Community Choice is Just One Strategy for a Sustainable Westchester — Episode 95 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 15 Jan 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

New York is one of nine states where communities can choose their own energy supplier through community choice aggregation (CCA). In Westchester County, the non-profit Sustainable Westchester has adopted community choice, along with several other programs, to democratize the local energy system.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Sustainable Westchester’s Nina Orville and Dan Welsh. Orville directs the Heat Smart and community solar programs at Sustainable Westchester, while Welsh directs the Westchester Power program. The three discuss how Westchester Power and the other programs operate, what Sustainable Westchester offers residents, and how local achievement translates to the organization’s own success.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Nina Orville There has recently been a lot of willingness on the part of state agencies and authorities and really encouragement for innovation on the part of local participants like sustainable Westchester. There’s a lot of leeway to think in more creative ways about how to accomplish some of those goals.
Dan Welsh The other element I would just say: community, community, community. As the word appears in community choice aggregation and community solar, and to remember that the asset that we’re creating here is primarily focused on that.
John Farrell Over 1 million residents of Westchester County, New York get their electricity from the same wires they always did, but now the decisions about where those electrons come from are made locally. Nina Orville and Dan Welsh both work for Sustainable Westchester, a nonprofit organization that runs the local community choice program called Westchester Power. We talk with them about how a local nonprofit manager of the grid supports cleaner energy, affordable energy, and a wider range of environmentally responsible solutions to the county’s energy needs. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. First of all, Nina Orville, she’s the director for Heat Smart and Community Solar programs with Sustainable Westchester. Nina, welcome.
Nina Orville Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you.
John Farrell And also have Dan Welsh, Program Director for Westchester Power. Thanks for joining us, Dan.
Dan Welsh Great, Hi John.
John Farrell So I wanted to start off with just giving people some background. There’s a unique relationship between the Sustainable Westchester organization and then Westchester Power, which is the community choice program. And I was hoping you could just start off by explaining a little bit about, you know, what do those two different organizations do and how they relate to one another.
Nina Orville Sure. So it’s actually just one organization. The organization is Sustainable Westchester, which is a nonprofit 501c3 organization and the members of Sustainable Westchester are 43 municipalities in Westchester County. Almost every municipality in Westchester County in New York is a member of the organization. Our members represent about 1 million residents. And the organization is really a collaboration of those local governments to empower municipal leaders and concerned citizens and civic leaders, businesses, et cetera, to partner in the development of successful sustainability initiatives and to share tools and best practices to make sure that we’re bringing resources into Westchester County -financial and otherwise – to accelerate our progress with regard to sustainability initiatives. And the organization has a number of different focus areas including energy, under which we have a number of programs in the energy arena. Our largest program and our most important program is the Westchester Power program that Dan runs, and that’s the CCA program or community choice aggregation program.

We also have other NRG programs including Solarize Westchester, which we ran, um, with a focus, um, rooftop solar for a number of years. And now we’ve transitioned to community solar. We have a smart program which is designed to bring clean heating and cooling solutions to both residents and commercial properties in Westchester County. We also have other focus areas. One is transportation where we focus on EVs and, and other transportation related opportunities. And then we have a program that focuses on waste management and materials.

