Williamstown Selectmen Debate Cost Saving Vs. 'Green' Action
The Board of Selectmen are choosing an electrical aggregation plan that balances cost with environmentally sound generation.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen on Monday debated how the town should strike the balance between environmentalism and frugality.
At issue was Williamstown's participation in a year-old Municipal Electric Aggregation Program. Specifically, the board was asked to authorize interim Town Manager Peter Fohlin to again act on the town's behalf when new contracts from electricity suppliers are received this week.
Fohlin told the board that Mark Cappadona of Marlborough's Colonial Power Group was negotiating with hydroelectricity producers and was projecting a bid for significantly less than the town currently pays per kilowatt hour.
Fohlin said earlier this year he pushed Cappadona, who represents nine Berkshire County towns and the city of North Adams, to find a reasonably priced renewable source for Williamstown consumers.
Last year's aggregate contract drew criticism because it purchases electricity from more conventional sources: coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
The current estimate for the hydroelectric power is in the neighborhood of 10.85 cents per kwh, less than the 12.191 cents local consumers currently pay.
The issue Monday: There might yet be cheaper electricity available.
"It's only going to cost us about 2 cents a kilowatt hour to [use hydroelectric]," Fohlin mentioned.
That 2 cents prompted a discussion about whether it is the town's role to get the lowest possible price, the greenest fuel or something in between.
Selectmen Hugh Daley tried to convince his colleagues to direct Fohlin to seek a contract with the lowest priced electricity regardless the power source.
Daley reasoned that residents concerned about how "green" their power is can always opt out of the aggregate program, as some already have done — either for cost or environmental impact.
"In my mind, I live in a world where the primary goal is to keep costs as low as possible and, where you can, change, do the things you can change," Daley said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet.
"So we can help all of our citizens, all of our industries, all of our businesses by setting the default rate as low as possible. And anyone who chooses with their disposable income to spend more on their electricity is absolutely free to do so.
"We've exercised the power of the town through aggregation to make the price as low as possible."
That position prompted a response from Selectwoman Anne O'Connor.
"I would see this as a win-win, Hugh," O'Connor said, referring to the potential hydroelectric contract. "We do have some responsibility to use our power in this aggregation to push more toward renewables. Solely basing everything on price is sort of selling out the future."
Selectman Ronald Turbin agreed.
"It's not the lowest, but it's pretty darn low and it's essentially green," Turbin said, alluding to the debate in the environmental community about the cleanliness of hydro power. "We could be cheap, cheap, cheap for now, but — not to pontificate — in the future it's not going to be so cheap when we're faced with further dilemmas of carbon emissions and carbon change and everything.
"I think this is good and intelligent."
Both Chairwoman Jane Patton and Selectman Andrew Hogeland expressed sympathy for Daley's argument but said they were willing to authorize Fohlin to proceed on the track he was on.
Hogeland said that the "green vs. green" debate could not be resolved in Monday's meeting but was worth revisiting after this week's contract was signed. Patton said she could see both sides and thought the hydroelectric deal was a good middle ground.
That was Fohlin's objective, he said.
"One absolute rule is to get the cleanest power you can whatever it will cost," Fohlin said. "The other absolute rule is: Find the cheapest power you can no matter where it came from. What I tried to do with Mark Cappadona was say, 'Get me a balance, Mark. See if we can find something that will make no one happy.' "
He was only half-joking. Fohlin freely admitted there was no right answer to what he described as a Rubik's Cube of decision making, where length of term, cleanliness and price are all factors.
"Somebody has to turn those three axes to decide, 'Clean power for 18 months at this price is the right answer,' " Fohlin said. "And it's not the right answer because to a segment of the population, it is wrong, and to another segment of the population, the other answer is wrong."
As for the criticism of the current aggregate contract, Fohlin said there were no bids submitted a year ago that would have satisfied the contract's critics.
All the selectmen on Monday agreed that the opt-out provision of the aggregate energy-buying plan gives individuals the option to go their own way if the Rubik's Cube doesn't end up looking right to them.
Fohlin pointed out that only a majority of the town's population chooses the "opt-out" option. Most people don't want to think about where their electricity comes from, he said.
If the town ends up with the hydro deal it was expecting, those who don't opt-out would have a plan that finds the middle ground, he argued.
"No matter what we do, we're going to be lower [priced] than basic service National Grid," Fohlin said. "We're going to save money and provide clean energy to the do-nothing resident."
Daley remained unconvinced.
"This is the fixed incomes, the seniors, all the folks we could go out and save money for who could, again, decide if they wanted to spend more," Daley said. "By setting as our criterion the cheapest price possible, we've set a bookend. No one is going to do worse than this."
Daley moved that the board direct Fohlin to find the lowest price possible, but his motion failed to win a second, as he anticipated. He then voted in the minority of a 4-1 decision to authorize Fohlin to act as the town's agent and proceed as planned.
Tags: electrical aggregation,