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Municipality program offers reduced-price renewable energy

<h6>Photo Credit: andreas160578 / <a href="https://pixabay.com/photos/solar-energy-solar-system-2157212/" target="_self">pixabay</a></h6>
Photo Credit: andreas160578 / pixabay

Under the Princeton Community Renewable Energy Program (PCRE), the municipality of Princeton is now offering residents electricity with higher renewable energy content, at a cheaper price.

“This is a way to have our cake and eat it too,” said Will Atkinson ’18, who headed an analysis of the program as part of the Climate Action Plan Emission Reduction Strategies (CAPERS) research team. PCRE is a way “to get cleaner energy that is also cheaper, without most people having to do anything extra in their daily lives,” he said.

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“We’re able to support the development of renewable energy at a bit of a cost savings,” said Sophie Glovier ’87, Chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission.

PCRE is a result of a contract with Constellation NewEnergy to provide electricity with 50 percent renewable energy content, compared to 24 percent renewable energy content under the current contract with Public Services Enterprise Group (PSE&G). The electricity will also be around 1 to 2 percent cheaper, according to the CAPERS team.

Analysis by the CAPERS team suggests that this could reduce town-wide emissions by anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of the emissions from 3,000 passenger cars. It could also potentially save about $43 per household each year, or around $200,000 for the whole town.

CAPERS started in 2018 as a way to evaluate the impacts of the town’s 2019 Climate Action Plan. They previously analyzed the data to understand the benefits that dedicated bike lanes, electric-vehicle charging stations, the FreeB bus service, and other initiatives could have on the town’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Town residents currently receiving energy from PSE&G will be automatically enrolled in the new plan. If residents do not opt out of the switch, they will, by default, receive electricity with higher renewable content, a feature which Town Councilman David Cohen highlighted in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.

“Because it’s opt-out, we can get the benefits of this without people actually doing anything,” Cohen said.

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Households also have the option of “opting-up” to a 100 percent renewable energy supply for a slightly higher price. Households that currently pay for energy from a third-party supplier other than PSE&G can participate in the program as well, but they will need to manually opt-in by May 6 to do so.

The PCRE is a form of energy aggregation, providing or “aggregating” the renewable energy plan for all residents of the town, rather than having individual households buy energy from third-party providers. The more users who buy into the plan — or in this case, remain automatically enrolled — the more leverage the town has when bargaining with providers for a lower price. Similar programs have begun in the nearby municipalities of Maplewood, Montclair, Plainsboro, and New Brunswick.

The idea of energy aggregation was identified in the town’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) as a way to meet its goals of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2010 levels by the year 2050.

A working group was formed, and with the help of Sustainable Princeton, a local nonprofit, and the University as a partner, Glovier said they began discussions about what sort of plan they wanted.

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“The committee had hours and hours of conversation about finding the best solution,” Glovier said. “Lots of thought has gone into the design of this program.”

The group, formally a subcommittee of Princeton’s Environmental Commission, thought hard about how to structure the contract, and how to balance the costs and benefits.

“We had conversations about how much renewable energy we should be asking for,” Cohen said.

“We have to have a price equal to or less than before but maximize what we can do to promote new renewable energy generation,” said Christine Symington, program director of Sustainable Princeton and member of the working group.

With that in mind, the town initiated a bidding process in November 2019. At the time, they didn’t receive a bid that had a low enough cost for the renewable energy content they wanted. A few months later, however, they put out another call, and the contract was awarded just before the COVID-19 outbreak.

This program is set to begin supplying energy in June 2020. The contract will provide a fixed rate for 18 months, at which point the town will negotiate a new agreement.

“What we’re dreaming for the next time,” Cohen said, “[is] maybe we’ll bid out 100 percent renewable as the base, and then everyone will be getting 100 percent renewable.”

Currently, with the goal of keeping prices low, that might not be feasible — but Cohen, Glovier, and Symington hope that it could be soon.

The renewable energy for PCRE is sourced from PJM, a regional grid that covers 13 states in the Mid-Atlantic region and the District of Columbia. But as New Jersey aims to expand its wind and solar energy offerings through a state-issued master plan, more affordable options for renewable energy may appear in the near future.

While saving the environment is sometimes presented in conflict with saving money, Atkinson said that initiatives like these prove that both can be possible.

“Often climate change action is framed as a tradeoff between economic benefits and environmental,” Atkinson said. “But there is a lot we can do, even during the pandemic, to reduce emissions while sustaining our economy.”

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