Community Energy Gives Us the Power to Choose Green

by Tina Lieberman with Professor Jeffrey Corbin

As an environmental activist who spends countless hours contemplating climate change, I find myself asking, “What’s the one project I can commit to as a volunteer that will do the most to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” I’m not talking about changing all the bulbs in my house to LEDs or riding public transit to work or composting my food scraps. Those are certainly important personal actions. I’m asking: How can I help my community save TONS and TONS of carbon from going into the atmosphere? How can I help a huge swath of my fellow residents do our fair share toward mitigating the climate crisis?

Last year I found what is undoubtedly one of the most significant things ordinary citizens can do to draw down their community’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s called Community Choice Aggregation — or CCA for short. CCA is a program authorized by the NYS Public Service Commission and supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). It enables a community to link with other communities to get affordable, wholesale “green” electricity for all its residents and small businesses.

You probably know Costco and BJ’s, where you can buy bulk at savings. These “buyer’s clubs” leverage their large memberships into discounted merchandise. Similarly, CCA enables municipalities to create a buyer’s club for purchasing residential electricity. The CCA negotiates a 1- to 3-year contract with suppliers for electricity at a fixed, discounted price on behalf of its thousands of members.

Democratizing Our Energy Supply
Currently, your utility company decides what kind of electricity you get. In New York, your typical supply is a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydropower (a renewable) with a smidgen of solar/wind. Enter CCA, through which we, as voters, can tell our municipal officials that we want them to provide a much higher percentage of renewable energy — even 100% — as the default electricity supply. CCA gives communities the power to choose where our energy comes from and allows us to support local sources of clean energy and jobs. We can make the responsible choice of putting less carbon into the atmosphere, while also taking advantage of the fact that renewable energy costs are dropping.

Once a municipality and its CCA approves the new renewable energy contracts, all residents and small businesses within the town or city are automatically enrolled, unless they choose to “opt out” and stay with their local utility. This means the vast majority of residents are plugged into renewable energy, which has a whopping effect on emissions. To put it in perspective, a mid-size city of about 40,000 households might proudly reduce its carbon footprint by changing 10,000 light fixtures to LEDs. If that same city creates a renewable CCA, it would be the equivalent of swapping 560,000 street lamps!

With CCA, your utility still ensures delivery of the electricity to your home, maintains the power lines and responds to service outages. And you still get one familiar-looking bill from your utility company.

Seven states currently allow this electricity purchase option: New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. In 2016, Tthe Public Service Commission approved the CCA model for NYS; Westchester County municipalities were the first to form a CCA and negotiate a three-year electricity supply contract.

The Westchester CCA gave its member communities a choice of conventional “brown” electricity or a 100% “green” option, both at savings over the consumer utility rate. Of 24 member communities, 21 chose the 100% renewable supply. From 2016 to 2018, Sustainable Westchester estimates that it collectively saved its participants nearly $10 million on their utility bills and prevented hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon each year from entering the atmosphere.

Recently, Sustainable Westchester negotiated a second contract term for 2019–-2020. The new rates are 7.96 cents/kwh for 100% renewable energy, with the “brown” supply choice only a fraction of a penny less at 7.71 cents/kwh. What’s more, as part of this contract, small businesses will pay the same as the residential rate, saving them 20% off their electricity bills. Three municipalities that had opted for standard supply in the first contract selected renewables, and two new municipalities joined the CCA, opting for the “green” supply. See www.westchesterpower.org/press-releases/ and its 2017 annual report.

As of now, Westchester has the only operating CCA in NYS — but not for long. The mid-Hudson Valley, Southern Tier/Ithaca area and Rochester suburbs are starting their own Community Choice programs. To start a CCA, each municipality must pass a local law, choose an administrator, and have an implementation plan approved by the Public Service Commission. Since 2016, 170 local governments have expressed interest in CCA, 81 municipalities have passed local laws enabling CCA and 71 municipalities have been approved to be part of a CCA. By the end of 2019, 920,000 New Yorkers may be enjoying the benefits of a CCA, while significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Cutting carbon emissions on a grand scale is what makes CCA one of the most impactful actions we can do to combat climate change. Because of that, I believe my volunteer hours working to form a CCA in New York’s Capital District to be an excellent investment. Like you, I will continue to pursue my own path toward a low-carbon lifestyle. But, as more and more New Yorkers are enrolled in CCAs that deliver clean, renewable and local energy, the impact will be measured by the megawatt, not just by the light bulb.

For a wealth of information about CCA, visit the NYSERDA website and search for “Community Choice Aggregation.” Also talk to the energy chair of your local Sierra Club and tell them you’re interested in learning more about CCA.

Tina Lieberman (tlieberm1@gmail.com) is Education Chair, Sierra Club Hudson-Mohawk Group. Jeffrey Corbin (corbinj@union.edu) is professor of biology at Union College. Both are members of the Capital District CCA Steering Committee. Please contact them if you’re interested in helping form a CCA in the Capital Region.