'Community choice' electricity is coming to customers in Boston

Residents and business in Boston who pay for electricity are being informed by mail of a new city-sponsored program, Community Choice Electricity (CCE), that is aimed at improving Boston’s clean energy performance via a bulk purchasing program that allows the city to buy electricity on behalf of those residents and businesses.

The rollout process will automatically enroll them in the program, which is scheduled for launch on Feb. 1, though they will have the opportunity to decline to participate.

The mailings include invitations to online webinars where people can learn about their options.

In a column printed in today’s Reporter, Mayor Walsh calls the program “another big step” in the city’s Climate Action Plan, which commits the city to being “carbon neutral by the year 2050.” He wrote:

“This is our policy to combine the buying power of Boston’s homes and businesses, in order to get more stable and affordable electricity rates and bring more clean energy into our city. CCE allows the community to make informed electricity choices, increases utilization of renewable energy, and helps protect vulnerable populations who are most at-risk from the climate crisis.”

The new supplier that has contracted with the city— Constellation Electric— is headquartered in Maryland. Residents who remain enrolled in the city plan will see the name Constellation Electric printed on their monthly bills, but will continue to send payments to Eversource, which will respond to emergencies, read meters, and maintain the distribution and transmission lines. 

Residents and merchants who currently use Eversource Basic Service will be auto-enrolled in the city’s CCE program starting in February 2021 unless they choose to opt-out. 

Those who want to decline participation can do so any time before Jan. 11 by signing and returning a postage paid reply card they will receive in the mail. Enrolled customers will also be allowed to opt out of the program at any time without penalty— and also have the option to “opt-up” and receive 100 percent renewable electricity.

About 150 similar aggregation programs are offered in communities across the Commonwealth, but Boston’s program will be the largest by far. The city currently counts some 220,000 residential and 30,000 small business customers on the electric grid. City officials see the policy as an option that gives residents more agency and choice and, ultimately, greater control over Boston’s energy future.

“The ability to have more renewable energy with more consistent and stable pricing makes the program highly advantageous,” said Christopher Cook, Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space said this week. “Choice is the key word here; you’ve got to give the community choice in their climate future.”

Climate activists have been advocating for the city to implement such a program since state law made aggregated buying programs an option in Massachusetts in 2010.

Andy Wells-Bean, campaign coordinator at The Boston Climate Action Network, described the CCE program as a “win-win situation”— allowing for much more price stability and renewable energy without Boston residents having to pay more.

He told the Reporter that her network “has pushed for CCE for some years now. It has been adopted by other cities and towns across the state and has been a big benefit to them. We wanted to bring those benefits to the City of Boston.”

Wells-Bean weighed the pros and cons of such a program as a member of a working group that has advised the Boston City Council. Affordability for residents, she said, was a top priority.

“I think we need to be moving toward 100 percent renewable energy everywhere, but of course we need to also make sure that folks are not spending a disproportionate amount of their income on utilities,” he said.

The average home in the city uses about 600 kilowatts per hour and a resident in one who receives the city’s default standard plan would save roughly $2.84 a month, according to an estimate from city officials. Since every customer’s usage is likely to vary, customers can gauge their own estimated cost using a web-based calculator at cityofbostoncce.com.

Cook said one of the main benefits is the ability to increase the amount of renewables that power Boston’s electricity. 

“When we’re relying on a renewable portfolio standard, as ambitious as that might be comparatively to other states, it’s very clear that the climate crisis requires bold action,” he said. “So, we need to move on clean energy quicker and this is one of the tools we have to do that. At the same time, residents will also get the benefit of price stability.”

On Dec. 16, the city will begin hosting the informational webinars that will continue into January describing the program and its benefits, and discussing what to expect over the next few months as the city makes the transition. Interpretation and translation services will be available for the meetings.  

“We believe that most residents will actually choose to stay with the standard option and there’s great benefit to doing that, but we want people to have as much information as possible,” said Cook.

“We don’t want people to leave the program, but if they choose to do so for whatever reason, they can. But most people will probably choose to do nothing, which means they’ll be on the default service,” he said.  “Just by doing that, they are actually increasing the amount of renewable energy, making us more sustainable into the future and also lowering their energy costs.”

“We also recognize,” Cook said, “that there are people out there who have the ability to pay more and are willing to do that. They can actually opt up and get to 100 percent space match class renewable energy. That’s wonderful, but people have to make some tough choices when it comes to their budgets, and we want to respect that.” 

At-Large City Councillor Michelle Wu, an advocate of the CCE initiative, is happy to see the program come to fruition.

“Nearly four years after introducing Community Choice Energy at the Boston City Council, I’m thrilled to see Boston moving forward with the single biggest step we could take to ramp up renewable energy for residents and small businesses,” Wu said in a statement given to the Reporter this week.

“This bulk purchasing program for clean energy will be a seamless way to expand access to the green economy, while protecting our residents from scam third party energy suppliers.”

For more information on the upcoming information webinar series, or to register, visit boston.gov.