Commentary: Community Aggregation Presents a Rare Opportunity

The following post was originally published in WickedLocal Newton on March 17.  Please click HERE for the original version. Author Eric Olson is a lecturer in the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and a chair of the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy.


On Wednesday evening last week Newton City Council members on the Public Facilities Committee voted unanimously to begin the process of leading all of us into a new relationship with that mundane take-it-for-granted-everyday stuff, our electricity.

Now if the council as a whole and the mayor approve, Newton will proceed with something called Community Choice Aggregation, whereby every household and small business will be automatically enrolled in a new arrangement for the power portion of our Eversource electric bill. Through aggregation, we can exercise our collective purchasing power and potentially gain three significant benefits: A) cost savings, B) greater price stability, C) greater support for clean green renewable energy, or some combination of these. This is not some new fangled idea, in fact scores of municipalities have already aggregated their residential and small business accounts and are realizing important benefits. Newton is actually playing catch-up in this case.

So, kudos to the PF Committee for nudging the process forward!

Now begins a phase of discussion and education, that — again assuming the process gains necessary approvals — will mainly be led by an expert broker that the city must choose to help us tailor a plan specific to our goals. What that broker will not do is choose the specific mix of savings and renewable energy credits that the city chooses for its “default” option. That decision is up to us. The default is the option that all eligible households will be enrolled in if they do nothing, and let me say right away that we will have options.

If you (yes, you) do not like the default, it is a simple matter to elect an option that better suits your goals, budget, etc. That’s how aggregation works: It creates options.
The default sends a signal though, about what we value collectively. Newton, I say let’s be ambitious, and make our default option a deep shade of green.

What motivates me is the knowledge of our collective energy use and resulting emissions, here in our fair city. Newton’s Sustainability Office recently did a detailed review of our carbon footprint, including transportation, heating and cooling of homes and schools and businesses, lighting our streets, and all the rest. The result: We 88,000 residents of this safe and blessed town collectively emit 2,147,392,474 pounds of greenhouse gases. That’s about 12 tons per person, every year.

This quantity is typical for affluent Americans, a term that describes many of us here in Newton. Still, its important to note that it does not include emissions related to growing the food we buy in our local Shaw’s or Whole Foods, and it does not count the flights some of us take each year. The point is, we Americans emit a lot, and given the U.S. EPA’s estimate of $36 of damage globally for each ton of these gases emitted, we’re all essentially free-riders on the environment to the tune of about $432 per person, or $1,700 for a family of four.

Of that total, about one-fifth is due to our electricity consumption. Here in Newton, we cannot put up giant wind turbines right in town, and there is no Charles River Niagara handy to tap for hydro power. We need to do something more indirect, and that is buy the kind of Renewable Energy Credits that are “gold standard,” that result in more renewable energy flowing in the New England grid.

The good news is, through our collective aggregated muscle we could access so many high quality RECs ,we would essentially “own” the green power of a small fleet of wind turbines, located somewhere in the New England region. Brookline is showing the way: environmental activists in that town did a “willingness to pay” survey, and found that the average household was willing to pay $7 more per month above what they are paying today to sharply increase support for clean power. Yes, Brookline residents are supporting 25 percent more “green power” than before — by actually increasing what they are paying on their monthly electric bill. They first aggregated, to bring the baseline cost of electricity down, then added support for new “Class 1” renewable energy certificates.

As a result, Brookline households can claim to be running on 25 percent more green electricity than we are here in Newton! Pretty sweet bragging rights for seven bucks, or about the cost of one-half a big Sweet Tomatoes pizza. Can our neighbors’ choice inspire a bit of Newton pride? As we go through the aggregation study process, I say let’s aim really high! I’ll lose all credibility but what the heck, I say we go to 100 percent with our default, and in one fell swoop wipe 22 percent of our carbon footprint off the charts. We’d make national headlines, and that’s part of the point: we aim to lead, and to inspire. We could send a clear signal that we know climate change is not a hoax, its an urgent threat, and we’re willing to pay a bit more (a whopping several big pizzas a month!) to actually do something about it.

Outrageous, you say? Democracy is all about compromise, and OK, maybe 100 percent is a non-starter. Could we agree to 50 percent (at least its still better than Brookline)?

Remember that every household will have options, and to opt out of the default, you simply click a box. The details of the available “opt-in” options that will be available to us are still for us to work out.

Here’s the take-home message, though: Aggregation gives the collective we — all the residents and businesses here in the city of Newton — a rare opportunity to address our emissions, and pay for what economists call the “negative externalities” of our fortunate lifestyles. Let’s not waste it on a few pizzas.

By Eric Olson, Ph.D., holds a chair on the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy