In the mid-1990s, a few energy activists in Massachusetts had a vision: what if citizens had a choice in the energy they consumed? Instead of being force-fed by electricity sources selected by a utility company, what if cities, towns, and groups of individuals could purchase cleaner, cheaper electricity ?
The small group of activists – including a journalist, the head of a small nonprofit, a local county official and a legislative aide – drafted a model bill along these lines that reached the US Senate. in 1995. The measure has stagnated. In 1997 they tried again. Massachusetts lawmakers were busy passing a bill to reform the state’s electric industry in other ways, and this time activists included their low-key policy idea – as a provision so marginal that it was only briefly mentioned in The Boston Globethe coverage of the bill.
Today, this idea, often known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), is used by approximately 36 million people in the United States, or 11% of the population. Local residents, as a block, buy power with certain specifications attached, and more than 1,800 communities have adopted CCA in six states, with others testing pilot CCA programs. From such humble beginnings, CCA has grown into a big deal.
“It started small and then had a profound impact,” says David Hsu, an associate professor at MIT who studies energy policy issues. Indeed, CCA’s trajectory is so striking that Hsu has researched its origins, combing through a variety of archival sources and questioning the main ones. He has now written a review article examining the lessons and implications of this episode.
Hsu’s article, “Straight out of Cape Cod: The origin of community choice aggregation and its spread to other states”, appears ahead of time in online form in the journal Energy research and social sciencesand in the April print edition of the publication.
“I wanted to show people that a small idea could become something big,” says Hsu. “To me, it’s a really hopeful democratic story, where people could do something without feeling like they had to tackle a whole giant system that wouldn’t immediately respond to a single person.”
Bringing consumers together to buy energy was nothing new in the 1990s. Companies in many sectors have long joined forces to gain purchasing power for energy. And Rhode Island tried a form of CCA a little earlier than Massachusetts.
However, it is the Massachusetts model that has been widely adopted: cities or towns can require purchases of electricity from, for example, renewable sources, while citizens can opt out of such agreements. More state funding (for things like improving efficiency) is also being redirected to cities and towns.
In either direction, CCA policies provide greater local control over power supply. They have been adopted in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Ohio. Meanwhile, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia recently passed similar legislation (also known as municipal or governmental aggregation, or community choice energy).
For cities and towns, says Hsu, “Maybe you don’t own the whole energy system, but let’s take out a particular utility function, which is supply.”
This vision motivated a handful of Massachusetts activists and political pundits in the 1990s, including journalist Scott Ridley, who co-wrote a 1986 book, “Power Struggle,” with the University historian from Massachusetts Richard Rudolph and had spent years thinking about ways to reconfigure the energy system; Matt Patrick, president of a local nonprofit focused on energy efficiency; Rob O’Leary, a local county official from Barnstable, Cape Cod; and Paul Fenn, an aide to the state senator who chaired the legislature’s energy committee.
“It all started with these political activists,” says Hsu.
Hsu’s research emphasizes several lessons to be learned from the fact that the legislation first failed in 1995, before unexpectedly passing in 1997. Ridley remained an author and public figure; Patrick and O’Leary would each eventually be elected to the state legislature, but only after 2000; and Fenn had left his staff post in 1995 and worked with the California Long Distance Group (where he became a long-term advocate for the issue). Thus, at the time the CCA was adopted in 1997, none of its key advocates held an insider position in state politics. How did he manage?
Lessons from the law
First, according to Hsu, a legislative process resembles what political theorist John Kingdon has called a “multi-flow framework”, in which “many elements of the policy-making process are separate, meandering and uncertain”. Legislation is not entirely controlled by big donors or other interest groups, and “political entrepreneurs” can succeed in unpredictable windows of opportunity.
“It’s the most realistic theory,” says Hsu.
Second, Hsu points out, finding allies is crucial. In the case of the ACC, this happened in several ways. Many towns in Massachusetts have a town-level legislature known as the Town Meeting; activists got these bodies in about 20 cities to pass non-binding resolutions in favor of community choice. O’Leary helped create a regional county commission in Barnstable County, while Patrick developed an energy plan for it. High electricity rates affected all of Cape Cod at the time, so the community’s choice also served as an economic benefit for workers in Cape Cod’s working-class service industry. Activists also found that the addition of an opt-out clause to the 1997 version appealed to lawmakers, who would back the CCA if their constituents weren’t all tied to it.
“You really have to stick with it and you have to look for coalition partners,” says Hsu. “It’s fun to hear them [the activists] talk about going to town halls and how they tried to get grassroots support. If you are looking for allies, you can get things done. [I hope] people can see [themselves] in the activism of others, even if they are not exactly the same as you.
By 1997, the CCA legislation had greater geographic support, was seen as both an economic and environmental benefit to voters, and would not require anyone to become a member. Activists, while giving media interviews and organizing conferences, had found additional traction in the principle of citizen choice.
“It’s interesting for me to see how the rhetoric of [citizen] choice and the rhetoric of democracy is proving effective,” says Hsu. “Legislators feel they have to give everyone a choice. And it expresses a collective desire for a choice that public services win by being monopolies.
He adds, “We need to establish principles that shape systems, rather than just taking the system as given and trying to justify 150-year-old principles.
A final element of the move to CCA was the right timing. The Massachusetts governor and legislature were already looking for a “big deal” to restructure the supply of electricity and loosen the grip of utilities; the CCA was part of this broader reform movement. However, the adoption of the CCA was gradual; about a third of Massachusetts cities with CCA have only adopted it in the last five years.
The CCA’s growth doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable to repeal or utility-funded opposition efforts — “In California, there’s been a pretty intense pushback,” Hsu notes. Still, Hsu concludes, the fact that a handful of activists can launch a national energy policy movement is a helpful reminder that everyone’s actions can make a difference.
“It wasn’t like they had gone through a barricade, they just found a way around it,” says Hsu. “I want my students to know that you can organize and redesign the future. This requires a certain commitment and long-term work.