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Power to the People: Rosendale Activists Help Shape Statewide Energy Policies

by Anne Pyburn Craig

When Jennifer Metzger, longtime chair of the Rosendale Environmental Commission, heard about the planned takeover of Central Hudson Gas and Electric by Canadian energy giant Fortis, she and her allies scrambled to organize Citizens for Local Power (CLP) and make their voices heard. As often happens with million-dollar deals, much had transpired behind closed doors, and the deal went down despite their best efforts.

But the nine women who comprise CLP’s “kitchen cabinet,” a grassroots coalition of postgraduate-level expertise, had their eyes on the long game. And they’ve just scored a victory that can change the entire utility landscape of New York State, making it greener, cleaner, and more locally controlled. Governor Andrew Cuomo has just endorsed the concept of community choice aggregation (CCA) as a platform for “deployment of renewable generation, energy efficiency programs, home energy management, and other distributed energy resources.”

Community choice aggregation allows local governments and special districts to pool their electricity load in order to purchase and/or develop power on behalf of their residents, businesses, and municipal accounts. The practice began in Massachusetts in 1997 with the Cape Light Compact, which saved its 200,000 members $95 million on their utility rates in 2012. A sister agency, the Cape & Vineyard Electricity Cooperative, just put the finishing touches on a solar installation sited at a former landfill that will power 3,500 homes—and that’s just Phase 1 of a larger project.

“We first got interested in community choice aggregation while fighting Fortis,” Metzger says. “We were looking for tools being used by communities elsewhere in the country to get a handle on energy costs and volatile prices and increase investment at the local level in renewable generation. This is an incredibly promising tool. In other states, you need enabling legislation, so we started pursuing that track. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill introduced a bill that would enable CCA late in the last session.

“We were driving to Albany every day. But meeting with state legislators, building sponsorship—it’s a long process. We decided to also pursue our goals through the executive branch.”

It was in a meeting with Governor Cuomo’s new Public Service Commission (PSC) chair that the clean light began to break through the clouds. Metzger recalls, “We went to Albany and met with Audrey Zibelman last April. The meeting was actually about something else but we put CCA on the agenda too, and she flat out asked us about it in the middle of the meeting. She was familiar with CCA being used in Marin County out in California. I explained that we had a bill before the legislature. Then, the PSC launched the statewide Reforming Energy Vision, proceeding mostly from her initiative.” Metzger recognizes the boldness of this undertaking, saying, “It’s a tall order, to revamp the system and the regulatory framework away from centralized power production transmitted over great distances to a more locally based and distributed system, and that’s exactly what CCA facilitates.”

To shed some light on the matter (ahem) Citizens for Local Power tapped into the energy of Paul Fenn, president and founder of Local Power Inc. and developer of the CCA concept that, as Local Power’s website explains, “cover(s) 25% of U.S. annual electricity demand in 7 states, with 1,300 municipalities (rapidly growing) already serving 1 in 20 Americans (5%). CCA is widely recognized for achieving the highest levels of green power at the lowest prices in the United States, and has already saved American residents and businesses in the billions of dollars on their energy bills.” 

“We flew Paul into town on Susan Gillespie’s frequent flier miles,” says Metzger, “and he slept on somebody’s couch. We held meetings for 160 municipal leaders in Ulster and Sullivan counties and there was enormous enthusiasm. Paul is coming back for a nuts-and-bolts meeting in January.”

The women of the Kitchen Cabinet.
“We could not be more pleased with the Cuomo administration as well as NY Public Service Commission President Audrey Zibelman, who together are making some real innovation possible in New York in a nationally important, trend-setting way,” says Fenn. “CCAs give municipalities the ability to analyze local renewable resources as well as local patterns of energy use to determine full access to their electricity and gas use, creating a transparent local market in which to target appropriate technologies. Communities are free to develop local resources, like in the old days of small river hydro in many towns, which were built on rivers as a rule in the old days.

