Local and green with Darcy Dumont: Full steam ahead for green electricity aggregation

Published: 06-15-2023 10:52 AM

Finally! After years of researching and developing a plan, the Valley Green Energy Working Group of Amherst, Northampton and Pelham this month took its first official action needed to apply for a joint program of Community Choice electricity aggregation (CCA) for the three municipalities — and potentially for more in the future.

Towns are required by the state to do education and outreach to apply to the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) for an aggregation project. As part of the outreach, a public forum was held virtually on June 6 and public comments are being accepted through June 30.

A major part of the mission of the aggregation project, which is called Valley Green Energy (www.masspowerchoice.com/valleygreenenergy), is to spur reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which we need to do urgently to minimize the impacts of climate change.

The clear benefits of CCA include gaining the ability to: choose our electric supplier, add more renewable energy to our supply than is required by state law, fund local renewable projects, and provide longer term stability in our electricity prices by eliminating seasonal and fossil fuel price spikes.

With a joint CCA that can “scale up” by adding more towns, we will have the ability to fund more local projects that will in turn add to our local resilience against climate change.

The public forum

A public forum was held on June 6, when MassPowerChoice explained the program in detail and answered a lot of key questions.

Questions included:

Can residents with solar panels on their roofs or in a community solar program participate and still get their solar benefits? (Yes.)

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What should residents do if they want to participate but have an alternate supplier? (They can opt in easily, and do not need to finish their contracts in order to do so.)

Will community members still get low-income electricity discounts from their utility? (Yes. There’s no change to discounts.)

The Valley Green Energy website also provides answers to frequently asked questions.

Once the application is approved by DPU and the CCA has chosen an electricity supplier, Eversource basic service customers will be automatically opted into the new CCA. Residents will receive information to let them know about the changes and the opportunity to opt out or opt up to a higher percentage of renewable energy.

The timeline for getting DPU approval is unknown. MassPowerChoice suggested it could take about a year, though there is state legislation pending that would limit the approval period to 90 days.

Background

The idea of forming a joint CCA came about back in 2016, when local climate advocates from Northampton, Amherst and Pelham heard from a leading CCA proponent, Paul Fenn, about what was happening in California. California had become a hotbed of activism around democratizing energy by wresting control of the energy supply from the utilities through the use of CCAs.

Once in control of energy choice, local governments could green their energy supply by adding more and more renewables to the mix. CCAs could also source and own their energy locally. All of this could be done without adding cost for consumers and frequently offering electricity at a reduced cost.

Well, that sounded good to us! Advocates brought the idea to our local governments, and in 2018, Northampton invited Amherst and Pelham to form an official Inter-municipal Task Force on CCA — which also included UMass Clean Energy Extension, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the advocates (then called Western MA Community Choice Energy, now called Local Energy Advocates of Western MA) — to explore the idea of joint aggregation.

Meanwhile, Amherst, Northampton and Pelham each moved to officially authorize the CCA during 2018 and 2019. And both state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Mindy Domb obtained $50,000 from the state budget for CCA implementation.

By the end of 2019, the task force had completed its work with both a report with recommendations to the towns and a study.

During 2020, the task force morphed into a municipal staff and advocates working group that prepared the CCA consultant contract, the CCA application and a Joint Powers Agreement.

The three communities signed a memorandum of understanding in the summer of 2022. The Valley Green Energy Working Group “went live” and the MassPowerChoice contract was signed.

The first order of business was getting the CCA application finalized and the required public education and outreach done. That brings us to the present. While awaiting DPU approval and the launch of the CCA, the group can move on to forming the Joint Powers Entity, which is intended to be an umbrella organization housing the CCA and other innovative, greenhouse gas-reducing programming. It’s super weedy, but super exciting! Energy democracy is coming!

How to support the application

I urge you to support the CCA application as an individual or organization by emailing your comment on this form: amherstma.gov/3735/Valley-Green-Energy. Comments can be made through June 30. More information about the program can be found at the Valley Green Energy website (www.masspowerchoice.com/valleygreenenergy).

Darcy DuMont is a former town councilor and sponsor of the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee.

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