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Niskayuna to consider community energy program

Niskayuna to consider community energy program

Community choice aggregation program would allow bulk purchase of energy
Niskayuna to consider community energy program
Photographer: Gazette File Photo

NISKAYUNA — A community choice aggregation program, which would allow bulk purchase of energy, may soon empower the town of Niskayuna.

Members of the Town Board on Tuesday heard a presentation about program benefits by Louise Gava, a project leader for Ithaca-based Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance, MEGA. The alliance administers community choice aggregations, also known as CCAs.

The state Public Service Commission has authorized local governments to aggregate utility customers for energy supply. Strength in numbers, MEGA says, leads to lower energy pricing for all.

Under the MEGA plan, National Grid is still responsible for delivery, maintenance and power outage problems. Administrators shop around for the lowest-cost energy supplier.

"Community choice aggregation allows local governments to aggregate the electricity and natural gas accounts of your residents and small businesses within your jurisdiction," Gava told board members and town residents, some of whom spoke during a public hearing following the presentation.

"So at the end of the day," Gava added, "this is a bulk purchasing program to meet the needs that you set out. Cities, towns and villages are authorized to participate in this program and counties can facilitate but cannot actually have the authority to do this program."

Gava said people understand the program when they understand it's a bulk-purchasing arrangement.

"When you use that term, people get it," she said. "Most people have some kind of bulk-buying club and they get the idea that an individual unit gets less expensive when you buy a lot of units at a time."

Participation in a CCA also means a community's energy goals can be customized.

"This is an opportunity for you to really take control of the energy options," Gava said. "You no longer have to just say, 'OK, National Grid, that's what we want to use.' You can say, 'We want access to renewable electricity, we want that electricity to come from local sources.' You can make value decisions based on the interests of your constituents and your community."

Gava said a CCA succeeds because it uses an "opt-out" model.

"The way a CCA works, all automatically eligible customers are participating unless they opt out," she said. "So everyone's in unless they choose to opt out. That's why it works."

Under MEGA's program steps, a community chooses the alliance as CCA administrator on a handshake deal. The alliance then uses a 60-day period to educate the public. Municipalities eventually adopt a local law to authorize the CCA; MEGA seeks competitive bids for the energy supply and the lowest bidder is selected.

More public education follows, and citizens can opt-out of the program. People who stick around, Gava said, will see savings begin.

Gava said MEGA is seeking 40,000 households for the planned Capital Region CCA.

"We want to go out to the marketplace with as much clout as we can," Gava said. "We want to drive those prices down, we want to be as attractive as possible. MEGA's experience is 40,000 is about the right number."

The numbers represent households—not population.

Gava said the city of Saratoga Springs and town of New Scotland are already in; two other Capital Region municipalities are considering the invitation. Schenectady's City Council will hear Gava's presentation on Aug. 5.

Right now, Gava added, the proposed CCA has gathered 30,000 households.

Several people spoke in favor of the aggregation program during the hearing although one speaker said she believed the model should be an "opt-in" for participants, instead of all town residents having to "opt-out."

The town would have to amend town code to establish the CCA program.

"We would have to join with MEGA, we'd have to choose them as our CCA administrator," said town Supervisor Yasmine Syed. "We've engaged MEGA because we use them currently. We actually do offset our energy costs already through a contract with MEGA."

The Town Board passed a resolution in May 2018 expressing interest in a CCA.

In the same resolution, the board appointed Chelsea Rattner to represent Niskayuna on a Capital Region CCA steering committee. The committee has been formed to explore issues surrounding the creation of a CCA, interview potential CCA Administrators and communicate with potential members of a future energy-buying group.

The committee is currently known as Capital District Community Energy.

"We've basically been having meetings with supervisors and town boards and mayors all around the Capital Region in order to tell  them about what it is, convince them that it's good and to convince them it should be part of a clean energy strategy," said group member Jeff Corbin.

Corbin, a Niskayuna resident, sees the CCA as a way to decrease carbon emissions and secure cleaner electricity at or below current National Grid prices.

The energy group has also been sharing its message with people who live in Capital Region communities.

"We have held forums in Albany, Schenectady, Bethlehem, Niskayuna, among others, in order to basically educate the public," Corbin said. "I think some of the elected officials became aware of it through those forums we invited them to. 

"Those have been our efforts in order to basically lay the groundwork," Corbin added. "We know the elected officials aren't going to take the steps until they feel the public is behind them and so that's what we're trying to do, let them know there is a constituency that wants this and it's good politics, good policy and win-win."

Councilwoman Denise Murphy McGraw is a CCA proponent.

"I first learned of this unique opportunity for our community about 18 months ago and I knew it would be a perfect fit for Niskayuna," she said in an e-mail note. "The ability to choose more sustainable energy sources and at a reasonable price is very attractive. I’ve been pleased to work with The consortium to educate the community. The reaction from residents has been outstanding. I look forward to the future."

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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