“Today, the renewable, efficiency and information technologies are diverse and many, creating a unique opportunity for the parallel development of smaller footprint distributed energy resources like photovoltaics, heat capture, storage, automation and microgrids on homes and businesses rather than merely on public infrastructure. This is already a trend in renewables and efficiency finance, but CCA brings this niche market to the prime time retail power business.”
Talkin’ on Sunshine
Metzger is cautious about any attempt to predict what community choice aggregation might look like on the ground in the Hudson Valley. “We feel that CLP’s role is to get municipal leaders together with the necessary expertise.” She recognizes that in order to maintain its integrity as a community process, the CCA exploration has to be municipally led. The state would like demonstration projects and CLP is interested in possibly undertaking such a project, but Metzger says, “that’s in a very exploratory phase.”

The progress extends across a number of fronts at once. Another Kitchen Cabinet member, Ulster Country Legislator Manna Jo Greene, worked with her colleague Tracy Bartels to craft legislation making financing available to commercial property owners for the installation of renewable energy systems and energy efficiency measures; the county law establishing the Sustainable Energy Loan Program for businesses was passed in November.

Meanwhile, Catskill Mountainkeeper—whose energy organizer Betta Broad is yet another member of CLP’s Kitchen Cabinet—just announced that they’ve been awarded $1.8 million through New York State’s Cleaner Greener Communities program, with the goal of increasing solar penetration and energy conservation in the Southern Tier and Mid-Hudson regions.

Locally, the program will be administered through Sustainable Hudson Valley. “The primary thrust is a campaign model called Solarize that will make going solar easier and less confusing and expensive,” says SHV executive director Melissa Everett. “The program brings together prequalified installers and people who already made the transition with the curious and interested. It overcomes the barriers of confusion and uncertainty; shopping for solar is like shopping for a computer was in 1990, or maybe a car 100 years ago.

“The goal is that within our lifetimes, maybe even within two or three years, we’ll have whole stretches of houses with panels on them. People will stop seeing it as an exception and see it as normal. Community choice aggregation gives municipalities more options for sourcing, but it’s no guarantee of sustainable generation—that’s a whole other piece. With this substantial funding NYSERDA is putting in, we have the opportunity to raise the bar, but it won’t happen without continued nurturing.”

Everett says that a Solarize campaign in the town of Enfield, Connecticut tripled that town’s usage of solar in 5 months, bringing 55 homes online. “Once the ball got rolling, the big solar firms started marketing in town.”

Not Diggin’ It

Citizens for Local Power is pursuing its agenda on several fronts, one of the more visible being the opposition to the Pilgrim Pipeline proposal. Pilgrim proponents foresee a pipeline that would carry volatile Bakken crude oil from Albany down through New York State and New Jersey, mostly along the Thruway right of way, to be refined. It will also carry refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, and heating oil, in the opposite direction from New York Harbor to Upstate.

“We first became aware of Pilgrim because we were contacted last July by upset residents getting survey letters,” says Metzger. “We started researching the project. We wanted our town to be able to take informed action, and we spent a lot of time looking at the evidence for and against it. What we saw was a 30-year commitment that takes us in exactly the opposite direction of where we could be going, and it’s not even for us. They’re not going to be stopping in Newburgh or Kingston to fill local oil tanks.”

An educational forum sponsored by Citizens for Local Power at SUNY New Paltz last November drew a full house of concerned residents, and seven Ulster County municipalities have passed resolutions against the pipeline. How binding those resolutions may may prove to be is still unclear, but Metzger and her crew have a strategy laid out. “With Fortis, we only became aware of it at the public hearing phase and the deal was pretty much sealed,” says Metzger. “This is different. They’re nowhere near permitting. The Thruway does not have a policy in place; they’ve never given it any thought, so we can help inform their thinking process. The DOT regulates rights of way through something called an accommodation plan, which does not allow for longitudinal uses other than telecommunications. They would have to grant an exception. This fight is more winnable than many, and I hope that bears out.”

Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” includes five initiatives aimed modernizing and cleaning up the state’s broader energy picture, including $206 million for four large-scale wind and hydro projects upstate. Locally, CLP has its hands in five distinct issues; Catskill Mountainkeeper and Sustainable Hudson Valley are likewise partnering with a veritable multiverse of .orgs and .edus to help you bring your bills down, breathe easier, and leave our descendants a better world. All of these organizations have websites where you can find out more and get in on the fun.