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Give town utilities money they deserve

Monday, November 21, 2011

Municipal electric department customers must get what they pay for - or be exempted from energy efficiency and conservation fees that benefit only private utilities.

How can there be any argument? Consumers who are gamely squeezing every household penny are right to expect a direct return on taxes and fees paid out for services.

Problem is, North Attleboro and Mansfield municipal electric departments each collect about $55,000 a year from customers for a fund - the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - that supports energy efficiency projects without any of it cycling back to the towns. This disconnect was reported recently by Sun Chronicle reporter Amy DeMelia.

The two departments are among many in the state in the same situation. It's arguable that every single one of them would be pleased to share in the largesse. A return to the municipal utilities could be used to fund local efficiency and conservation programs.

But that's not the way things are working and change is in order. The solution: Free municipal utilities from the fee commitment or permit them to benefit. There are several bills pending in the state Legislature that would bring this about, allowing municipal electric companies to receive the money collected from its customers.

We support passage of any that will justly treat municipal utilities.

The aim of RGGI, instituted about three years ago to diminish carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in New England and a couple of mid-Atlantic states, is reportedly paying off. This is a good thing. It's the method that stinks.

Electricity generators collect a small fee from electric companies for every kilowatt hour of power that is used, which ultimately goes to pay for energy efficiency and conservation projects. The charge, which is passed on from electric companies to their customers, makes up a tiny portion of each electric bill, but adds up to big money.

While private utility companies receive some of that energy efficiency money, municipal utilities are not eligible, explained DeMelia, even though their customers pay the charge, just like private utility customers do.

"None of the money collected is actually coming back to municipal electric departments," James Moynihan, general manager of North Attleboro Electric said. "The municipal electric companies make up about 12 to 13 percent of the total load in the commonwealth, so 12 to 13 percent of these funds should go the municipal electric companies." Over their lifetime, Massachusetts programs implemented in 2010, 2011 and 2012 are expected to reduce consumer energy costs by $6 billion; save 2.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to meet the needs of more than 350,000 Massachusetts households for a year; and avoid 15 million tons of carbon pollution.

RGGI's blueprint has prompted California's Air Resources Board (CARB) to recently follow suit by adopting cap-and-trade regulation. RGGI, a non-profit corporation created to support development and implementation of the project, reports that it is spurring innovation in the clean energy economy and creating green jobs in each state.

Who can disparage progress? But funding is another matter entirely. It's an insult to assess consumers fees when they receive no direct return on investment.