BOSTON (State House News Service) — Municipalities want to create programs to provide cheaper, greener power for their residents, and are backing a bill to cut through regulatory red tape and would allow them to get approval more quickly and easily.
City council and select board members from 120 towns and cities sent a letter to the co-chairs of the Joint Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee asking them to favorably report a Rep. Tommy Vitolo bill (H 3852) to break down barriers and backlogs at the Department of Public Utilities in their consideration of the municipal aggregation programs.
The municipal aggregations programs allow local governments to procure and provide electricity for their residents at competitive rates. Advocates say the initiatives give cities and towns more control over their power sources -- allowing them to choose renewable alternatives to make progress toward their carbon reduction goals while also often lowering utility rates for consumers.
Of the 177 programs the department has approved, 168 are currently active, according to DPU.
Though the programs are popular among municipal leaders, climate organizations and ratepayers who save money, they say the DPU can sometimes take several years to approve a town's plan. Then, if they wish to make any changes to the services offered through the electricity provider, municipalities again must go back to the department for a lengthy program amendment process.
"In 2021 there were 24 towns with initial or amended plans under review that still have not had a resolution from the DPU after waiting an average of three years," Steve Wenner of 350 Mass told House members of the committee on Thursday. "Only seven towns had their plans approved last year, and none have been approved this year."
In Wenner's home town of Cohasset it took over two and a half years to get their plan reviewed by the department, he said, and attributed its eventual success to his representatives, Rep. Joan Meschino and Sen. Patrick O'Connor, and demonstrations by hundreds of activists in front of DPU headquarters.
"Because of these extremely long delays the residents of Cohasset and other towns have been denied for years the benefits of greener and cheaper electricity that they could otherwise have attained from their community choice aggregation programs," he said.
Marlborough City Council President Michael Ossing said his city was the first to implement a municipal aggregation program in 2006. Since then, residents have saved over $30 million in their electricity bills, he said.
Last winter, when war in Ukraine impacted energy supplies and utility rates skyrocketed for some, Ossining said Marlborough residents participating in the program saved money.
The average Marlborough homeowner saved $147 per month, or $880 over the whole winter, he said.
The letter from local leaders -- who represent municipalities across the state from Adams to New Bedford -- said delays and backlogs at the DPU are hindering communities from taking full advantage of aggregation.
"Nearly half of the cities and towns in the Commonwealth do not yet have a program at all. Twenty-two of these municipalities have submitted aggregation plan proposals to the DPU for review, only to get stuck in the queue, often waiting well over a year, and in some cases for over four years, for a response. This excessive delay has deterred many of the remaining municipalities from even pursuing a program," the letter says.
Under current statute, the DPU requires that aggregation plans include nearly every detail of program operations, it says, and any changes to those details requires a community to file an amendment for department review.
Local electeds say communities should be able to adapt their programs based on local decision-making without needing to re-enter the queue for approval by the state.
Vitolo's bill seeks to simplify the application process while maintaining state oversight, and set a 90-day deadline for the department to review the plans.
Aggregation plans would be required to describe some broader elements of the proposed programs, such as how they will be organized, make decisions and set their rates. Any changes to these overall structural items would require an amendment and review by the DPU. But elements of the plan that have to do with operation and implementation, such as specific renewable energy levels, electricity supply options, and format of letters to consumers, would be placed back under local control.
"This clarification of responsibilities and authority would provide municipal leaders with the much-needed flexibility to adapt program operations more effectively and reduce the regulatory burden for DPU," the letter of support says. "Importantly, H.3852 also retains all the critical consumer protections and adds additional provisions that promote program transparency and protect consumer data."
These transparency measures include a requirement that aggregations deliver an annual report to the DPU about their operations, and communities have a public website with up-to-date information about the utility company available for residents.
In addition to the letter, over a dozen supporters of Vitolo's bill came to the committee hearing Thursday to encourage lawmakers to approve the regulatory reform.
"I just hope that you're going to act quickly," said Northampton resident Sharon Moulton. "I've heard testimony about these things that really need to be fixed right away. And I hope that you don't wait until July, make this part of some huge bill that's decided when you declare that July 31 never ends."
Chairman Rep. Jeffrey Roy responded, "Well Sharon, we will try not to disappoint you."
The DPU issued an order on Aug. 15 opening an investigation on draft guidelines for municipal aggregation, seeking to address some of the same issues as Vitolo's bill, such as reducing review time and clarifying the rules for aggregations.
The department's order refers to "an unacceptable backlog of applications" pending review. The draft suggests establishing guidelines governing filing requirements and the evaluation process and creating a "template plan" for applications.
"Municipal aggregation is an important tool for communities to utilize clean energy, provide ratepayers with more flexibility, and help cities and towns pursue our collective clean energy and climate goals," DPU Chair Jamie Van Nostrand said. "Addressing these delays is a top priority for the DPU, and we look forward to announcing finalized guidelines that will help facilitate a timely review of applications."
The proposed idea for a "template plan" would establish uniform requirements for aggregation plans to make them more digestible for DPU reviewers.
Some who testified Thursday opposed the idea of creating a template for all applications.
"Their guidelines are suggesting, 'If your plan follows this template, then you could be eligible for faster review.' But I think one of the challenges there is it kind of is sort of forcing everyone that if you want to be fast, be cookie cutter, which then I think also doesn't really help this idea of 'What does your community want to do?" said Patrick Roach of Good Energy, a consulting company that helps municipalities with the aggregation applications.
The department accepted comments on the draft guidelines for about two months, until Oct. 6.
In these comments, Sen. Cindy Friedman wrote that she was concerned "that the Department's approach will exacerbate ongoing issues" and the city of Boston said the proposal "does not address" the "unnecessary regulation and delayed reviews that do not protect consumers."
"Rather than truly revisiting DPU’s oversight of the municipal aggregation program, and understanding why and how the requirements and average review time have increased dramatically despite growing familiarity with the program and demonstrated success, the Proposal instead accumulates years of rulings into one place," the letter from Boston energy and environment officials says. "While standards for municipal aggregation programs are important, such standards need to align with appropriate respect for municipal authority. A one-size fits all approach ignores the purpose of municipal action to serve local residents."
The DPU will review the comments to inform their next steps and ultimately the final guidelines and template plan, the department said.
"I would just add, based on the DPU's pace of approving community choice aggregation programs, we might not see a resolution of that docket until 2026," Vitolo told the committee Thursday, pitching his bill as another route to reform the process.
Written by Sam Drysdale/SHNS