Much confusion about electricity switch
By Brian PJ Cronin
Since letters went out at the end of May informing Highlands residents about their upcoming enrollment in what is known as a Community Choice Aggregation electricity purchase program, Jeffrey Domanski, who serves as its director, has been getting phone calls. A lot of phone calls.
He’s not complaining.
“I’ve had a dozen calls from people who began angry and stayed angry,” he said. “But, for the most part, they’re lovely calls because I get to explain the program. You’re protected from bad contracts, it’s low-cost, it’s green energy. It’s a win-win-win.”
In a nutshell, the legislatures of six municipalities — Beacon, Cold Spring, Fishkill, Philipstown, Marbletown and Poughkeepsie — have formed a cooperative called Hudson Valley Community Power (HVCP) to purchase electricity at bulk rates. Residents and businesses are enrolled automatically, although they have until June 20 to opt out before the launch, which is July 1, as explained in the letters sent to every electric customer.
However, that deadline only applies to the launch; residents can join or leave the program at any time. If you remain in the program, you can choose to get your electricity from strictly renewable sources (wind, solar, etc.) or from a mix of renewable and fossil-fuel sources. In Beacon, the default option will be 100 percent renewables.
Those who remain in the program will not see any difference in their monthly bills, except for the price of the electricity. Central Hudson will still deliver the power to their homes, send bills and collect payments; the municipalities will enter a two-year contract only for the supply.
Despite media coverage in The Current and elsewhere, and outreach such as a website at hudsonvalleycommunitypower.com and regular information sessions, many Highlands residents were caught unaware by the letters, which led to confusion and, in some cases, undue stress.
Cold Spring Mayor Dave Merandy said he supports the initiative — “Electricity will cost a little less and you’ll know where your energy is coming from” — but felt there should have been more outreach.
“It was just dribs and drabs, and now friends and neighbors are coming to me angry and asking ‘What’s this all about?’” he said, noting that he asked HVCP to increase outreach efforts in the village.
In addition to ongoing office hours from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Beacon Recreation Center and Thursdays at Cold Spring Village Hall, Joule Community Power, the company administering the program for Beacon and Philipstown, will hold a Q&A at the Cold Spring firehouse on Monday, June 17, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
The confusion over the supplier switch allowed misinformation campaigns to get a foothold, Domanski said. Earlier this month in Poughkeepsie, residents received bright orange postcards urging them to opt out.
The campaign was a “hit job,” said Domanski, who noted that rates listed on the postcard, taken from Central Hudson’s website, were inaccurate. That led to the state Department of Public Service getting involved. Central Hudson has since had to change the rates listed online, and although Domanski says the new rates are more accurate, they’re still apples to oranges because they are not weighted for annual output averages as HVCP’s are.
The postcards read that they had been “paid for and distributed by concerned neighbors in Poughkeepsie” and attacked Common Council members Sarah Salem and Sarah Brannen, both of whom are facing primary challenges on June 25.
CCA: What’s the Catch?
Karl Rabágo, a law professor who is executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, knows a thing or two about what collective bargaining power looks like for electricity customers. As a former public utility commissioner in Texas, he saw the success rural customers had forming electricity co-ops similar to the Community Choice Aggregation coming to the Highlands.
Rabágo’s expertise meant that many people in Westchester turned to him for answers when the Westchester Power CCA launched three years ago.
“A lot of old guys like me were worried about being slammed,” he said, referring to an illegal practice in which companies furtively change a customer’s supplier. “I was quickly on the phone to Westchester Power saying, ‘You have to get the message out! People are not being slammed!’ ”
So, what is going to happen? What’s the catch?
“The first catch is that things are going to be happening differently with your power that you may not understand yet,” Rabágo said. “The way we implement CCAs in New York is that the manager of the CCA goes out and procures your source of supply and then enrolls you in what we call ESCOs: energy service companies. Your supplier will change. You’ll get some additional information and disclosures. It’s all authorized and it’s all OK — you just need to know that it’s going to happen.
“A good, active CCA is always going to be looking for the best deal for you. If they can get a better deal, better price, more green, they’ll do it. You’re now a player in the marketplace, but the people managing your CCA are doing it on your behalf.
“The other catch,” he said, “is that a CCA is only as good as its management and the community leaders who voted for it. So it gives you another reason to talk to your municipal leaders.”
Rabágo compares a CCA program to a mass-buying program like Sam’s Club or Costco. And cheaper, greener power is just the beginning.
“Once you’ve got everyone together, how can you more efficiently deliver energy-efficiency programs, especially to low-income customers who often get overlooked in the marketplace?” he said. “How can you start building community solar projects so that the power is being generated locally? How do you increase electric vehicle fleets? That’s how this gets turned into real community power.”
HVCP will be the second Community Choice Aggregation program in the state. The first began in Westchester County with 20 municipalities in May 2016 and was recently renewed for a second, three-year contract. It now has 27 partners, including, most recently, Peekskill.
As successful as the program has been — Westchester Power says it has saved its members $17 million in energy costs since last year — Dana Levenberg, supervisor for the Town of Ossining, noted it had a rocky beginning.
“The communication hasn’t been as perfect as we wished it could have been,” she said. And even though the program had been thoroughly vetted by municipalities and its legal teams, she too fielded angry complaints from people upset that they were opted into the program. Levenberg said she typically responds, “Who opted you into Con Ed? That was the default and all we’re doing is changing the default, which gets you a better deal and it’s better for the environment. And if you don’t like it you can always opt-out.”
Despite the initial hiccups, Levenberg said she has been so impressed with the program that she recently joined the board of Westchester Power.
To combat climate change, “we have to leave no stone unturned by working collectively,” she said. “There’s strength in numbers and we’re building our case for demanding clean energy as a larger part of the mix than it has been.”