Dan Welsh And as I might just throw it in there, your question about distinguishing between Sustainable Westchester and Westchester Power is a, a good and a contemporaneous one for us because we are currently wrestling with as an organization trying to figure out how to work our branding so that we don’t present the, the residents with just a confusing array of different, uh, different names and whatnot. So we trying to look at sort of reigning these things back in Westchester Power is just a program with Sustainable Westchester. And one other comments that I think might be interesting in terms of people considering, um, you know, how to organize is a comment that came, it’s been coming out of, uh, surveys that we’ve been doing of our stakeholders that our staff member, Jasmine Graham has been calling all our chief electeds from all our stakeholder and municipalities and, and surveying them. And one of the comments that comes out unsolicited almost every time is, is the thing that they appreciate most is the practicality of the programs that we do. We provide very, uh, workable solutions that they can just drop right into their, uh, their activities.
John Farrell That’s great. This is really helpful and I’m going to probably probe a little bit more as we talk about the relationship, like how Westchester power integrates with some of those other programs. Um, but let’s give people a little bit of sense when we talk about community choice aggregation. It’s definitely something we’ve talked about on this podcast before. I’ve interviewed folks who have been running these programs in other states and also actually as I’ll mention later, I talked to Glen Weinberg who is one of the initiators with Westchester Power. But could you just talk a little bit about like in most, or I should say in a lot of states, customers have no choice about who their electricity provider is. In other States, like New York, customers do have a choice between different retail electricity providers, but community choice is different. And could you explain how it sort of changes that relationship to the utility where you don’t have a choice or even where you’re given a few choices maybe from sort of different market providers?
Dan Welsh Yeah, it is kind of a hybrid thing, as you noted, in New York state. We do have choice. The industry was deregulated, you know, 20 years ago or so, and in theory, everybody could have gone out and signed on with a private supplier. But the reality is that I think the, the rate of signups is maybe 20 to 25% maximum. So the state realized that they were not pushing the markets for pricing and products as much as they wanted to. And when sustainable Westchester brought to them back in 2014-15, uh, the idea that we wanted to adopt the CCA model that we were already seeing in six or seven other states and pilot it here in Westchester County to provide this kind of hybrid between wild West of individuals trying to deal with the dozens of ESCOs and a monolithic utility. Uh, the state was, was very agreeable to that, and they saw that as a way of trying to achieve their goals in terms of how it changes the relationship between the customer and the utilities. Uh, you know, we’re out there trying to educate people and they’re, they’re getting our mailings. They are calling us, uh, on the phone and asking us about the program. They, it’s understandable that doesn’t necessarily register, uh, immediately with them what’s going on. And we view every single phone call as the creation of a community energy asset for us. So we were running our programs so that all of those customer service calls come to our office as opposed to say the supplier’s call centers. What it does is create the base for a future and an ongoing dialogue with customers about their energy lives and how their participating in what we’re doing here in the county.
John Farrell In watching community choice programs, especially in other states, you know, we’ve seen a strong focus on things that electric utilities often see as secondary. So renewable energy has been a big priority in the report that we were recently working on around this. But also local energy. There’s been a, either an effort to pitch locally procured energy or it’s been part of the resource or procurement plan. I’m curious, how does Westchester power get renewable energy? Uh, is it getting any from local sources? Does it include energy produced by customers? I know you mentioned earlier a Solarize program for example. So obviously there’s been an intent by Sustainable Westchester to get customers to produce their own power. I’m curious how that integrates with the work of Westchester Power and, and providing the energy supply.
Dan Welsh Yeah. From the beginning, clearly the, the, you know, our ultimate goal here is a clean grid here in Westchester, physical clean electrons flowing through here and displacing the fossil fuel generated power. But obviously to start we were kind of a, what they’re calling a CCA 1.0, which is we’re buying commercial power through ESCOs. And then we’re, we’re greening that essentially with renewable energy certificates, which are great. They represent, uh, you know, real renewable energy, uh, generated, but generally in other locations. So it’s kind of a virtual displacement, which is, which is great progress and which, uh, on, on paper gives us a zero emissions for all the participants in that program. And so we’re very happy with that as a, as a first round of accomplishment. We’ve displaced something like 500,000 tons of CO2 through that method. But we are, from the start we’ve wanted to localize renewable energy production. It’s not easy down here in Westchester, we don’t have big farms where they can build the solar farms on the periphery, on the unused land or places for windmills. So we are looking, our future really looks at trying to import more renewable energy down here. This is going to be a, it’s going to be involved with transmission projects and it’s a very, very complex animal that that really has to be wrestled with. And we’re doing a lot of work now in, in having discussions with transmission companies and things like that. But in the meantime, in parallel we are running the, the solar programs are running the community solar programs and Nina will tell you more about those. So, so we’re sort of marketing them as, as part of the same organic drive to the same goals, but they’re not fully integrated yet. Nina can tell you a little bit more about us.
Nina Orville Sure. And even in terms of the renewable energy certificates, those started out as national RECs
Dan Welsh Yeah, there’s even been an evolution there.
Nina Orville And they’re now New York state hydro RECs. So in every way we can, we’re trying to localize the um, generation of and the support for renewable energy.
John Farrell Yeah. This is actually a great opportunity I think Nina to talk to you about the way which Sustainable Westchester, because it has so many different programs that are not even necessarily about energy, it really is much broader in a lot of ways than other community choice agencies and other places that are really specific to energy and not, and granted they’re often operating in cities that have other programs, but I’d really like to hear about some of the other initiatives you mentioned: electric vehicles, renewable heating, community, solar, even the recycling program. How, how you see those tying together with this particular one piece here around community choice?
Nina Orville Sure. So as you mentioned, we have a pretty wide portfolio of sustainability offerings and what we have found is that they all support and reinforce each other in a range of ways. They all depend on the very strong relationships that we have with our municipal members. And the majority of them are also really dependent on very robust relationships that we have developed with leaders in each community who are, um, focused on sustainability initiatives and, and opportunities. And so we have, um, cases, for instance, where a municipality has joined the community choice aggregation program. They participated in the rooftop Solarize campaigns. They’re now participating in the clean heating and cooling campaigns that we call Heat Smart and they’re beginning to launch a campaign focused on community solar. So that’s, that’s very exciting. And we’ve found that communities that are able to successfully offer their residents one of these solutions, it becomes progressively easier for them to leverage that experience and to bring more opportunities to the residents more effectively and more easily.

