Get ready for more renewable energy in the local electric grid as a process called “community-choice aggregation” (CCA) expands in Rhode Island.
CCA, also known as municipal-energy aggregation, allows cities and towns to buy electricity for all of its ratepayers from third parties, either on their own or in partnerships with other municipalities. Fixed-price contracts, lower energy costs — thanks to competitive energy bidding — and a greater share of renewable energy in the electricity mix are the primary goals of this practice, which is common in Massachusetts and about to get a toehold in Rhode Island.
Ratepayers can already buy their power from independent suppliers, as evidenced by mail solicitations they receive from electricity providers. But a legislative change in 2017 opened CCA to much broader participation. H5536 entitles municipalities to enroll all of its ratepayers with an electricity vendor without their consent. The law, however, mandates that ratepayers be allowed to opt out of the service anytime without penalty and return to the standard service from National Grid. Most CCA programs, until now, required ratepayers to sign up, or opt in, for the service.
National Grid will continue to mail out bills, and has no objections to CCA plans, as the utility makes most of its money from managing its electricity transmission-and-delivery system. Rhode Island’s primary utility even offers ratepayers a renewable electricity program of its own with independent energy providers. Customers can also choose a separate natural-gas supplier.
“Regardless of a customer’s chosen supplier, National Grid will continue to deliver reliable electricity, respond to service and emergency needs, and provide storm restoration services,” National Grid spokesperson Ted Kresse said.
Enacting a CCA plan isn’t as simple as filing out paperwork. The process first requires backing from a city or town council, followed by approval from the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The municipality then solicits third-party vendors through a bidding process to supply a base level of electricity that complies with state regulations. A separate preselected provider offers additional quantities of renewable energy or other elements that municipalities wish to offer their ratepayers.
The base supply of electricity must adhere to the state’s renewable-energy standard (RES). The state program requires National Grid to gradually increase the portion of renewable energy it supplies to ratepayers. The RES for 2020 is 16 percent, with a target of 38.5 percent by 2035. A CCA plan is a tool to increase renewable energy, especially in communities that have much higher renewable-energy and emission-reduction goals.
These targets are typically achieved by buying renewable-energy credits (RECs) that are sold by renewable-energy producers. In Rhode Island, RECs are purchased from solar, wind, wave, geothermal, small hydropower, biomass, and fuel-cell facilities in New England and New York.
One flaw in Rhode Island’s RES program is the inclusion of biomass RECs sold from wood-burning power plants. So-called “woody biomass” power has been criticized for emitting high amounts of carbon dioxide and particulate matter. Rhode Island’s RES has included as much as 34 percent of the dirty fuel in its renewable-energy mix. Massachusetts and Connecticut have taken steps to limit woody biomass in their RES programs.
The Green Energy Consumers Alliance has been a central player in promoting CCA programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and was the force behind the passage of the Ocean State’s 2017 legislation that approved the practice.
Since Massachusetts enabled CCA in 1997, more than 150 cities and towns have adopted energy aggregation or are in the process of doing so, including Fall River and New Bedford.
The Green Energy Consumers Alliance, known for its renewable-electricity programs, is advocating for CCA plans in Barrington, Central Falls, Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, and South Kingstown. The communities also agreed through a bidding process to share the cost of CCA consultant Good Energy LP, a New York City-based agency.
If the program is approved in those six communities, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance will procure the additional renewable power those cites and towns want in their CCA plans. The Boston- and Providence-based nonprofit has pledged to exclude woody biomass from its renewables portfolio. The power will come from wind, low-impact hydropower, anaerobic digesters, and “smartly sited” solar energy that didn’t require significant tree clearing.
One the goals of CCA is to expand the development of local renewable energy. The Green Energy Consumers Alliance will therefore secure RECs from only Rhode Island-based projects.
Among its four options for ratepayers, Providence’s default plan will deliver 10 percent more renewable energy than the RES, while also aiming to reduce or maintain the current electricity costs ratepayers would be paying if they received their electricity from National Grid. Ratepayers will have three opt-in options: 50 percent renewable energy; 100 percent renewable energy; and a basic service that matches the RES target.
The Central Falls default plan will also deliver 10 percent more renewable energy than the RES. The city will offer a 100 percent option and a basic service option that matches the state’s RES.
Central Falls is the closest to launching, having gained City Council approval for a CCA plan May 11. A docket has been filed and posted with the PUC. Barrington has approved its CCA program and is waiting for a PUC docket. The Providence City Council approved its CCA plan July 16, with a PUC docket expected in August.
If the Providence and Central Falls plans are approved by the PUC, each city will launch a multi-media, bilingual, education, and information campaign, including public outreach meetings. Each ratepayer will also be mailed an information packet that includes an opt-out form and return envelope.
The Providence program aims to be running in early 2021. It will be overseen by the Office of Sustainability, which advanced the CCA program through the development of its Climate Justice Plan. The city’s new energy plan is focused on neighborhoods that benefit the least from the current electricity system in terms of economic, environmental, and energy democracy. Twelve community advisors representing frontline neighborhoods and demographic groups developed educational videos and a survey explaining how CCA works and the program’s benefits.
The main advantages to frontline communities will derive from the CCA’s pressure for more locally produced renewable electricity. The pressure will increase access to renewable energy for both homeowners and renters through programs such as community solar and community-owned microgrids. Ratepayers can also expect lower energy costs as a benefit of the competitive bidding for baseline energy, according to city officials. They said jobs and other local economic benefits are also expected.
Leah Bamberger, Providence’s director of sustainability, said the CCA “could help make a shift to a more just energy system.”
“Providence is doing and making real change with this program, not just talking about it,” said Sue AnderBois, chair of the city’s Environmental Sustainability Task Force, the committee that vetted and approved the CCA plan prior to the City Council’s unanimous vote in favor of the program.