North country communities find that harnessing group buying power saves residents, businesses on electricity bills

Despite being available statewide, only one town and one village in the north country are enrolled in a program that offers on average 10% lower electricity rates by harnessing group buying power with an added community solar program option, but other municipalities are taking steps to head in the same direction.

West Carthage Mayor Scott Burto learned of the state’s Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA program, through presentations about four years ago at the New York Council of Mayors convention.

Community Choice Aggregation allows villages and towns to get lower electricity rates by leveraging the combined buying power of residents and small businesses. The lower rates get locked in for a set period of time from one year to 36 months even if market volatility drives up electricity prices and every resident and business is automatically enrolled with the ability to opt out at any time.

National Grid continues to deliver the power via its physical grid, maintains the power lines and addresses any outages.

“We did our research,” Mr. Burto said. “We reached out to other communities — and they were very pleased — before we jumped onto this program. Everybody I spoke to has seemed happy with the program.”

Mr. Burto and the town council decided to use the services of Good Energy LP for administration and wasted no time going through the initial process.

“We moved at a little faster pace because at the time there were some incentives from the state that were going to go away,” Mr. Burto said.

After passing the local law required to participate in the aggregation program, Good Energy hosted a number of online informational sessions to educate residents and businesses about the program.

With Good Energy’s guidance, West Carthage and Champion also set up a community solar program that could be established more quickly, thereby ensuring the municipalities were eligible for the $5,000 grant that was about to be phased out by the state.

Unlike the aggregation program, however, community members must “opt in” to get the automatic 10% savings on their electricity through the relationship with a NextAmp community solar project in Ogdensburg.

The process to set up a CCA or community solar program is not quick.

The two municipalities passed local laws in December 2020, but they still have not got new, lower rates through the program, according to Mr. Burto, although part of the delay was due to the prolonged state approval time for the local laws by the Department of Public Service.

Because of current market prices for electricity, Good Energy has recommended waiting until conditions are more favorable to shop for new rates via the aggregation program.

The company looks at the difference between the utility rate — or the normal rate shared by National Grid — for electricity and the competitive market rate, called a “headline analysis.”

“In this particular case in that particular zone, the competitive rates were higher than the utility rate,” said Javier L. Barrios, managing partner of Good Energy, noting that the utility rates in West Carthage and Champion were significantly lower than those downstate or in other zones throughout the state.

Mr. Barrios said it is difficult to predict when the right time will come to lock in rates for the next year to two years.

“It really depends on where the market goes in the next six months to a year. If the utility rates continue to be steady and we see a softening of competitive markets, then I think there’s a good possibility within six months to a year we’ll be able to move forward with it,” he said.

While they wait, however, residents in the village and town who “opted in” to the community solar program began to see a 10% discount in their electricity charges in January when the program went into effect, Mr. Burto said.

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