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Rochester wants renewable power for the people

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The City of Rochester wants to launch a program that should save residents and small businesses money on their power bills while also moving them to a climate-friendly electricity supply.

Mayor Lovely Warren has submitted legislation to City Council that would authorize a community choice aggregation program — an arrangement that sounds complex and dry, but is a big deal when it comes to making large-scale shifts to renewable power in the region.

Through community choice aggregation, local governments procure power on behalf of residents, businesses, and municipal customers from a supplier while the utility company continues to provide transmission and distribution services.

By aggregating demand, communities gain leverage to negotiate better rates with competitive suppliers and have access to more green power sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The City of Rochester's Climate Action Plan sets goals for the city to reduce its carbon emissions, including those generated by homes and businesses. The city generates approximately 1.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 380,000 passenger vehicles driven for a year, according to the plan. One fifth of those emissions are from electricity consumption.

Community choice aggregation would let the city line up carbon-free power for its households and businesses, providing a direct way to slash electricity-linked greenhouse gas emissions.

"That's the direction we're interested in going, either 100 percent renewable or 100 percent fossil-fuel-free," said Anne Spaulding, manager of the city's Division of Environmental Quality.

Through community choice aggregation, a mechanism the state established in 2016, the city would bid out an electricity supply contract for thousands of households and small businesses. The customers would then buy their power from that supplier through the contract.

The city's buying power should translate to better electricity rates for homeowners and small businesses. The city will also be able to stipulate conditions for bidders to meet, such as providing an all-renewable supply.

"This is really where the rubber meets the road on the meaning of local government," said City Council member Mitch Gruber. The legislation was routed to Council's Parks and Public Works Committee, which Gruber chairs.

If the Parks & Public Works Committee approves the legislation, it would go to the full Council for consideration later this month. If the legislation passes, the administration can then proceed to the next step of putting out a request for proposals to find an administrator for the program.

The administrator would handle public outreach around the new program as well as the technical aspects of electricity supply procurement. The administrator would help the city figure out the best way to incorporate things such as energy efficiency programs or community solar projects, Spaulding said.

Climate activists, in particular the Rochester People's Climate Coalition, have vigorously encouraged local governments to establish aggregation programs and pursue all-renewable electricity supplies through them.

Officials in Brighton, Irondequoit, and Pittsford approved community choice aggregation programs at the end of 2018. Those four governments — Pittsford town and village governments have signed on — have agreed to work together to line up a 100 percent renewable electricity supply for the over 50,000 customers in their communities.

They've all hired Joule Assets — a company that was integral to launching the Westchester County aggregation program — and its local partner, Roctricity, to administer the program.

Roctricity is an offshoot of the Rochester People's Climate Coalition. The communities and Roctricity have been holding informational sessions about the new program.

The town of Geneva also has an active community choice aggregation program that's administered by Joule and Roctricity. Geneva is in NYSEG service territory and its residents are paying less for the new all-renewable supply than they did under the previous NYSEG supply.

Climate activists have been eagerly waiting for Rochester to move forward on the aggregation program.

Soon after the state established the mechanism for aggregation in 2016, city officials said they were interested. But before officials would advance the initiative, however, they wanted to resolve a technical issue around a utility tax, which was a source of revenue for the city. They've now resolved that technical hurdle.

Sue Hughes-Smith, who took the lead on community choice aggregation for Rochester People's Climate Coalition and is now a Roctricity co-owner, is excited to see the city moving forward on aggregation. The initiative has the potential to shift a large number of electricity customers to renewable supplies and to support local renewable energy projects, Hughes-Smith said.

Several key details of Rochester's community choice aggregation program won't get sorted out until the city hires an administrator. But the city could work with other communities — Brighton, Irondequoit, and the Pittsfords would be natural partners — to pool together their customer bases and solicit supply contract bids. That would increase everyone's buying and negotiating power.

"We're certainly open to working with other municipalities," Spaulding said.

Should City Council pass the authorizing legislation and hire an administrator, there would be several other steps the city would have to take before the community choice aggregation program would take effect.

For example, the administrator would have to develop an implementation plan, as well as a plan for protecting customers' data. The administrator would also have to spell out the needs of the city customer base and then line up supply contracts to meet them. The city and its administrators would also have to conduct a minimum of two months' outreach to customers.

Spaulding anticipated the initiative should be under way by this time next year and that, aside from their costs, electricity consumers shouldn't notice any changes.

"It should be pretty seamless from the customers' perspective," Spaulding said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor.  He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.