Hydropower, wind, solar, and other renewables are providing more and more of New York's energy, a trend that government officials and environmental advocates want to continue.
But for that to happen, the companies building new wind and solar farms need New York residents, businesses, and governments to buy their carbon-free power.
Governments and business can do so relatively simply, since they consume lots of power, regularly seek out supply contracts, and can negotiate a good price. Residents and small businesses, however, have a tougher time sourcing renewable power, which they often pay a premium for.
"Right now with a lot of these supply contracts, you have to pay extra to get green energy," says Sue Hughes-Smith, who's on the Rochester People's Climate Coalition's leadership team. "That doesn't make any sense. If we want to achieve a renewable energy supply, that needs to be the cheap option."
Community choice aggregation, which the State Public Service Commission approved last year, could flip that dynamic and create better a better marketplace for clean energy producers and electricity consumers. The dryly named approach, which has been tested and proved in several states, allows a local government or a group of local governments to buy electricity for its residents.
And the Rochester People's Climate Coalition is very excited about the possibilities of aggregation. It's urging City of Rochester officials to explore the idea, which it sees as an opportunity for the city take a major action on climate change through meaningful investments in the clean-energy industry. If Rochester buys electricity from local wind or solar farms, for example, that supports the projects and tells developers and investors there's demand for more.
The city, in the coalition's view, would lead something akin to a clean-energy buyer's club for residential and small business electric consumers, Hughes-Smith said. In time, Rochester's government could contract for enough clean and renewable energy to cover the needs of all city households, Hughes-Smith says.
And because the city would be buying on behalf of thousands of individual consumers – not just a single household – it should be able to negotiate better prices, likely below what most residents or small businesses pay now, she says.
The city has given at least some thought to the idea. It's in the midst of approving a draft climate action plan, which lays out how Rochester – both the government and the broader community – can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And on Page 40 of the plan, it lists community choice aggregation as one potentially
According to the draft plan, 22 percent of Rochester's climate emissions trace back to electricity consumption. In 2014, the city emitted approximately 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, says the plan.
Other local communities are also feeling out community choice aggregation. Representatives from Canandaigua, Brighton, Penfield, Gates, Irondequoit, Farmington, and the villages of Scottsville, Brockport, and Pittsford have attended public RPCC educational programs on aggregation, Hughes-Smith says.
"There's varying level of interest, and we hope to get one established this year," she says.
The idea that a municipal government – or group of them – can secure cleaner, cheaper energy for its residents is no pipe dream. A consortium of Westchester County communities is already doing just that, and it's served as a test case for the rest of the state.
Westchester County is basically a New York City suburb with a population of not quite 1 million people. It has 45 communities within its borders, and 41 of them are members of Sustainable Westchester, the umbrella organization that led and secured the state's first community choice aggregation proposal.
Right now, 20 communities participate in Westchester Power, the name of the aggregation effort. And of those communities, 14 are getting their power entirely from renewables, says Dan Welsh, Westchester Power program director. The ability to buy 100 percent clean energy was a big selling point for the program.
"It's all about generating the local jobs, greening the power supply, and displacing some of those dirty fossil fuels," Welsh says.
Westchester is a test, and some hiccups – learning experiences, really – are inevitable. All households are automatically enrolled in the aggregation program at the start, but they can opt out if they choose, and Westchester Power did lose some customers. Many of those who opted out had an alternative billing arrangement with the utility, Welsh says.
But Westchester Power's organizers are generally pleased with how community choice aggregation is working out.
Four of the towns are in NYSEG service areas and they experienced a slight increase in prices, which now seem to be coming down, Welsh says. Consumers in the remaining towns, which are in the Con Ed service area, have saved about $1 million. Westchester Power used fixed rate contracts with suppliers selected through a bid process.
"On an individual account, they probably saved $30, $50, something like that in the first eight months through December," he says. "Nobody's retiring on it, but that's a success."
If Rochester or any other community decides to initiate a community choice aggregation project, it would have to complete a few legal and planning steps.
The local government or governments would have to approve a law to enact or join the program. It'd have to collect data on customers' electricity consumption, so it has something to base contracts on. And it would have to develop a privacy plan to protect residents' and businesses' information.
The government or consortium would have to decide whether it'll administer the program or whether it would hire an outside firm to do so; the latter would be paid for through a fee on utility bills, not out of municipal budgets, says Hughes-Smith.
"Villages, towns, and cities don't have to spend any money to do this," she says.
The Rochester People's Climate Coalition has been working with the Genesee Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council to help communities better understand the community choice aggregation concept and their options under it.
The coalition will also make a presentation to the Monroe County Association of Villages during its April meeting, Hughes-Smith says.
The coalition recently held a meeting at the Brighton library centered around ways to battle climate change at the local, state, and federal levels. About 78 people attended, and most weren't familiar with community choice aggregation. But after they learned about it, most of them responded positively, Hughes-Smith said.
"People really like the idea of having more control locally over our electricity production, but also that it isn't dependent on federal action," Hughes-Smith says. "I think people found that empowering."