We also have found that our communities really value the way it’s sustainability, the way sustainable Westchester offers these programs in that we know that both our municipalities and the community volunteers are really stretched very thin. They’re lacking resources, they have a lot of ambitions for what they want to accomplish. They have, um, ambitious goals for their community. They have extraordinary commitment, but they appreciate that when Sustainable Westchester offers a program that we offer something that relatively easy for them to roll out, where the missing ingredient in what we offer is really their community. So, um, we put together strong communications materials for them. We put together very professional marketing materials for them. We give a lot of thoughts about the strategies and the tools that we’re using and that we’re recommending and we make it as easy as possible for each community to be successful in rolling out each of our programs.

So the, the goal is really to create a track record of success in each of our communities, which is obviously extraordinarily beneficial for Sustainable Westchester as well. But it ends up really creating an appetite and an enthusiasm in those communities for participating in the next offering that we have. And for us in Sustainable Westchester, having the opportunity to, um, support campaigns that focus on all of these different offerings in the number of communities that we do. That means that we benefit from an incredible opportunity to learn from their experience and to continue to enhance and evolve what it is we offer and how we offer it.

Dan Welsh The success of the neighboring community is a great thing in supporting, you know, your communities, uh, entry into a new program. And you know, we’re, we’re very sensitive to that and I’m actually on the town board of one of our municipalities in Lewisboro, New York. So we, we really have a, a good feel about, you know, what works and what doesn’t work in terms of the dynamics in these communities.
Nina Orville Yeah. Our key asset I would say really is the extraordinary relationship we have with our communities and this core of experiences and successes that we’ve been able to create in collaboration with each of our members.
Dan Welsh Let’s face it, people want to be associated with the successes.
Nina Orville That’s right.
Dan Welsh It gets easier and easier.
Nina Orville That’s right.
John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll talk about where the money comes from to support Sustainable Westchester, how the local solar programs fit in with the larger picture of energy procurement, and what advice our guests have for legislators considering opening the door to community choice in other states.


