July 31, 2014: How Belmont can lower electric bills

July 31, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Sky high. The temperature on a hot New England summer day.

Even more sky high. The electricity prices that accompany those hot New England summer days.

Under the leadership of former Selectman Ralph Jones, Belmont Light, our local municipal utility, recently moved forward with constructing a new electric substation. That construction will ensure Belmont Light’s ability to reliably deliver the highest levels of electricity used by Belmont residents each summer (called “peak demand”).

The new substation, however, addresses only part of the problem. What still needs to be addressed is the high cost of our electricity supplies caused by Belmont’s summer electricity usage.

As usage increases on very hot summer days, the cost of producing electricity increases as well. Wholesale electricity prices at times of peak demand are substantially higher than at other times. Belmont Light must then pass-on those costs in higher rates to customers. In addition to being the most expensive, the electric generating stations used to meet peak demand on very hot days are the dirtiest as well. Hot summer temperatures also increase the immediate public health dangers posed by air pollution.

Belmont is in an enviable position to address both the cost, and the environmental degradation, associated with high electric use. We run our own municipal electric utility, with Belmont Light under the direction of our Town’s Board of Selectmen.

Using that local oversight, Belmont Light has programs available to it, should it choose to pursue them, to reduce the adverse impacts caused by high summer electricity usage. One such program that Belmont Light could and should implement involves a simple technology called Direct Load Control.

Under such a program, Belmont Light would install a small radio transmitter on a customer’s central air conditioning system. On the hottest summer days, Belmont Light could reduce its peak demand, lower costs, and reduce air pollution emissions, by cycling residential air conditioning off.

The most common Direct Load Control program involves cycling air conditioning off for 12 to 15 minutes per half hour during a four to six hour period on the hottest summer afternoons. Even while the air conditioning is off, however, the fan remains on. Most customers don’t even realize their air conditioner has been off for a few minutes.

Participation in such a program is purely voluntary. In fact, the benefits are so great, utilities pay customers to participate. Payments range from $5 – $20 a month for the summer months (June – September). Payments are made whether or not the utility needs to control its load in any particular summer month.

Utilities large and small use Direct Load Control programs. Utilities offering such programs range from very large companies such as Consolidated Edison (New York City), Commonwealth Edison (Chicago), and PECO Energy (Philadelphia), to 33 small electric cooperatives serving rural Indiana.

Indeed, one of the first utilities to offer Direct Load Control was an Oregon municipal utility much like Belmont Light. The Milton-Freewater municipal utility, which began its Direct Load Control program in 1985, serves just over 4,500 customers, about half the size of Belmont Light,.

Operating its own municipal utility gives Belmont the ability to pursue initiatives delivering benefits to the local community. Direct Load Control is one such initiative. It is a proven technology. It is both simple and inexpensive. It offers rate rebates to program participants, and reduced rates to all Belmont ratepayers. It produces distinct environmental benefits.

Belmont Light will soon begin planning its 2016 energy efficiency programs. Through that process, the Board of Selectmen should approve the roll-out of a Direct Load Control program for the Summer of 2016.

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