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Whately uneasy with municipal bulk-power program

— The Whately Board of Selectmen has some reservations about Hampshire Power’s municipal electricity bulk-buying program that involves 19 other Franklin County towns.

The board is uncomfortable with one stipulation — the program is an opt-out program. If the board decides to participate, all electricity customers in town will automatically become Hampshire Power customers, unless they opt out. The board favors an opt-in option, where residents choose to change their default electricity supplier.

“Who are we to change someone’s default unilaterally? This is not the domain of what we’re supposed to do,” said Selectman Jonathan Edwards at a recent meeting.

However, Hampshire Power’s Executive Director Todd Ford said state law has structured municipal aggregation as an opt-out program.

“The whole point of an aggregation is bulk purchasing,” Ford said. “If you have an opt-in program and no one opts in, you have no program. The Legislature structured it as an opt-out because it is the only way it works.” Ford also said residents can opt out and return to the default supplier at any time.

“Before the aggregation starts, residents will receive a postcard in the mail to opt out. They can remain on the default service,” Ford explained.

Residents have to call Western Massachusetts Electric Co., the default electricity supplier in Whately, to opt out after this initial period.

The goal of the Northampton-based Hampshire Power — the brainchild of the Hampshire Council of Governments — is to offer homeowners and businesses another option to buy electricity from a utility other than National Grid and WMECO.

Selectmen need a town meeting vote to enter into a five-year contract with Hampshire Power. After the five years, if the town is dissatisfied, the board can choose not to renew.

The town is one of the few holdouts. So far, 31 towns across Franklin, Hampshire and Worcester counties have joined the program and many more are in various stages of the approval process. And the Boards of Selectmen in Erving and Sunderland will soon decide whether they want to join the program, as well.

Chesterfield in Hampshire County had the same concerns, but after Hampshire Power promised to send out a newsletter informing residents of how much savings they are getting and what the aggregation is working on, the town signed on, according to Ford.

The idea of a newsletter may sway the Whately selectmen to sign on. After hearing Ford’s explanation of the town’s opt-out options and a newsletter, Edwards stated “I’m more comfortable than I was.” The board will decide whether to join Hampshire Power or go it alone at its next meeting on Oct. 30 at the Center School.

In 2006, the council created Hampshire Power, a not-forprofit organization. It supplies electricity to about 100 municipal and business customers, including 55 town governments and 24 school, water and fire districts and one state agency, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The total population of the participating communities is more than 100,000. Over the six years, it has saved those communities $1.6 million. It is hoping to do the same for homeowners and businesses.

To its customers and member towns, Hampshire Power has made one promise.

“During the initial period, the aggregates’ electricity price is guaranteed to be less than the default electricity price,” said Ford. The way in which Hampshire Power will secure lower prices for its aggregation is it will take the roughly 130,000 customers in the 31 towns and through a competitive, open bidding process, select the lowest price proposed by competitive suppliers. Suppliers include companies such as Constellation Energy and Dominion.

“This allows for us to use the bulk instead of one individual going to a supplier to drive the price down,” Ford told the Whately selectmen.

Franklin County towns participating include Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Leverett, Montague, Northfield, Rowe, Warwick, and Wendell. In Hampshire County, the towns of Belchertown, Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Hadley, Hatfield, Huntington, Middlefield, Pelham, Plainfield, Southampton, Westhampton, and Williamsburg have signed on. And most recently, Northampton has joined.

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