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John Farrell This is really interesting in terms of those relationships there, and I love how it builds across the different programs and the way in which it reinforces one another. It just brought to mind a question I should have thought of before, which is you mentioned that Sustainable Westchester is a nonprofit organization. How is the work that you do paid for, like are towns kind of buying into that? And then I guess I had one other sort of into the weeds question, which is for the things that you do that are energy related, are those sort of like built into the procurement plan of Westchester Power? Are you saying like, you know, Hey, we’re signing these contracts to buy electricity on the market but we’re also procuring some locally? Or is it more like the things we do to help people go solar, reduce the demand, reduce the amount of power we have to go out and buy? So I guess two kind of very different questions, but both things I’m really curious about in terms of the details of how these, how these relationships work.
Dan Welsh I guess in principle, as an organization, of one of the things the municipalities like about us is we don’t cost them much. So they all toss in a really nominal dues once a year of a thousand dollars, which of course doesn’t go very far. And then beyond that, uh, our basic modus is to try and build programs that are, that are as self-sustaining as possible. So there is a focus on looking for where you know, there, there are cash flows and as you say, you know, the improvement in performance will free up some of those. And yes, we’ll take a sliver of it. As you may know in New York state, as for the community choice aggregation, the public service commission has specifically carved out that the administrators can take an administrative fee. So there’s a little sliver that goes to us to run the program.
Nina Orville And then with other programs it’s, it’s often similar. So with community solar for instance, since it’s the solar developers who we work with, and we were very careful about vetting the community solar opportunities that we’re offering. And we weigh in on that if we think something needs to be made more consumer friendly for instance. But those solar developers are used to paying for having typically a company go out and enroll individuals in their community, solar farms or, or projects. And so that’s a role that we’re able to step in and play and I think do better than the other entities that are, that are out there doing it typically in that our mission is to educate the community about clean energy options. And we’re very focused doing an excellent job in, in that regard. So that program is, is it’s funded in that way.
Dan Welsh And we find high value in that approach.
Nina Orville Correct. Yeah. So we’re, we’re always looking for opportunities like that where the program can be financially self-sufficient. While of course there, our primary focus is ensuring that the program delivers the kind of environmental impact and community impact that reflects our mission.
Dan Welsh It is a, is a challenge and you know, we do, we do get some grant funding and have a NYSERDA (New York state energy research development authority), but it’s a also very modest and, um, there are some programs that are easier than others and harder than others to, uh, to find financing sort of models for. And, but we as of yet have not resorted to sort of, uh, black tie dinners that the end of the year or, uh, we, you know, we really haven’t gone in the direction of sort of donations and things like that. Not to say it’s not, it’s not coming up for us, but, uh, we’ve, we’ve been largely bootstrapping everything up to now.
John Farrell That’s really cool. One other question I had just about the sort of range of programs and mission was in the programs offered through Sustainable Westchester. Are there particular efforts aimed at like traditionally underserved communities? I know low income folks have often had a hard time participating in energy programs, or communities of color.
Nina Orville Uh, sure. So with regard to the community choice aggregation program Westchester Power, there are regulatory and limitations on the participation of low income individuals in those kinds of programs in New York state. So, um, unless the community choice aggregation program is able to guarantee savings, the administrators of those programs are prohibited from enrolling low income individuals. And uh, up until this point in New York, none of the community choice aggregation programs have been able to structure their offering in a way that savings are guaranteed, which means that low income individuals are excluded from, from those programs at the moment. And that’s something that we are working on a number of potential strategies and pilots to, to try and test out different approaches within the community choice aggregation context. But meanwhile, we’re also working very hard to ensure that the other programs that we offer are made accessible to low income individuals and that some of those programs, um, have particular benefits for, for low income people or lower income people.

And just as an example of that, for four years we ran the rooftop Solarize programs and at a certain point in time during that period, New York state started offering enhanced incentives based on income eligibility. So New York state doubled the solar incentive for people who were below a certain income threshold. And we were very focused in all the campaigns that we ran in ensuring that that message was, was communicated very broadly through the campaigns. What we ended up experiencing was even when we did that, there were very few low income people who actually participated in the rooftop Solarize campaigns. And what we concluded was that was a solution that really isn’t a great match for the vast majority of low income people. You, um, for instance, have to own a home, a single family or potentially up to a four family home, you have to have a quite new roof in, in excellent condition. You have to be able to financially be in a position where you can finance or lease the system. There are a whole host of ways in which lower-income people are sort of screened out of the typical eligibility pool. And so we’re very excited now on the solar front to be able to bring community solar to communities and we have sort of redoubled our efforts to ensure that we develop strategies to bring that particular offering to lower income people.

