BETHLEHEM — A public hearing has been set for the Jan. 8 town board meeting at 6 p.m. where people can comment on how Bethlehem intends to pass a local law authorizing the creation of a Community Choice Aggregation program.
Since October, Bethlehem originally began exploring — but not officially enrolled in it yet — a regional CCA program with Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance, a local corporation that helps the town purchase electricity in bulk from renewable energy resources. Ten other municipalities have also joined to explore the program: the towns of Guilderland, New Scotland, Niskayuna and Knox, the villages of Kinderhook and Voorheesville, and the cities of Glens Falls, Troy, Watervliet and Saratoga Springs.
Bethlehem’s participation in the regional CCA program would only go into effect much later in 2020 if the town decides to officially enroll in the program. Even though Bethlehem is exploring the program now, there is still a chance that the town can ultimately not enroll in it. MEGA also still needs to identify potential suppliers, negotiate pricing, review bids and reconnect with the town government in the months to come.
The aforementioned local law is needed in order for Bethlehem to continue exploring the CCA program but it does not force the town to ultimately enroll in it, according to Louise Gava, the CCA project leader for MEGA. “The town board still has to have a local law to give themselves authority to proceed but it doesn’t mean they have to use it,” she said.
“The town hasn’t voted to officially participate in the program yet and they’re still exploring it. We don’t know if Bethlehem will actually participate yet,” Gava added. “It’s still going to be a number of months for pricing to come in. After pricing comes in, then the town board will show the pricing to the public. Then, they’ll start educating the public about pricing, the supplier and they’ll also get a letter in the mail with information about it and also how to opt out if they want to.”
Gava said she imagines that negotiating pricing would happen in spring 2020 while the education aspect would be in the summer.
CCA lets municipalities purchase electricity in bulk from suppliers on behalf of their residents and it aims to get most or all electricity from renewable energy sources like solar, hydro and wind. National Grid supplies and delivers electricity by default.
But under CCA, National Grid would still deliver electricity while a new supplier would be hired through a bidding process by a contracted CCA administrator — in this case, MEGA — that works with enrolled municipalities.
MEGA would identify and recommend certain suppliers to the enrolled municipalities, based on the suppliers’ pricing per kilowatt hour, contractual language, work experience in New York state and with National Grid, and whether they offer 24/7 customer service.
Even if a municipality ultimately joins CCA, National Grid will still maintain and update physical infrastructure — like handling power outages, substations, wires and power poles. CCA plans to offer stable prices for residents in enrolled municipalities and seek 100 percent clean energy if possible. National Grid’s price changes monthly but with CCA, the price is determined and fixed so residents know in advance how much they will pay.
A key feature to note is that residents are not forced to join the regional CCA program even if the municipality they live in does enroll in the program.
Gava initially explained that once a supplier is finalized, every Bethlehem resident will receive a letter in their mailbox, containing information about the CCA program, pricing, contract’s terms and how, if they choose to, opt out of it. Residents will have 30 days to opt out of the CCA program after receiving the letter; if they don’t opt out, they will automatically get enrolled in it. But residents can still opt out of the program at any time with no penalty even after the CCA program begins.
“The opt-out feature is a critical piece because it is what creates the bulk purchase,” Gava said. “Because everyone who’s eligible would be automatically included, that’s what creates the value that allows most people to stay in the program. Right now, in Bethlehem, you’re all also in an opt-out program already. If you want something other than National Grid, you have to opt out. The town must be comfortable with the opt-out option to continue exploring the program.”
Town Supervisor David VanLuven similarly brought up how the state established National Grid as people’s default electricity supplier but people can opt out of that and switch to another if they choose. “With a CCA, rather than having the state of NY determine who our automatic electricity supplier is, municipalities will do it,” VanLuven wrote in an email to Spotlight News. “This is home rule. This is local control. Better, the CCA will make it extremely easy for people to opt out, unlike the system we have today.”
If Bethlehem chooses to enroll in the program, Gava said besides the mailbox letters, MEGA intends to work with the town to hold educational public sessions so residents can learn more and ask questions; post information on MEGA’s and the town’s websites; share on social media platforms; use circulating print and e-newsletters, and more — all to reach out to as many residents as possible.
The opt-out feature may conjure up questions and concerns though, especially about how there are certainly residents who do not actively look through their mailbox or newsletters or go on the internet or social media. This could mean that some residents may not even know about the CCA program and they would be automatically enrolled in it without realizing.
Town Board member Joyce Becker, who has been involved in Senior Services and Senior Projects for many years, said she looks forward to getting the pricing and supplier options from MEGA so that the town can be better informed on how and whether to move forward or not.
Regarding spreading information, she noted that some seniors are computer-savvy while others are not. “It’s important that we should use all avenues as we can. For seniors, I think the best way is to let senior residents call the town to get in contact with Senior Services if they have any questions about the program,” she said. “I find it’s possible that when people have questions, the town can dedicate one of its phone line extensions to answer questions about it. Like leaving your name and number and a person will answer. This phone line extension could be for a certain time, maybe a month or so.”
Becker brought up other potential ways to inform residents:
Encouraging seniors to take computer literacy classes at the public library
Using e-newsletters from Senior Services, the library and the town
Sharing information over Facebook, likely the most widely-used social media platform for older residents
Posting flyers across town, like at Town Hall, churches and community centers
VanLuven similarly said, “We will really try to reach everybody but if someone shifts and decides in a month or year or so that they don’t want to be in the program anymore, MEGA makes it super easy to switch.”
He continued, “We’re going to communicate with every avenue to get the information out, like mail, e-newsletters, newspapers, displays around town and more.”
Town Board member Jim Foster said he wants to see a “robust education program” about the CCA program if it ultimately comes to pass. Regarding spreading information, he said, “There’s no silver bullet to answer the communication issue. Invariably, there are folks we can’t reach but we can knock on every door and send follow-up letters. We can attempt to do our best and try as many vehicles and media types to inform folks as possible.”
He also said he appreciated that residents have the option to opt out of the program if they don’t agree with the pricing or supplier, giving them options and not forcing them into anything.
For more information, visit megacca.org.