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How the DPU is preventing communities from lowering utility bills — and carbon emissions

The storm surge from the ocean (rear) flooded the yard on Jericho Road in Scituate on Jan. 29.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

After a series of powerful nor’easters pounded its shores and flooded its streets in recent years, the oceanfront town of Scituate decided it needed to do everything in its power to push back against the planet-warming forces driving such destructive weather. Near the top of its list: greening its electricity supply to move away from fossil fuels.

Fortunately, there was a state-sanctioned program that does just that — and can even slash residents’ electricity bills in the bargain. Grass-roots leaders scrambled to earn support across the community, completed the application, and in February 2020 sent it off for approval by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

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And that’s where it sat. For two and a half years.

It turned out that 31 other communities were in the same boat, waiting at least a year and a half for the state regulator to review and approve their new or updated plans to choose their own supplier instead of the local utility and buy electricity in bulk. This despite the program, known as municipal aggregation, being in place since 1997, with nearly 160 Massachusetts communities already using it.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, which have similar programs, make it a point to process applications within 60 days.

Now, with the major utilities implementing significant rate hikes, many communities that are still in limbo with the DPU will probably be stuck with electric rates three times higher than if they had received earlier approvals, according to clean-energy advocates.

“It’s just very frustrating,” Lisa Bertola, the chair of Scituate Community Choice Electricity, said of the delays. “It seems like an unreasonable amount of time.”

Frustrated officials from Scituate, Cohasset, Uxbridge, and Westwood, which had all filed with the DPU in February 2020, sent a scathing letter to the agency on Sept. 30, noting a back-and-forth process that took as long as 930 days. They said 790 of those days were spent waiting for the DPU to respond to them, according to their compilation.

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The day those communities sent their letter, Westwood and Fitchburg received their final approvals from the agency. Approvals for five more communities, including Scituate, came soon after. But the delays have come at a cost, both to the climate and to the residents’ bottom lines, because the much lower rates other communities were able to lock into a year ago have vanished, thanks to the shock waves that Russia’s war in Ukraine has sent through the energy market.

“There’s a gigantic difference in electricity prices from a year ago and today,” said Leon Gaumond Jr., the town manager of Weston, which filed its plan roughly two years ago and is still awaiting approval.

Other states with municipal aggregation programs don’t have the same delays, experts said. In Rhode Island, plans are routinely approved in just a few months, according to Patrick Roche of Good Energy, a consulting group that runs programs in Massachusetts and several other states. And in New Hampshire, regulators are required to disapprove a plan within 60 days or it automatically gets approved — a requirement that advocates say could help clear the logjam in Massachusetts.

“Absent a requirement, they literally can take as long as they want, and they have done that,” said Larry Chretien, director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for these plans. “The data shows it.”

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For Chretien, who lives in Quincy, it’s personal.

Quincy filed a plan in January 2021 but is still awaiting approval. The delay will cost roughly $690 for the average ratepayer over the next six months, compared to what towns that already have aggregation plans with higher levels of green energy are paying, Chretien said.

Other communities awaiting DPU approval include Beverly, Chelsea, Amesbury, Bolton, Burlington, and Mendon.

A DPU spokesman said that the agency experienced slowdowns caused by the pandemic, and that the in-depth review process the agency follows for the plans also takes time. The agency takes special care, according to the spokesman, because municipal aggregation plans are “opt-out” plans, meaning residents are automatically enrolled unless they choose to stay with their current utility service or go with another approved third party. The length of the review can also depend on how complete the filing is, or whether the municipality asks for extensions.

The DPU has announced it will be working with communities and other interested parties this fall to create a plan template and an expedited approval process for cities and towns that use it.

Advocates say that step by the DPU would be a positive one, but given the past challenges in getting such plans approved, they remain skeptical.

“The hardest part about aggregation is the DPU,” said Chretien, of Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “Getting the electricity supply and getting the renewable energy, getting the community on board. That’s all easy.”

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There are nearly 160 communities across the state that have existing plans with locked-in energy rates. Many cost less than one third of what National Grid customers can expect to pay this winter, while providing 5 percent to 11 percent more renewable energy, Chretien said. For the communities awaiting approval, experts say, the delays will cost consumers hundreds of dollars this winter, while also blunting what many describe as the best tool communities have to green their electricity.

Municipal aggregation programs can be less expensive than the utilities because they are more flexible, allowing communities to shop for cheaper rates and lock into terms for up to three years.

These programs are not required to have more green energy than what’s offered by the utilities, but many communities have used it to purchase more. A report by the Green Energy Consumers Alliance in July found that 50 of the existing municipal programs offer more renewable power than the utilities. Many of those exceed the state’s required minimum for green energy by at least 10 percentage points, and others go much further. Newton’s standard energy package is the cleanest in the state, with an 82 percent renewable mix, with Lowell (65 percent) and Brookline (50 percent) following.

Many communities also offer residents the option of paying a bit more to get 100 percent renewable power.

Some communities with existing programs said the long waits at the DPU can stifle their ability to revise their plans and be more innovative.

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In Melrose, for instance, sustainability director Martha Grover said the city has discussed modifying its program to create incentives such as one to encourage residents to charge electric vehicles overnight. But she said it is “stuck in neutral,” because making significant changes to the existing plan would require getting back in the queue at the DPU.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Change is going to happen too slowly.”

State Representative Tommy Vitolo, who helped champion Brookline’s municipal aggregation plan, said the delays are harming Massachusetts communities.

“The Baker administration has received substantial credit for being mindful of the needs of cities and towns, and here’s a case where they really haven’t,” he said.


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.