Who are the people who who need it most? I was looking at a study recently where low income new Yorkers on average spend more than 12% of their income on energy costs. And I think that’s about four times more than the average new Yorker on a percentage basis. So regressive thing, it’s an extraordinary burden for low income new Yorkers. I, I’m very cognizant though, even in on the community solar front, where it’s a wonderful opportunity and that it costs nothing for people to participate. They received guaranteed savings of up to 10% of their electricity bill. Even with community solar, there are certain challenges that mean that most players in the marketplace would choose not to focus on a lower income subscriber base. The economics of doing that work of enrolling people would encourage a typical market motivated player to sign up individuals who use a tremendous amount of energy who live in large homes. And so it’s really clear in the work that we’re doing that having organizations like Sustainable Westchester, who, because their mission is improving the wellbeing of residents in the communities that we serve involved in the marketplace too, to ensure that even if something isn’t financially optimal,

Dan Welsh To push the marketplace
Nina Orville To push the marketplace in, in that way, to serve as actors in the marketplace, to ensure that those opportunities are delivered to the people who need them most, regardless of whether it’s financially the most advantageous thing or not.
Dan Welsh So I think as we look at the tools we have at hand, the one which seems to show the most potential is the future development of consolidated billing for, for community solar. So right now people have to be subscribed on a parallel track with separate contracts. Once the utilities get their, their act together and incorporate all the transactional stuff on the utility bill and included in with the whole purchase of receivables and all that that goes on in the same way as go supply happens. We in theory will be able to bring in these communities without encountering those barriers or to go beyond those barriers. So that’s really something that, uh, is waiting for, for that utility work to happen. Maybe it’s a year or two years down the road. We have some thoughts on how to maybe run some pilots before then. So we’ll, we’ll see if we can make those happen. And that’s something that we’re working on right now.
John Farrell One of the big issues that we’ve covered in our research on community choice is this really interesting distinction between a lot of the CCAs in California and in other states where California CCAs are now signing contracts, longterm contracts to procure new renewable power. And I was curious, is it the nature of the regulations or just a common practice that community choice programs in New York have short term contracts? Is that a requirement and how does that impact your ability to push forward the mission of clean energy?
Dan Welsh Yeah, it’s not actually a requirement or limitation in the sense of it’s inherent to CCAs so much as it is, you know, if you’re going to participate in the New York state marketplace, if you are going to be actually selling to retail customers, then you have to have a ESCO authority. You don’t have to, you don’t have to go through the whole process with the state of being authorized as an energy service company. And with that you would have the ability to, to make purchases and, and then be selling to the, to the customers. Today, Sustainable Westchester essentially acts as a broker. You can say, when we go out for bids for power, we’re getting these offers from the, the universe of registered as NGOs and the winning better essentially, when’s the right to supply the customers in these municipalities on an opt out basis and we’re administering the program. But you can bet that in many of our brainstorming sessions we’ve talked about, you know, should we try to achieve ESCO authorization and be bringing that in house or you know, other things. As I said, we’re looking at trying to engineer longterm contracts. Maybe without doing that we can still find somebody to serve as a sort of nominal front end ESCO while we put together all the different pieces that go in the whole procurement chain. So, you know, we definitely aren’t doing what they’re doing in California. Those CCAs are like little utilities it seems like. But I don’t know that there’s necessarily anything in New York law that prevents us from doing that as well. It’s more of a business thing, you know? I mean obviously you have to have some standing financially to be able to make those big purchases as well. So that’s maybe it’s more of an evolutionary thing than anything else.
John Farrell Yeah. I just want to wrap up by asking if you would have advice for legislators and other States. There’s been a couple of States just in the past two years that have adopted community choice. Any advice for those legislators as they consider those proposals? Thumbs up, thumbs down, or just recommendations about policy design that folks should keep in mind if they are considering allowing communities to do what, uh, is happening in Westchester County?
