Business & Tech

Council president, mayor differ on green electricity plan for city

Council President Michelle Wu

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2017

Council President Michelle Wu

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the City Council’s president, Michelle Wu, can each claim a green record on the environment. But the two Boston leaders are on opposite sides of a plan that would have city residents buy more electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

Wu and Councilor Matt O’Malley want to create a buying collective for Boston residents to purchase more electricity from greener sources. The Walsh administration is cool to the idea, concerned that homeowners could end up with higher bills and that many would be swept into the plan without understanding it.

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At issue is a so-called municipal aggregation contract, in which residents and businesses break from their local utility for the electricity supply portion of their bills. Some Boston-area municipalities have recently done so, including Brookline, Cambridge, Lexington, and Somerville. Wu and O’Malley want Boston to follow suit.

They say aggregation offers the city an opportunity to directly combat climate change, at a time when the federal government is scaling back its efforts and catastrophic storms dominate the news.

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“At the City Council, we’ve been feeling a great deal of urgency and responsibility to take action on climate change given what’s been happening in Washington,” Wu said. “I’ve always been interested in tangible things that the city can do within its jurisdiction that can have an immediate impact. . . . It’s something that will not just put Boston on a faster course for more renewable energy but also contribute to green jobs in the larger region.”

The mayor’s energy and environment chief, Austin Blackmon, said the Walsh administration isn’t closing the door to such a municipal buying pool. He acknowledged it can be “a very powerful tool” but “it can be a very expensive tool.”

Blackmon said an analysis conducted for the administration determined that a modest increase in renewables above what is mandated by the state would cost about $1 a month extra, or $12 a year more than Eversource’s basic plan.

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The city says nearly 200,000 residential accounts and at least 21,000 small-business accounts could be in play. (Many bigger businesses already shop around for electricity.)

The experiences of other cities and towns vary. Brookline’s residential rates went up by a few dollars a month; in Winchester, a little less than that. Somerville and Cambridge got slightly lower rates.

Melrose dropped out of a municipal plan after a price increase and returned to National Grid; its city officials remain hopeful about using municipal aggregation again

Eversource officials declined to comment on the Boston proposal. But the utility has previously expressed concerns, warning last year of misleading sales techniques used by some energy marketers. Eversource also said consumers should be better informed of the price difference between the utility’s basic service and the aggregation plan. And a company executive recently told the Globe that the loss of customers to municipal aggregation plans has modestly driven up costs for its remaining customers.

Wu’s proposal is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday, and she is pushing to have a vote by the year’s end. All Boston residents would be automatically enrolled in the municipal plan, which would be required to have a higher percentage of its electricity from renewable resources than is currently required by state law. The plan would also offer residents the option to have all of their electricity come from renewables.

Typically, aggregation plans allow residents to opt out and stick with the incumbent utility, but they have to take that step themselves or they will be automatically enrolled.

The local utility — it’s Eversource in Boston — would continue to be responsible for delivering the electricity and for billing. Wu said city officials could hold off on a contract if they decide the new rates are too high.

Some residents who follow the issue are eager to have the buying collective give them an opportunity to do something about climate change.

“Not everybody has the capacity to put solar panels on their roof,” said Kalila Barnett, a Roslindale activist who supports the aggregation plan. “This is a real opportunity to make sure as many residents of Boston as possible have access to green energy.”

But Blackmon said Boston is already pursuing energy-efficiency measures, among other steps, that will improve its environmental profile. Others say the green benefits from municipal buying pacts aren’t that much better than what the state already requires of utilities.

Jerrold Oppenheim, a veteran energy lawyer who represents nonprofits that help low-income residents, said it’s difficult for cities, even as those as large as Boston, to negotiate better electricity deals than big utilities.

“They invented the business, and they’re good at it,” Oppenheim said of the utilities. “They buy at a huge scale.”

But energy broker Phillip Carr argued Boston will be such a prize for energy suppliers that the city is in a good position to negotiate a favorable contract. Carr is a regional director for Good Energy, a consultancy that works with cities and towns on aggregation.

“One of the nice things about Boston is they’re of such a size that the suppliers will go crazy for it,” Carr said.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.
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