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Climate activists wary of new energy offering


The state gives local governments a pretty powerful tool for helping their residents and businesses buy renewable energy, and Brighton resident Sue Hughes-Smith has campaigned hard to get local elected officials to use it. But now Smith is worried that a new initiative may undercut those efforts.

The state's mechanism, called community choice aggregation (CCA), allows local governments to band together and contract with energy suppliers on behalf of their residents and smaller businesses, which would buy the power. It would provide a way for Rochester-area governments to support local renewable generation projects on a broad scale, which is why Hughes-Smith and other members of the Rochester People's Climate Coalition have advocated for it.

But Smith says that a CCA project organized by two statewide municipal associations could get in the way. "What matters is how we implement this," she says.

Under a typical CCA structure, a group of local governments hires an administrator, who runs the program and helps line up energy suppliers. The local governments have to approve any supply contracts.

The Climate Coalition has been working closely with Joule Assets, a firm that helped set up the state's first CCA program in Westchester County. Joule would, by default, offer communities a choice between an all-renewables supply or a supply that uses a broader mix of generation, including nuclear and natural gas-power plants, Hughes-Smith says.

The firm also wants to directly incorporate smaller renewables projects, such as community-scale solar arrays, and technologies such as energy storage, right into its default offerings by directly buying their power. The company sees that approach as a way to support existing projects and encourage the development of new ones. That's attractive to Hughes-Smith and other climate coalition members, who see such projects as key to cleaning up New York's power grid.

Joule Assets is currently seeking state Public Service Commission approval to serve as CCA administrator for the villages of Brockport and Lima, as well as the Town of Geneva.

But the state Association of Towns and the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials recently sent a letter to government officials across the state saying they're partnering to form a CCA of their own and invited them to join. The associations are working with another firm, Good Energy, and the groups tout energy cost savings for governments, residents, and businesses as the primary benefit.

Good Energy also helped set up the Westchester County CCA. It recently received Public Service Commission approval to work with a handful of towns in Central New York and the Capital Region. It's plan is to line up energy through the largest providers – ESCO's – as a way to cut costs. It does offer municipalities the ability to work in renewable energy credits and it raises the potential for local governments and energy customers to buy from local renewables and energy storage projects. But Hughes-Smith says she doesn't believe Good Energy's approach to renewables, especially local projects, is as strong as Joule's.

Brockport Mayor Margay Blackman also has concerns about the municipal associations' effort. Village officials have pursued aggregation in part because of the potential costs savings for Brockport residents and businesses, she says. But they're also very keen on securing renewable energy, she says. That's what they found appealing about the approach laid out by Joule and the Climate Coalition.

The village was the first Monroe County community to approve CCA, and it's the only one that has, to date. Some of the bigger towns, including Brighton, Irondequoit, and Pittsford are working on enabling laws and haven't settled on an administrator.

The City of Rochester is also working toward a CCA program, and Mayor Lovely Warren has characterized the mechanism as a way to bring clean energy to city residents. But none of those communities have selected an administrator yet. In Rochester's case, Warren has said the city will issue a request for proposals.

Brighton has a proposed enabling law that lists supporting renewables as a goal, as well. The Town Board has scheduled a public hearing on that law for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 14, at Brighton Town Hall, 2300 Elmwood Avenue.

But the whole point of CCA is strength in numbers, since communities are basically buying energy in bulk. Local climate activists and at least some municipal officials want to use the mechanism to get renewables and encourage new clean energy development. They believe that Joule has the better plan to do that and the more communities that join up with it, the more effective it can be. But the municipal associations' program has the potential to attract local governments, too.

"I think there's a real chance it might undermine" the efforts of RPCC and Joule, Blackman says of the municipal associations' program.