Dan Welsh I’ll, I’ll say, you know, our experiences here in New York and uh, for all of the, you know, the challenges that we’ve had in building this and being the first and, and trying to figure everything out. I’ll say that our, our department of public service has been very supportive. They have structured things in a way so that as we move ahead, if we have some new ideas, they basically say, throw it in your implementation plan and if we approve it, then it’s, then you can do it. So they’re pretty flexible about that. They realize from the outset that there was no way that we’re going to write one order and be done with it and have a captured every eventuality. So, so learnings are happening and they’re adjusting on the fly. And we’ve found that that approach and attitude to be very useful. And then, you know, the other element I would just say community, community, community, and you know, the, the, the word appears in community choice aggregation and community solar. And you know, always to remember that the asset that we’re creating here is primarily focused on that. So we’re not here to, you know, uh, replace the utilities. In that sense, we’re, we’re filling, filling a role that’s really needed to engage our residents. Because, you know, in my mind, we’re on our way to solving the electrical part of the, of the greenhouse gas pie, which is maybe 20%, 25%. You’ve still got a bunch of other segments in there, like building energy and all these things which are much more intrusive and will require that you really engage with people and you, you, they have to take positive action. They can’t be passive players. So building that community engagement, doing the things that that need is doing and campaigns out in the community of celebrating the, the, you know, every participant and what they’ve done is really critical. And I think the, you know, the leaders who want to be fostering these type of programs should recognize that for sure.
John Farrell Nina, any final thoughts from you on recommendations?
Nina Orville I, I think I would echo what Dan said. He’s the person who’s been running the community choice aggregation program itself here at Sustainable Westchester. And I have been focused on designing and implementing a number of the other clean energy programs. So I, I do think that it’s important to be aware that there are a range of different models out there and that different models will make more sense in different places. So to do a careful analysis of that and identify what are the characteristics that make a particular model more effective in one place versus another. And then as, as Dan said, um, New York state has really been very supportive and progressive, I think, with regard to a number of issues and certainly in terms of setting greenhouse gas emission goals. I think we’re close to leading the nation on that now. And um, there has recently been a lot of willingness on the part of state agencies and authorities and really encouragement for innovation on the part of local participants like Sustainable Westchester. So there’s a lot of leeway to, to think in more creative ways about how to accomplish some of those goals that the state has established and certainly taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from the terrific work that’s happening all around the country. We get, we get calls from all over the country to participate in, in the online, you know, remote conferences in Virginia and different things like that when they, when people call we whatever we have to share, we share and we appreciate when people do the same with us.
John Farrell Terrific. Well Nina and Dan, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s really great to hear about the programs that you’re running. And I think it is a, as you said, an inspiration to folks who are working on these issues in other places to hear about your success.
Nina Orville Thank you. And we’re obviously all in this together so the more we can collaborate across States and across the country, the better. So the work that you’re doing is so important in that regard.
Dan Welsh Yeah, thanks for spreading the word.
John Farrell This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s energy democracy initiative. I was speaking with Dan Welsh, program director for Westchester power and Nina Orville, director for heat smart and the community solar program at Sustainable Westchester. Check out the show page for a link to our recent report on community choice energy, as well as several more interviews with folks helping run innovative community energy programs across the country. Learn more about how communities drive local climate action and clean energy with the interactive community power map and community power toolkit, both available from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance at ILSR dot org. While you’re at our website, you can also find more than 90 past episodes of the local energy rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Sustainable Westchester

