AS FOLKS ACROSS Massachusetts confront the consequences of a changing climate and emerge from a winter of extraordinarily high energy costs, it’s clear that we need cleaner, more affordable power. Expanding municipal aggregation programs would increase demand for clean energy, reduce fossil fuel emissions, and lower energy costs for ratepayers – yet the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) continues to hinder their growth, failing to recognize aggregations for the value they offer and stifling the model’s progress.
Newly-introduced legislation on Beacon Hill provides lawmakers a critical opportunity to break down the bureaucratic barriers imposed by the DPU, improve access to aggregation for cities and towns, and accelerate our transition to a clean energy future. We cannot afford to miss this moment.
Municipal aggregation is the process by which a city or town purchases electricity in bulk from a competitive supplier on behalf of the residents and businesses within the community. When the default electricity supply in that aggregation includes more Class I renewable content (i.e. wind and solar) than is required by the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard and Clean Energy Standard, we consider it to be a green municipal aggregation program.
Since the original law enabling aggregation was passed in 1997, aggregations have brought more wind and solar to our grid and reduced costs for consumers compared to power purchased on behalf of ratepayers by utilities like National Grid, Eversource, Unitil, as well as competitive, and often predatory, suppliers who sign up customers one at a time.
When Gov. Maura Healey served as attorney general, her office found that consumers who chose a competitive power supplier on their own were paying a lot more for power than if they stayed with their utility, so of these three options, aggregation is the best, cleanest, most cost-effective choice – period.
To date, about 170 cities and towns with a combined population of about 4 million offer aggregation. Of those, over 75 communities have more wind and solar than required by law. The benefits are clear.
A recent study from Green Energy Consumers Alliance analyzed the impact of aggregation in the Commonwealth, and found that a large sample of communities with very green aggregations were saving households an average of $78 per year when compared to utility service.
Green municipal aggregators have also added more than 1 million megawatt hours of renewable energy per year than required. Moreover, the analysis pre-dated this past winter’s shockingly high run-up of electricity prices. Utilities purchasing electricity on behalf of their customers have little flexibility in negotiating better prices, which makes aggregations even more attractive. This year, cities and towns with green municipal aggregation saved closer to $78 per month.
Yet, despite this proven efficacy, the DPU continues to stall approvals (which are required before communities can move forward). Twenty municipalities with a combined population of another half million are currently waiting in the queue – Quincy, where I live, has been waiting for well over two years – and many more are working to obtain local approval before filing petitions with the DPU.
We’re aware of another group of communities that will be looking to file with the DPU in the months ahead, representing another half million people. So, altogether, aggregations represent the growing majority of households in the Commonwealth, and unless this process is changed, we will continue to face bureaucratic roadblocks to lower rates and cleaner energy.
The DPU’s slow walking of aggregation approvals is not a new phenomenon. The waiting period has gotten longer and longer in recent years – and given that most communities have filed plans that are substantively almost identical, the approval process should be moving much faster. Even communities that do already have operational aggregations have experienced delays or denials of locally-approved requests to innovatively modify or iterate on their current plans.
A new bill from Rep. Tommy Vitolo of Brookline and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester could transform this process. Informed by the direct experiences of cities and towns, it offers the first meaningful update to the original statute enabling aggregation since its passage nearly three decades ago.
It sets a 90-day deadline for the DPU’s regulatory review of aggregation plans and plan amendments. It establishes requirements for on-going communication about the program to the public via a website, public notices, and mailings. It codifies both the data available to aggregations and protections for such data. And it requires that DPU regulation follow due process in which all aggregations have an opportunity for input.
An astute observer might surmise that perhaps the fault of these bureaucratic delays lies not in the 1997 law, but with the DPU itself, as it was constituted under former Gov. Charlie Baker. There might be some truth to that.
Healey has replaced two of the three DPU commissioners with her own appointments, and we can be hopeful that the current administration will be much more supportive of aggregation. But after 26 years, it is undeniably time to update the statute. To serve the Commonwealth’s consumers, to achieve our climate goals, and to move us closer toward a clean energy future, both the legislative and executive branches have work to do. That starts with passing this bill.
Larry Chretien is the executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.