| Amy Porter
WESTERN MASS. – Municipal light plant (MLP) managers in Chester, Russell and Westfield say recent scorecard rankings from the Massachusetts Climate Action Network don’t tell the whole story. Westfield Gas & Electric (WG&E) ranked 16th out of the state’s 41 community-owned electric utilities, while Chester Municipal Electric Light Department and Russell Municipal Light Department were among the bottom three.
Chester and Russell are also the two smallest municipal light plants in the state. Russell’s town-owned electric utility, which was established in 1920, serves 470 meters in Russell Village, while the other half of the town is served by Eversource.
Russell Light Plant Manager Alan Robinson said the report made it sound like MLPs are in competition, which is not the way they work. He noted that his utility has a staff of four – himself, one other lineman, and two part-time office workers.
“Westfield Gas & Electric would have a lot more staff than the Russell Light Department would,” he said.
He said another section of the scorecard shows Chester and Russell topping the list when considering clean energy installed per capita.
According to the scorecard at www.massclimateaction.org/2021_mlp_scorecard, of the 12 MLPs that had installed more than 1.0 kilowatt of clean energy per customer, some installed “considerably more than others. Most notably, Chester, Russell and Holyoke installed approximately 8.68 kW, 6.56 kW, and 3.54 kW of clean energy per customer, respectively.”
“I was a little surprised we came in last place [overall],” Robinson said.
He said another factor in the low ranking is that the scorecard was based on reports from 2017 to 2019, before the Holiday Hill Wind Project in Russell went online at the very end of 2019. The next report card will pick up Holiday Hill, as well as another contract the town now has with Hydro Quebec, a hydropower purchase agreement which will give the utility renewable energy credits.
“That part of our ranking will definitely go up,” Robinson said.
Both Westfield Gas & Electric and Chicopee Electric Light are also purchasing energy from the Holiday Hill wind turbines, and will also get credits.
“The Massachusetts Climate Action Network definitely wants MLPs to push more renewable energy, which we’re all trying to do, but spread out a little over time,” Robinson said.
‘Keeping the lights on’
Although most of the ranking is based on the adoption of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient practices, “transparency and community engagement” accounts for 15 percent of the measurement. Utilities earn points by having their Department of Public Utilities reports and meeting minutes available online. Robinson said one of his agency’s weaknesses is its website, which he hopes to improve, perhaps by partnering with other town departments to share the expense.
“I definitely think we should update our website so we can download our reports,” he said. “There was a time that I thought we were really ahead of the curve, when we did the website internally. As time [went] by, we fell behind. Other than that, we’re doing everything we can for a small department. Our major responsibility is serving customers and keeping the lights on.”
Additionally, “policy context” counts for 10 percent on the scorecard. In that category, utilities and their host towns are judged on whether they have a climate action plan or have earned the state’s Green Community designation, among other factors.
Chester Municipal Electric Light Manager Jill Moretz also said that it’s hard to compare Chester and Russell to the largest municipal light plants in the state. The top utilities on the scorecard are in Concord, Belmont and Holyoke, places with a large base of commercial ratepayers and populations over 19,000, 27,000 and 38,000, respectively.
“We have a hard time keeping rates low. Buying green energy is expensive; we have a lot of seniors, and we want to keep our rates low,” Moretz said.
Chester is looking into some innovative programs, and Moretz said she should have something to report in three months. She said the town is trying to reach the goal of 100 percent green energy by 2050, 50 percent by 2030, that has been set by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“We’re trying to take smaller steps because we’re so small, and we don’t have a lot of funds,” she said.
The town uses Energy New England as its outside contractor to buy renewable energy, and purchases electricity from the New York Power Authority.
“A little over 8 percent of green energy comes from them, which our residents directly get credit for,” Moretz said, adding that the department is compliant with all state regulations and reports. “We are on our way to getting better for green energy.”
Chester’s Light Department is slightly larger than Russell’s, with 699 meters. Moretz said besides herself, there is only a part-time building clerk in the office, two full-time linemen and a part-time lineman. That has benefits that don’t show up in the MCAN scorecard, she said.