The goal of Sustainable Westchester is to empower its local government members to implement initiatives that reduce energy costs and improve clean energy choices. Sustainable Westchester represents most of Westchester County, says Orville, who approximates one million residents under the organization’s purview. 

To advance its mission, Sustainable Westchester offers many different programs — each a tool to help localities with their goals. The programs span the entire energy industry: electricity, transportation, heating, and even waste management. They include Solarize Westchester and Heat Smart, directed by Orville, and the community choice aggregation Westchester Power, directed by Welsh.

Having the opportunity to support campaigns that focus on all of these different offerings in the number of communities that we do, that means that we benefit from an incredible opportunity to learn from their experience and to continue to enhance and evolve what it is we offer and how we offer it.

Nina Orville

Regardless of the program, Orville finds that success is built upon the “extraordinary relationship” between Sustainable Westchester and the communities. Community success is what the organization strives for. It feeds back into their work, while helping to spread programs to neighboring communities.

The Westchester Power Program

Welsh recognizes that the relationship between Sustainable Westchester and his program, Westchester Power, is often misunderstood; Westchester Power is just one program within the broader Sustainable Westchester. 

Westchester Power was established because consumers need choice. Although New York’s electric sector has been deregulated since the 1990s, allowing customers to choose their energy provider, very few people exercise that choice. Welsh estimates that no more than 25% of New Yorkers find their own electric supplier. 

Since deregulation did not create a more competitive electric sector, says Welsh, the state was “very agreeable” to the idea of community choice aggregation. With Westchester Power in place, Welsh argues that the county’s electric market is a more competitive and participatory environment.

We view every single phone call as the creation of a community energy asset for us… What it does is create the base for a future and an ongoing dialogue with customers about their energy lives and how they’re participating in what we’re doing here in the county.

Dan Welsh

For more on the formation of Westchester Power, listen to this 2017 interview with former director Glenn Weinberg.

The Challenge of Procuring Local, Renewable Energy

Since its launch in 2016, Westchester Power has primarily operated as what Welsh calls a “CCA 1.0.” Although the organization has a goal of providing locally generated, clean energy for its members, its main responsibility is providing cleaner energy at low prices. To do this, Westchester Power has greened its power supply with renewable energy credits. 

Welsh describes renewable energy credits as a “virtual displacement.” The energy is not generated locally by Westchester Power, but customers can still say that they are supporting clean electricity. 

For Welsh, this is a fine starting place. Although he would prefer that the energy was produced in Westchester, building the capacity for renewables in the area will take time. Orville adds that before, the program purchased renewable energy credits from all over the country. Now, they are for New York hydropower. The two hope to further increase access to renewable energy in the area through local generation and transmission projects.

Sustainable Westchester does more to support renewable energy development than procure electricity. The other programs, including community solar and Heat Smart, are all mutually supportive towards city goals. In fact, Orville finds that joining Westchester Power is often the first step to greater involvement with Sustainable Westchester:

We’ve found that communities that are able to successfully offer their residents one of these solutions, it becomes progressively easier for them to leverage that experience and to bring more opportunities to the residents

Nina Orville

Expanding Participation

New York state only lets low-income residents participate in a community choice program if the program can guarantee savings. Orville says that since Westchester Power cannot, many people are excluded. The program is working to find another way. In the meantime, Sustainable Westchester’s other programs are more accessible to the total community. 

Orville directs Sustainable Westchester’s community solar program. She describes how community solar can alleviate some of the energy burden on low-income residents, who are spending “more than 12% of their income on energy costs.” Where traditional solar excludes those without the finances or credit, community solar brings the benefits of clean energy to those who benefit the most.

[Sustainable Westchester serves] as actors in the marketplace, to ensure that those opportunities are delivered to the people who need them most, regardless of whether it’s financially the most advantageous thing or not.

Nina Orville

For a deep dive on community solar in Minnesota and beyond, check out this report put together by ILSR, MmSEIA, and Vote Solar.

Advice from New York

The circumstances around community choice in New York are different than in California, where the concept originated. Welsh describes Westchester Power as more of an energy broker, while community choice programs in California are “little utilities.” 

Some CCAs in California have secured the financial standing to sign long-term contracts for renewable energy. Alternatively, without an ESCO (“energy services company”) authorization from National Grid, Westchester Power plays a different role in the community and so has a different business plan — but it is still centered on community.

Welsh believes that engaging residents through community choice will cultivate an active community capable of taking on other energy concerns. Westchester Power is building capacity to address the tougher local hurdles, like building energy and transportation.

Community, community, community… the word appears in community choice aggregation and community solar, and to remember that the asset that we’re creating here is primarily focused on that.

Dan Welsh

Orville concludes that the momentum is building in the right direction. As localities are allowed more room for innovation, local successes will increasingly crop up throughout the country.

We’re obviously all in this together, so the more we can collaborate across states and across the country, the better.

Nina Orville

Episode Notes

See these ILSR resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 95th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: BruceEmmerling via Pixabay

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.