BETHLEHEM — The Town Board voted unanimously on Wednesday, Jan. 22 to adopt a local law authorizing the creation of a Community Choice Aggregation Program.
This local law is needed to enable Bethlehem to continue exploring the regional CCA program with 13 other neighboring municipalities totalling over 90,000 households, including Guilderland, New Scotland, and Troy, but it does not force the town to officially enroll in it. This decision will happen in months to come.
Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance (MEGA) manages the program and seeks to empower municipalities to purchase electricity in bulk from renewable energy resources, giving residents and businesses another option beyond National Grid, the default electricity supplier.
“It’s very exciting and I love seeing all this public discussion,” said Louise Gava, the CCA project leader for MEGA. “I’m super proud that Bethlehem is now the eighth municipality in the Capital District to pass a local law for this.”
She added that the first seven that already passed their own local law versions were Glens Falls, Guilderland, New Scotland, Voorheesville, Kinderhook, Niskayuna and Schenectady.
Prior to the vote, around three dozen residents expressed mixed reactions to the program to the Town Board during an elongated public hearing at the Jan. 8 and 22 meetings.
Supporters noted the benefits of being environmental and the possibility of seeing their bills reduced.
Opposers were concerned about the opt-out feature, that not every resident will be aware of this program and how there is no 100 percent guarantee yet of their bills being reduced.
Also, Town Board members voiced their support for the CCA program.
For instance, member Maureen Cunningham said that when she first moved into the town years ago, she was signed up with National Grid for electricity supply and delivery but “never knew for years and years and years that [she] had a choice.”
She continued, “Last year, I decided to opt out of National Grid and choose clean energy and my bills have been lower. … I know it’s anecdotal but when it comes to climate change, we’d all like to opt out of that too. So we really need to move forward and be innovative in every single way possible because we have our kids here and I worry about my kids’ future and I think this is the right move.”
Member Dan Coffey reminded the public that the Jan. 22 vote was not final in the sense that neither the town nor MEGA has decided who the new electricity supplier is going to be yet as more information and numbers need to be gathered first and that is a separate decision to be made in months ahead.
“I think this is a great program and I applaud [Town Supervisor] David [VanLuven] for doing all the research and for MEGA for all the work they’ve done,” he added.
Looking ahead, Gava said all 14 interested municipalities need to first pass their own local laws that authorize a CCA program — six have yet to do this, including Albany, Troy and Saratoga Springs — before MEGA presents the program to the state Department of Public Service for approval by mid-March.
“Getting state approval is needed so we can then get data from National Grid that then allows us to go out to get pricing from potential suppliers,” she added. “Once again, the municipalities passing their local laws do not obligate them to participate in the program. It just gives them the ability to participate in the bidding, pricing and decision-making processes.”
Once the state approves the program and local laws, Gava said MEGA will identify potential electricity suppliers which should happen between April and May.
“Then, we should be looking at putting numbers in front of the municipalities in May for them to choose,” she said. “Factors we’ll consider with each supplier include whether they’ll offer 100 perecent renewable energy or a mix of that and non-renewable, their customer service record, the ease of their opt-out process, their past experience with serving municipalities in the state, the actual pricing and contract terms.”
Then, the municipalities would decide on which supplier they would prefer. Each municipality has the option to also leave the CCA program if it does not like the recommended supplier options.
The decision process per municipality, she said, would differ as “each municipality has their own process so some boards may have a special call or meeting or have another public engagement process. But it’s important to be transparent with constituents.”
If and after a municipality does choose a supplier, Gava said an education period will happen where residents can be informed — like via public meetings, on websites and e-newsletters, and the press — about the supplier’s pricing, whether it will be from 100 percent renewable energy resources
or a mix somewhat, the contract’s terms and length, as well as information about how to opt out if desired.
“It would be 30 days of education first and then we will send out mail — for another 30 days before the program begins — which will contain information about the program and how to opt out. This mail will have pricing information and everything and even the town seal so residents know it’s official,” she said. “But junk mail and people not reading their mail are issues and they do happen. That’s why it’s important in the CCA program that people are able to opt out at any time at no cost.”
Gava said it is more challenging to have an education period before a municipality chooses a supplier because essential information like contract terms, pricing information and more would not be known yet, hence possibly confusing residents more.
“I’m really glad that town residents recognize this program as an important issue and Bethlehem, out of the other municipalities so far, appeared to have the most people stand up in front of the microphone to voice their opinions on this,” she concluded. “Bethlehem has had the most public participation and it’s good to have that.”