Business

Boston officials take major step toward electricity buying for city residents

Boston officials are moving on a program to offer city residents a bulk electricity-buying program.
Eversource/File
Boston officials are moving on a program to offer city residents a bulk electricity-buying program.

The city of Boston is finally getting into the electricity-buying business.

Dozens of Massachusetts municipalities have already put their residents in group-buying programs, switching them from their local utility, largely to get more renewable electricity. Boston was the big market that had eluded the energy brokers — until now.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration sent out requests for information after the City Council endorsed the idea last fall, but it did not take a big step toward hiring a broker. Environmentalists worried Walsh was applying the brakes to the plan. (Protesters tried to embarrass Walsh by demonstrating when he hosted the US Conference of Mayors in June.)

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“There was definitely a lot of questions and fear within the advocacy community,” said Michele Brooks, a community organizer with the Sierra Club.

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Austin Blackmon, Walsh’s energy chief at the time, expressed concerns about potential higher costs for ratepayers and wondered whether some residents would unknowingly be swept up into the program. Blackmon this summer left City Hall to join a California solar company.

Last week, Boston officially began to solicit consulting firms that could launch and run an electricity aggregation program for the city. Boston municipal energy director David Musselman said the city did not intentionally drag out the process, citing the nearly $100,000 allocated in this fiscal year’s budget to hire an energy consultant as proof.

If Boston’s plan ends up resembling those in nearby communities, most residents and small businesses would be placed in a program that provides more “green” electricity than Eversource’s default service offers. (Currently, Eversource and National Grid need to get 13 percent of what they procure from renewable sources, a figure that goes up every year.) Consumers could opt out, and stick with Eversource. Either way, the utility still delivers the electricity.

It’s too early to know if this process will lead to higher rates — green energy is often more expensive, but not always.

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“We won’t know commodity prices until very late in the process,” Musselman said. “It might be a year from now. . . . There’s a lot of work to do.”

City officials could back out of the program if they don’t like the pricing structure, but Boston’s size should give it leverage to keep costs down. As many as 200,000 residential accounts and 21,000 small-business accounts could be in play. (Many big and midsize companies already shop around for electricity.)

“Boston is the largest city in the Commonwealth by far,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who has been pushing for the change. “The mathematics dictate that the bigger the pool of customers, the more favorable the rates.”

The same principle holds true for those who stay with Eversource, but for a different reason: The utility is losing buying power as more cities and towns opt to get into the electricity-purchasing business.

Edgar Dworsky, founder of the Consumer World website, based in Somerville, said Boston ratepayers should make sure they read the fine print when they receive mailings regarding the city’s electricity-buying program. If they don’t do anything, they would automatically be enrolled in the new program.

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“They have to understand that silence constitutes acceptance,” Dworsky said. “It’s not just an advertisement that you get in the mail.”

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