CCAs and are ready to jump in with proposals when the framework for distributed energy is set up, which might take a couple of years. “If a CCA existed,” she explained, “the investor could come and ask where would be a good place to build. The CCA will have done some energy planning, will know about the distribution grid, will know what places would work for connection, and can help the investor get a subscriber base.”
To work toward forming an Ulster County CCA, she hopes to create a steering committee with representation from interested municipalities. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is hosting a June 9 webinar, in which Metzger and PSC staff will present information to municipal leaders, followed by a conference in July to start rolling out plans. “Fortunately, we have the experience of Westchester to draw on,” said Metzger. “They have good documents we can build on and adapt to our needs in Ulster County.”++
For more information on distributed energy sources and Community Choice Aggregation, see https://www.citizensforlocalpower.com.