As consumers, we all want choice: the freedom to decide our own best interests and where our dollars go. In the energy sector, however, there are not always options to choose from. Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) frees communities to collectively choose their energy supplier. In Ohio, one city is stretching its freedom to choose even further.
Residents of Athens, Ohio, just passed a carbon fee ballot initiative that will add 0.2 cents per kilowatt hour to electricity costs for CCA members. This first-of-its-kind carbon fee proposal, drafted by the non-profit UpGrade Ohio, will support installation of solar on public buildings and provide more resources for public investment.
In 2017, the city of Athens published the Athens Sustainability Action Plan. It includes concrete and immediate goals for sustainability, such as reducing residential/municipal energy use 20% by the year 2020. Supporters believe the carbon fee will contribute to this goal, as well as driving investment in renewables.
On this episode of Local Energy Rules, Director of the Energy Democracy Initiative John Farrell speaks with UpGrade Ohio’s information and outreach director Mathew Roberts. As part of the group that designed the carbon fee initiative, Roberts was eager to talk about this and other community-led energy initiatives in Athens.
Why a Carbon Fee?
The fee only applies to customers of the local community choice program, Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC). It will cost customers just 0.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity used. Since the average customer uses 800-900 kilowatt hours per month, the fee will add between $1.60 and $1.80 to their monthly bill. Although it may not seem like much, Roberts and UpGrade Ohio hope that the fee incentivizes the reduction of energy use in Athens homes and businesses.
SOPEC will use the revenue, estimated to be $85,000 per year for the city, to put solar on public buildings.
Since SOPEC and other community choice programs (like Marin Clean Energy in California or Westchester Power in New York) are opt-out programs, members can choose not to pay the carbon fee by opting-out and returning to the default electric utility service.
UpGrade Ohio, which used to be a part of SOPEC, is now an independent partner on sustainability initiatives like the carbon fee. Routing the fee through the community choice program was a natural choice for the nonprofit. “Aggregation really creates an opportunity to negotiate for rates that make sense to the community,” Roberts said. “That was really a big part of why we started aggregation in the community, was to help local utility dollars stay local.”
For more about how community choice aggregation programs work, read this report.
It’s a Fee, NOT a Tax
“This is much different than a tax,” Roberts said. “You can’t opt-out of your taxes, but with this carbon fee, you can opt-out of it. And that’s in line with our mission to still provide people choice.”
If anyone does opt-out of the program, they still see its benefits. Public rooftop solar diminishes municipal energy expenses and allows more taxpayer money to fund programs that serve the public.
Roberts had advice for other communities that might use their choice programs to impose fees on carbon and invest in solar on public buildings:
“Don’t be afraid to be real with people,” he said. “We wanted to call it a carbon fee because we wanted people to recognize that there is economic damages to excess carbon dioxide emissions and we are all participating in that when we’re using electricity.”
UpGrade Ohio, whose mission is to create demand for clean energy, got involved in the initiative to help the community act on its sustainability goals. Though UpGrade Ohio helped develop and market the carbon fee initiative, Roberts emphasized how the community is the driving force behind its success:
“People are willing to pay a little extra to support clean energy development in their community, because they know that it’s important.”
The carbon fee initiative had to make sense for the community and be achievable. Approaching the project with this practicality helped UpGrade Ohio pass an initiative that will have real, tangible results.
“Once we get this off the ground and people see that their fees were used for something real and tangible, they will be very excited and proud to be a part of this aggregation program,” Roberts said.
When prompted about other cities that have 100% renewable energy goals, Roberts responded that “it’s easy to say we want to make 100% clean energy by a certain date, but we’re trying to focus on how we actually achieve that.”
The carbon fee will go into effect in 2019.
The Origin of the Focus on Public Solar
Members of UpGrade Ohio wanted solar in Athens to directly serve low to moderate income people, so — prior to the carbon fee initiative — they launched the Solar ACCESS program.
The program became an entry to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar in your Community Challenge, which supports “innovative and replicable community-based programs that will bring solar to underserved communities.” For their entry in the challenge, UpGrade Ohio made plans to install rooftop solar at a public secondary school — using affordable power purchase agreements (PPAs). Construction is scheduled to start in August of 2018.
While electricity customers without a PPA may not see any bill credits, rooftop solar on public buildings reduces the cost of running them and so benefits the community. For a public school in Athens County, the county with the highest poverty rate in Ohio, these savings can go far.
In addition to savings, Roberts said that rooftop solar can grow communities because “solar is an investment in the space itself.” UpGrade Ohio is showing Athens residents a willingness to invest in lasting structures in Appalachian Ohio, despite the regional trend of coal boom and bust cycles.
Read more about the difficulties of adopting community renewable energy and how to overcome them in Beyond Sharing – How Communities Can Take Ownership of Renewable Power
UpGrade Ohio is leading the way in finding community-based solutions that work in context. Roberts acknowledged this leadership role as a part of their mission:
“Our goal is to create a list of best practices and a playbook for how to do this, so that other communities can enact their own fees for developing solar, or whatever their goals are.”
Athens provides yet another model of a creative community initiative to foster energy democracy. This plan leads to concrete action, so it won’t be just another empty commitment. With many cities making similar commitments, Athens may provide one model for how to fulfill them.
Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast miniseries, where John Farrell talks to representatives of cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy about both their process of making this commitment and how they plan to achieve it.
For more ILSR podcasts about community choice aggregation, see these:
Episode 19 – The Leading Community Energy Aggregator
Episode 20 – The Power of Collective Energy Purchasing
Photo Credits: skeeze via Pixabay.