Northampton eyes energy aggregation with Amherst, Pelham

  • This undated file photo shows Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp, the first practical light bulb, which was developed in 1879. Northampton, Amherst and Pelham may begin discussions about forming a joint municipal electric aggregation, known as community choice energy, or CCE. AP Photo

Monday, March 05, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — With the aim of boosting local renewable power generation, Mayor David Narkewicz is looking into pooling resources with Amherst and Pelham.

The discussion is centered on the idea of forming a joint municipal electric aggregation, known as community choice energy, or CCE, according to Sam Titelman, a Western Mass Community Choice Energy member and an advocate in Northampton working to meet with the mayor and other town officials.

A 1997 Massachusetts law allows communities to choose the electricity supplier for residents and businesses within their town or city. Neighboring towns and cities may also coordinate to create aggregations between their municipalities — a CCE.

“The major benefits of CCE would be the ability of our local governments and communities to choose where and how our energy is produced, and to procure electric power and other related energy services in ways that promote the development of more local, renewable power generation and greater energy efficiency,” Titelman said.

He said this would in turn lower energy consumption and displace fossil fuel supply with clean renewables.

Other benefits he listed include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lowering long-term electricity rates and making the electric power system more resilient to severe weather or changes in fossil fuel prices.

Pelham approved a measure for energy aggregation nearly a decade ago, according to Pelham Energy Committee Chairman Stanley Swiercz. He said he thinks Pelham residents will be supportive of the idea as they have been in the past.

“We actually authorized this in a town meeting 10 years ago but we’re so small we don’t have a lot of clout in the electricity industry,” Swiercz said. “Joining with Northampton and Amherst will hopefully help create further emphasis on renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage.”

He said Northampton and Amherst have been progressive on climate change and renewable energy goals, making them good communities to partner with, to start. Eventually, Swiercz said the goal is to expand the CCE to more area communities so as to purchase more green power and improve energy efficiency for the region.

“We’re just getting started. Up to now, it’s been a citizen advocacy campaign, so there is much to be decided,” he said. “My vision is that I see this as an opportunity to create an organization to fight climate change.”

Chris Mason, Northampton’s energy and sustainability officer, said Narkewicz and the other officials hope to have a date pinned down for the meeting within the next week or two.

“The mayor is convinced that this could be done without costing taxpayers and with a benefit to the city,” Mason said. “If we did this the way the advocates are mapping it out for us, once it’s established it would self-fund itself.”

According to Titelman of Western Mass Community Choice Energy, the CCE would be funded with the fees that currently go to the incumbent utility company and its basic service power supply program. The fees would simply be redirected to the CCE, he said, which could reinvest that money into power sources of the municipality’s choosing, with a greater focus on renewable energy or other programs that benefit the local community.

He added that combining the communities of Northampton, Amherst and Pelham would be especially beneficial because it would enable them to pool the buying power and ratepayer fees of participating electricity consumers from all three communities, creating more widespread cost-efficiency.

Amherst Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello said talks are in the “extremely preliminary” stage and there’s a lot Amherst would like to understand about the different energy aggregation options as it considers the idea of joining with Northampton and Pelham.

“We’re certainly committed to advancing renewable energy goals and that’s why we’re open to having this conversation,” she said. “We’d like to learn more about the idea and the benefits it could have for the community and Amherst residents.”

Mason said that in other communities where similar aggregations have been implemented, residents have been receptive. So far in Northampton, he said he’s not sure if it’s being widely discussed, another reason for the planned meeting.

“We’re interested in discussing this together and seeing more where we can go,” he said. “It could benefit the residents and the businesses of the city, and provide a benefit to some of our climate change goals as well.”

The CCE would be an opt-out program, giving residents a choice about whether to participate, so Mason said he doesn’t expect much pushback. Right now, he said, the mayor is focused on information gathering and learning as much as possible about the benefits a CCE could have for the three communities.

 The largest and oldest CCE in Massachusetts is the Cape Light Compact, which has bought electricity and run energy efficiency programs for all the towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard since 1997.

According to the Cape Light Compact website, the energy efficiency program implemented by the CCE has won several state and national awards and has saved the region more than $485 million.