In a rare split decision, the Athens County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to hire Athens-based Energy Planning Associates LLC to consult and manage electricity aggregation.
The city and county of Athens are in partnership on aggregation, and the city has selected the recently formed Energy Planning Associates as well.
Electricity aggregation is a process by which a local government pools residents and small commercial customers together to purchase electricity. This allows for the leveraging of buying power to obtain lower electricity generation rates.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason voted against the hire, expressing his desire to go with a more experienced consultant, which also would have likely joined the county to a larger pool.
“I thought we would be better off with a more experienced company doing the aggregation,” he said.
Both city and county voters approved aggregation in November. The countywide ballot covered all unincorporated areas in Athens County, including citizens living in the townships outside of incorporated subdivisions.
Incorporated areas of the county include Athens, Nelsonville, Albany, Amesville, Buchtel, Chauncey, Coolville, Glouster, Jacksonville and Trimble.
Voters in Amesville are scheduled to decide in May whether they want to join the county’s aggregation program with the city of Athens. The other political subdivisions haven’t yet sought to put the question to voters.
Roger Wilkins is a managing member of Energy Planning Associates and has met with the commissioners several times over the last couple months before being hired this past week.
He said in an interview last month that the first thing to be accomplished will be a document that establishes an aggregation council that will act as the legal basis for cooperation between the city and county, as well as any other political subdivisions that join.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio will then certify that council, he said, and the council will develop and put out a request for proposals from energy suppliers.
The council, Wilkins said, could demand in the RFP that certain percentages of electricity come from certain generators, including local generators and renewable sources. The ability to generate that local energy, he said, can take time.
“We’re trying to take steps to work with local installers and financial institutions to start developing the local capacity, so down the road it will be there ready to supply,” he said.
This is a multi-year process, Wilkins noted. So in the first year or two, the RFP likely will emphasize getting rates as low as possible. This will provide the time to develop infrastructure locally. By the third year then, he said, if that infrastructure is in place, the purchasing group can then turn toward emphasizing locally sourced energy.
Energy suppliers will be required to quote an exact kilowatt-per-hour rate in their proposals, Wilkins noted, so the city and county will know with some precision how much money they can save customers.
Customers’ bills themselves will still come from American Electric Power, for instance, Wilkins noted. But the electricity generation line within that bill will reflect the changes, and cheaper rates, that come from aggregation.
Electricity aggregation will also work in an opt-out system, whereby residents who do not wish to participate have a 21-day period when they can decide not to participate in the program. Under Ohio Revised Code, residents are entitled to an opportunity to opt out every three years no matter what contract is established for electricity generation.
Wilkins said that it will be up to the supplier to engage renewable energy sources, adding that there is a nationwide market for renewable energy credits.
“So they can buy credits from wind farms in Oklahoma, and sell it here, which is a good step in terms of renewable energy,” he said. “But it’s not as powerful as getting our own sources.”
With the development of local, renewable electricity generation, Wilkins said, the city, county and local partners can create a new avenue for jobs and economic development.
“We are talking with Third Sun, with Dovetail, and a couple of the smaller (solar) installers,” he said. “It’s really an impetus for new economic development, creating a new capacity here and hopefully using local companies, local labor and local financing to do it.”
Commissioner Chris Chmiel has emphasized this focus on local development while spearheading the electricity aggregation effort. “I want to keep our money local. And we have a lot of smart people around here. There’s no reason we can’t do this ourselves,” he said.
Wilkins said that electricity aggregation represents a great new opportunity for the area.
“It’s a whole new world of how we get our electricity generation,” he said. “Instead of a few really large, centralized coal-fired plants that are supplying a large part of the state, you can have a lot of distributed production,” he said. “It both benefits local communities and means not nearly as much electricity is lost in the long transmission lines.”
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