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Opt-Out Community Choice Solar For Upstate New York

Several communities in upstate New York are now part of an opt-out community choice program that will allow their residents to enjoy clean, emissions-free energy and lower utility bills. What does opt-out mean? It means everyone who lives in those communities is automatically enrolled but those who do not wish to have lower energy bills can choose to exit the program at any time.

The program is run by Joule Community Power, the first renewable energy aggregator licensed by the state of New York. On its website, Joule explains, “Approximately 50% of all homes are unable to host solar panels. Community solar brings the benefits of solar — including guaranteed electricity bill savings — to homeowners, renters, and small businesses who don’t have their own solar panels. In exchange for supporting energy generation from local solar farms, community solar subscribers receive guaranteed electricity bill savings in the form of solar bill credits derived from NY State incentives for renewable generation.”

Credit: Google Maps

The Finger Lakes Community Choice program includes the town of Geneva and the villages of Brockport, Honeoye Falls, and Lima. Brockport and Lima officially activated their participation this week, making the program available to more than 3,800 households and small businesses. It includes a guaranteed reduction in their electricity bills by up to 10% for the next 25 years.

Those villages have partnered with six local community solar farms that are expected to generate a total of 134.4 million kilowatt-hours  of emissions-free electricity annually. As each farm begins to generate power, residents subscribed to that farm will start receiving savings. The solar farms are expected to begin operation in October 2021, with all residents covered by the spring of next year. All eligible residents are automatically enrolled in the program without having to sign a contract, undergo a credit screen, or have solar panels installed on their homes. Should a resident wish to opt out of the program, they are free to do so at any time with no penalty.

This structure enables municipal leaders to expand access to community solar benefits to all their constituents, including the low- to moderate-income residents who have historically been unable to benefit from traditional opt-in community solar or community choice electric supply programs due to state regulation and socioeconomic barriers. Of the 3,800 customers in the Finger Lakes Community Choice opt-out solar program, more than 200 are low-income households and approximately 300 are moderate-income.

In addition to the opt-out community choice solar program, Finger Lakes Community Choice also launched a community choice electric supply program, which will provide residents and businesses in Brockport and Lima with 100% renewable energy for the next two years, powered by New York State run-of-river hydropower. As with community solar, customers can opt out or leave the electricity supply program at any time with no penalty.

“Our mission always has been and continues to rest on empowering municipalities to have a say in the origin of their energy supply. This groundbreaking program will benefit nearly every resident in Brockport and Lima,” says Jessica Stromback, CEO at Joule Assets. “Unfortunately, a pending regulatory proposal, ‘Expanded Solar for All,’ puts the future of similar projects in jeopardy. If passed in the fall, the proposal would grant National Grid a de facto monopoly over the community solar market, effectively diminishing the power of local municipalities to drive renewable energy growth from the ground up.”

“Community choice aggregation has long been our goal, and through this partnership with Joule, we finally have a program that will benefit our residents with guaranteed savings and help New York reach its clean energy goals,” says Lima Deputy Mayor John Wadach. “The fact that our residents will be able to reap both financial and environmental benefits without having to take any action makes our efforts worthwhile. We hope that other municipalities will also have their voices heard and can offer similar programs to benefit their residents.”

“Our constituents have experienced first-hand the financial benefits that come with community choice aggregation, and we’ve eagerly awaited the opportunity to participate in an opt-out community choice solar program that would benefit a large portion of our residents,” adds Brockport mayor Margaret Blackman. “Community solar is the future of clean energy and it’s critical that municipalities be heavily involved in the process of serving their residents to make community solar possible.”

Opt-In Versus Opt-Out

The Expanded Solar For All program sounds a lot like the Community Choice program, but there is one important difference. It requires people to sign up, whereas the Community Choice program includes everyone right from the start. The difference may seem unimportant, but it comes down to who controls the electricity market.

Joule explains, “By participating in community solar, you are instructing your utility company to purchase solar energy from a local solar farm. In effect, you are requiring they add to the power grid an amount of solar energy that is equivalent to what they deliver for your consumption on an annual basis. In exchange for supporting clean generation, you receive a solar bill credit (typically up to 10%) that reduces your electricity bill. Participation in community solar has no impact on your electricity supply, it only affects from where the utility purchases electricity.”

The utility industry is desperate to control the supply of electricity. It’s all a result of policy decisions made a century ago when electricity was still new technology. Communities didn’t want competition, which would have meant multiple generating facilities and a welter of poles and wires, and so the decision was made to grant utilities a monopoly. They would not be allowed to compete with one another, but in exchange they would be guaranteed a certain rate of return on their investments.

The upshot of that policy is that utility companies want to hang onto their monopolies at all costs. The idea of having to accommodate the output of local solar farms threatens that model and sends them into a panic, so they bombard local and state governments with lobbyists to create roadblocks. Some would say the Expanded Solar For All sounds like a good thing, but it may be just an appealing label for a scheme designed to solidify National Grid’s control in a changing marketplace.

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