Questions remain about the proposed sale of the Chester electric utility

Andy Myers, chair of the Chester Energy Commission, addresses residents at a meeting about the potential sale of the Chester Municipal Electric Light Division to Eversource.

Reminder of posting photo by Amy Porter

CHESTER — At an information meeting on April 22, residents heard from Eversource why they should sell the Chester Municipal Electric Light Division to them. Earlier in the month, CMELD gave a presentation on why electric utilities should remain city-owned. Both shows are posted on townofchester.net.

There will be more meetings to come, said John Baldassaro, chair of the Chester Selectboard. In order for the sale to move forward, it must pass by a two-thirds majority at two town meetings, six months apart, he said. The panel also includes Nick Chiosano, Bob Daly, Rich Holzman and Ed Sordivi.

The April 22 session began with an introduction by Andy Myers, chair of the city’s Energy Commission, which was formed by a City Meeting vote in June 2023 to consider rising energy costs and ways the city can transition to renewable energy.

Myers said the state in 2018 set a minimum standard for utilities to purchase electricity from clean energy sources, starting at 16% that year and increasing 2% annually to 50% in 2030. Clean energy is more expensive, and its costs are expected to continue to rise, he said. Height.

With Eversource, residents will have the option to connect to an alternative energy supplier. The company offers solar incentives, rebates for qualifying energy-efficient equipment through MassSave for items like heat pumps and smart thermostats, and whole-home energy audits. The city could also choose to participate in a municipal pool with a competing energy supplier, as Huntington currently does, which residents can choose to join or leave.

At an Energy Commission meeting in October, Myers said CMELD is not as competitive as Eversource in residential solar. CMELD pays 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for net solar, versus Eversource, which pays 23.9 cents.

Building Inspector Jason Forge, who serves six surrounding towns as inspector, said at the same meeting that the number of solar permits granted is high in every town except Chester, where residents don’t get that benefit. Eversource serves all cities surrounding Chester.

For CMELD, potential investments will be in solar expansion, residential solar incentives, wind energy, and battery storage technology. The city received $130,000 in green community funds and invested $88,000 in solar panels at the city garage and fire station, saving 25% to 30% on electricity spending on those buildings, among other energy-saving actions.

According to its presentation earlier this month, CMELD currently sources 33% of its energy supply from zero-emission producers that meet the state’s clean energy standards, through its participation in Energy New England’s Broadleaf Solar and Great River Hydro projects .

CMELD’s rates of 23 cents per kilowatt-hour are lower than Eversource’s, but not as low as most municipally-owned departments, given their small size and economies of scale, Myers said. According to the CMELD presentation, its energy supply costs are about half that of Eversource, and its rates have historically been 20% to 40% lower than for-profit utilities.

Eversource’s bills are broken down into separate charges for supply, transportation, distribution and public policy, and the bidders did not offer a price that was comparable to CMELD rates. One meeting participant said it would be nice to have a handout outlining each of the components, and Eversource and CMELD representatives agreed to provide such a comparison at a future meeting.

Another advantage of the sale, Myers said, is that the city’s electric power infrastructure would become taxable property, generating $30,000 to $40,000 annually for the city, since Eversource is a for-profit corporation and CMELD is tax-exempt as a nonprofit. In an earlier presentation, Myers said CMELD already contributes to the city in lieu of taxes, paying about 2% of its annual revenue.

One resident said people were interested in participating in MassSave, and asked how much participating in it would increase his CMELD bill. CMELD Commissioner Derek Savoy said municipal plants cannot participate in MassSave.

“I think this is wrong because state money plays a role,” he said.

Chester is an island surrounded by Eversource customers, and has 40 beds on the Worthington-supplied Eversource network, Myers said. That’s one of the reasons Eversource representatives cited for their interest in purchasing CMELD.

He said the Energy Committee’s goal is to present options.

“It’s all about education,” he said, declining when asked to offer his personal recommendation on the direction the city should take.

The company is the largest energy delivery company in New England, serving 1 million customers, said Amy Henderson, Eversource’s community relations specialist for western Massachusetts. The company’s vision is to be carbon neutral by 2030, she said.

Eversource is regulated and licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. It was ranked No. 1 for utility customer service by Power Residential Studies and was Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2023, Henderson said.

Henderson noted that during a storm, her role shifts to being an emergency response contact, working 14-hour shifts to ensure public safety and restore or continue power to essential services. But one resident at the meeting commented that during the storm, there would be communities in the Eversource area with a lot more people than Chester, and they should be prioritized.

Paul Renaud, vice president of distribution engineering at Eversource, said his team is doing essential work to avoid power outages.

“Our main goal is reliability,” he said, “keeping the lights on and the system intact.” He said that a team goes out in storms and comes back after storms. As the weather becomes more severe, he said they are focusing on storm events.

When asked how long it would take the crew to get to Chester, Reno said the average downtime, not in a storm, is 103 minutes. He said that 90% of outages are caused by vegetation.

“During blue skies, customers average an outage of once every 21 months,” he said.

The question about whether the averages come from large numbers of customers in densely populated areas was followed by another question about what the averages mean for rural communities.

Eversource teams prune the trees over a four-year period, focusing on the largest customer groups first, Reno said. He said the company has 200 active crews and bug fixers, and that number could increase to 2,000 crews during the storm, depending on the size of the storm.

He said smaller towns and smaller power outages tend to be addressed at the end of a storm, a point that was also made during a CMELD presentation earlier in the month, which he said that with no local crews, Eversource directs resources to denser population centers first, then Rural areas areas.

According to the presentation, all CMELD staff and crew are based in Chester, which is their sole focus during the storm. CMELD also maintains an office in the Town Hall where community members can go to pay a bill, ask a question, or receive general assistance, unlike Eversource, which does not have any public offices, so all transactions are done online or over the phone.

Other comments and questions raised, some of which were unanswered, asked how CMELD would be able to afford future infrastructure replacement; Whether CMELD employees would be retained if the sale went through, for which Eversource representatives said they would make an offer, and whether Eversource had previously conducted an assessment of Chester’s electrical grid.

An initial bid from Eversource of $203,000 for CMELD infrastructure was mentioned at the meeting.

Baldassaro said it was too early to discuss some of the issues at hand, and the next steps would be to put a project proposal from Eversource on the table, followed by more public meetings.

Baldassaro urged residents to do some research and inform themselves.

“This is one of the biggest decisions Chester has made,” he said, adding that he would not give his opinion on how the city should vote.



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