As part of its efforts to transition entirely to renewable energy by 2050, Keene is exploring a concept called “community power,” which would make the city the default electricity provider for its residents.
According to City Planner Mari Brunner, a community power program allows a municipality to purchase power from the market in order to supply it to both residential and commercial customers. Brunner said the concept has been permitted in New Hampshire for less than a year, with the governor signing it into law in August, but it has been known to save other communities a great deal of money.
“There are a lot of advantages to doing it that way,” Brunner said Tuesday. “Because utilities are locked into a certain timing when they can go out to bid … usually municipalities can get better rates than the utility. One thing we’re really excited about is the possibility to offer electricity to customers at a lower rate.”
Under this plan, the city would go out to bid and purchase electricity on the market. Brunner explained that the program would take an “opt-out” format, so customers who don’t wish to purchase electricity from the city could still buy from their preferred provider.
The state’s law requires that any plan to shift to community power be decided by the local legislative body — in Keene’s case the City Council, according to Clean Energy NH, a statewide advocacy group for renewable power. Existing providers would still deliver power and run transmission and distribution systems.
The programs can also be designed to generate additional revenue to cover administrative costs or be reinvested, according to Clean Energy NH.
Brunner said the idea is to encourage as many people as possible to use clean energy in their homes and businesses. She said the city could opt to buy a much larger portion — up to 100 percent — of its power from renewable sources than Eversource, which is currently the default provider in Keene.
And by making customers opt out rather than opt in, she said, far more people are likely to participate.
“The highest participation rates get to be about 15 percent [with an opt-in program],” she said. “But with an opt-out program, it’s the opposite. About 85 percent will stay with it.”
Brunner said the first step was to establish an ad hoc community power committee, which the council approved on June 18. The committee had its first meeting earlier this month.
The second step is to have the committee develop a plan for implementing the program, which will ultimately have to be approved by the council after some degree of community input. Brunner said the city is weighing options for holding a public meeting, likely via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said the goal is to submit the plan to the council in early 2021.
The community power program is a central strategy in the city’s efforts to transition entirely to renewable electricity by 2030 and renewable thermal and transportation energy sources by 2050. The plan was approved by the council in January 2019 as a nonbinding resolution that sets energy goals for the community as a whole.
The city recently launched a new website, keeneenergyplan.com, which contains a guide to Keene’s overall energy plan, as well as information about community power programs and how they’ve been implemented elsewhere. The website includes interviews with people who have been involved in establishing community power programs in Greenfield, Mass., and Medford, Mass.
Keene has been working with Carly Peruccio, a sustainability fellow at the University of New Hampshire, to help with community outreach for the energy plan. Peruccio has been conducting interviews about community power programs and posting them to the new website to help residents learn more about the concept.
In a July 7 post, Peruccio interviewed Carole Collins, energy and sustainability manager in Greenfield, Mass. Collins says the city has had a community power program for the past five years and so far, it’s been going well.
She said Greenfield works with a broker who secures its energy supply, and the city then decides whether it wants to purchase that supply.
Collins said customers have seen substantial savings. Comparing the city’s annual rate to the average of Eversource’s summer and winter rates, customers have saved about $1 million since the program went into effect, Collins said.
“So that’s over five years and it’s over thousands of customers but ... we’re offering them savings,” Collins said. “It might not be much, but at least it’s something. And the fact that it’s 100 percent green, I think people are really appreciative that they have this option.”
Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said the company does not oppose community power programs and has worked with several communities exploring such programs. He said the company supports solutions that keep energy costs low, improve reliability and advance clean energy.
“Just like we do for residential and commercial customers who choose alternative suppliers, we encourage our municipalities to evaluate their energy supply options to ensure that they’re paying the lowest possible cost,” he said.
This article has been changed to add information received from Eversource.