“We are so small, if there is a power outage, our guys are right there. The residents here get the one-on-one service,” Moretz said.
A reliable mix
By contrast, Westfield Gas & Electric has 105 full-time employees and brings in $100 million a year in revenue.
“We’re running a very large organization,” said WG&E General Manager Thomas Flaherty. He said the municipal light plant currently has $38 million in its stabilization (savings) account and 18,500 electric customers, along with 10,500 natural gas customers, and 12,200 customers of Whip City Fiber in Westfield. Whip City Fiber also operates broadband networks in 20 area towns.
Flaherty said he wasn’t unhappy with the 16th place ranking on the MCAN scorecard.
“I’m focused on keeping the 43,000 residents happy — our customers,” he said, by providing reliable energy and infrastructure.
Flaherty noted that the governor’s target of 50 percent green energy by 2030 uses the phrase “non-emitting generation” — which includes nuclear power. The MCAN report counts only “clean energy,” which excludes nuclear because of “the high risk nuclear poses to local communities living near nuclear facilities and nuclear waste sites.”
“Right now, we’re at 59 percent” non-emitting energy, Flaherty said. “A large piece of that is nuclear, which has a stigma, but is one of the most efficient [types of] fuel-fired generation.”
He also touted natural gas, which was praised 20 years ago as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal.
“At the time, they wanted natural gas-fired generation. Now it’s, quote, ‘bad,’ now it’s fossil fuel,” Flaherty said. He said natural gas emissions are minimal compared to oil and coal.
“We need a reliable energy mix in New England,” said Flaherty. “Organizations like [MCAN] want to rely on hydro and solar.”
He said solar takes up more acreage and its efficiency in New England is 13 to 15 percent, because of cloudy days and nights, while “gas is 92 percent.”
Flaherty said there are four solar facilities in Westfield, none of which is owned by WG&E, though 100 percent of the power is purchased by WG&E. The solar arrays are on Western Avenue, Southampton Road, Russellville Road and Twiss Street.
Westfield plans to develop a solar project and battery storage facility in the city with Southwest Cooperative and Mass Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, which will be wholly owned by WG&E by 2030. If it is built next year, as planned, it will be using Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, to finance the project between 2023 and 2030.
Robinson said the MCAN scorecard doesn’t give municipal light plant credits for using green energy unless they buy it with a REC, each of which represents one megawatt-hour of electricity generated from a renewable energy resource. RECs can be sold separately from the energy itself.
“We buy the energy, which is what that project generates, but it also generates a REC. … If you’re buying the power, why would you buy that?” Robinson asked. “We’re supporting the project by buying the energy; that energy automatically generates a REC. We haven’t been buying a REC because we didn’t have to buy it, and the state doesn’t mandate us to buy it.”
Robinson gave an example. “Say the energy is 6 cents, and the cost of the REC was 3 cents. Why would you spend the total of 9 cents when you only have to spend 6?” he said, adding that MCAN and other green advocates want MLPs to invest in energy by buying Renewable Energy Certificates.
Robinson said in 2020, renewable energy made up 30 percent of Russell’s power supply, but that doesn’t show up in the certificates.
“They never give us credit for paying for the energy,” he said. “You can’t build a project unless you sell the energy and you sell the REC. We don’t want to buy the REC — we want to help finance the company, but not the whole thing.”
Flaherty said in future clean energy projects, Westfield will keep its Renewable Energy Certificates.
“We need to own it and control it,” Flaherty said. “We get all of the kilowatt-hours through power purchase agreements, but we don’t get any of the green value out of those facilities. They don’t count if you don’t purchase the certificates.”
That hasn’t been the case in previous green energy contracts, however. Flaherty said WG&E purchases about 5,000 megawatt-hours of wind and solar power, including the RECs, “then turn around and sell them at $200,000 a year. We take that asset and sell it back to the marketplace to maintain lower rates.”
Flaherty said over the past 10 years, WG&E is probably 10 to 15 percent below the average cost of power supply in the state.
“If everyone wants us to be 100 percent green, where we’re retiring 80-megawatt demand in solar, wind or other RECs, instead of right now being at 6.7 cents on the residential rate, we’d be closer to 20,” Flaherty said.