Westchester County, N.Y., is working to show the rest of the state that community-supported renewable energy makes sense.
New York’s experiment testing the viability of community-based renewable energy support has passed a milestone: More than half of the county pilot testing the idea has opted in to the program.
According to Leo Wiegman, executive director of Sustainable Westchester, about 60 percent of Westchester County’s eligible customers now live in municipalities that have opted to participate in the group’s community choice aggregation (CCA) project. The concept is that by signing up as a community, electricity customers can share the risk and cost of renewable energy. Meanwhile, the municipality takes on a utility-like role in determining the source of its power supply.
Sustainable Westchester is New York’s pilot test for CCA. The state’s Public Service Commission gave the group the green light in February to test CCA out, acknowledging at the time that it fits in with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision.”
Constructing a CCA system is a somewhat complex process in which Sustainable Westchester is acting as a coordinator. Municipalities first become dues-paying members of the group. The city council must then vote to participate in the CCA project, and then Sustainable Westchester gives a list of cooperating municipalities to the PSC. The PSC works with the utility serving that community to get aggregated energy usage data — a number necessary for Sustainable Westchester to put out a bid for an energy supplier. So far, Wiegman said, the group has received data for 22 of the 25 communities that have opted to participate in the CCA program.
Then home and small business owners in that community get three options: Stick with their old service, switch to the new supplier at a fixed price per kilowatt-hour, or “opt up” and pay a little extra to have all their energy come from renewable sources.
It’s a model that’s been tested out across the country since 2010, with projects popping up in Illinois, California, Massachusetts and Ohio. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about 2.4 million electric customers participated in CCAs in 2013. Many of them saw savings — perhaps the most successful being Cleveland’s Municipal Aggregation Program that provides 21 percent savings to customers.
Though a big part of the program is meant to encourage renewable energy use, Wiegman said only about 2 percent of the customers in pilot programs tend to opt up for the 100 percent renewable option. He hopes to beat that number in Westchester County.
“We’re going to start with 2 percent and hope that we can actually go to 4 percent or 6 percent renewable,” he said.
Though Sustainable Westchester has signed up more than half of the customers in the county, it has yet to pull its biggest community — Yonkers — on board. The city is a dues-paying member, and its mayor sits on Sustainable Westchester’s board of directors, but it has yet to pass the model law that would make it a CCA participant.
Still, Wiegman says communities across the county continue to sign up. The group sends a new list of participants to the PSC every couple of weeks, and he hopes to have the first customers served by spring.
“We hope that the March 1 billing cycle will be the first cycle where 130,000-plus homeowners and small business owners will be benefitting from the new energy supply bid,” he said, adding that in the future, the program is hoping to develop some extra benefits. For instance, it wants to collect data on peak energy usage to support a possible smart thermostat project. The idea is to find a utility or third-party investor willing to invest in smart thermostats in exchange for receiving money from part of the savings the thermostats create.
The savings, Wiegman said, come from bypassing the need to pay for infrastructure that meets peak energy demand.
“You pay for the ability to turn on your air conditioner on the hottest day in August every day, and you pay for that standby capacity because you never know when that day is going to show up,” he said.
Smart thermostats could “talk” to the grid, and when the system is approaching peak demand, it would adjust air conditioners’ power usage down a little — not enough for the customer to feel much of a difference in comfort, but enough to collectively avoid the need for peak-demand power plants to be turned on.
“That’s a cost avoidance for the customer,” he said. “It’s enough of a cost avoidance to probably pay for the … smart thermostat.”