Worthington City Council has granted permission to an energy consultant to prepare a ballot issue that would implement an energy-aggregation program in the city.

On May 21, council members viewed a presentation from Energy Alliances, a consultant group chosen to represent the city during the process of implementing such a program.

They voted unanimously to give Energy Alliances approval to move forward on a ballot issue for the Nov. 6 general election and begin planning an educational outreach program to inform residents about what they would be voting on.

City staff members and Energy Alliances were directed to work together and return to City Council by July with the ballot language. The filing deadline for the Nov. 6 ballot is Aug. 8, according to the Franklin County Board of Elections website.

In March, council members David Robinson and Doug Smith introduced the plan for a renewable-energy-aggregation program. They said the program would pool residents' buying power to lower costs – in theory – while supporting the generation of energy from companies selling wind- or solar-generated energy.

The plan, according to Robinson and Smith, is to create the ballot issue that launches the program and allows for a no-cost opt-out option for residents. Opt-out aggregation programs – in which residents automatically would be enrolled and would have to choose not to participate in the program – require approval by residents in a citywide ballot issue, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's website.

Smith said the goals would be to reduce residents' energy bills by $100 to $150 per year on average and "to promote a renewable-energy product, which gets the city sourced with 100 percent renewable energy for electric."

However, even after the May 21 vote, some City Council members said they still were unsure about how the process would work.

"I voted for it to let it go forward, but to be honest I still don't understand it all," Councilman Scott Myers said. "I understand the general concept, so I'm kind of over that part of the learning curve. But I'm always somewhat skeptical when the government comes in and says 'I'm from the government, I'm here to help,' so I'm still taking a 'wait-and-see' attitude and talking to everyone I know who's been through the process."

Council President Bonnie Michael said she thinks she has a "basic understanding" of the idea.

"I think it's a cost-saving concern for our community, and I like the fact that people have the choice to opt-in and opt-out whenever," she said.

How it would work

Energy Alliances COO Rich Surace said the city still would use AEP as its distributor if an energy-aggregation program were approved, but it would use a different supplier for its electricity in an effort to save money.

"AEP will still make sure the power gets to people's houses," he said at the May 21 meeting.

According to its website, as a public-utility company, AEP purchases energy from "power-generating companies" and arranges the transmission of that energy to local homes.

In order to meet Robinson and Smith's request that the aggregation program be used to support clean energy, Surace said, the city would use renewable energy certificates to purchase the electricity.

The goal would be to pool residents' buying power to shop for a new supplier that would fit RECs into an agreement and result in a lower overall price for all, while supporting clean energy, he said.

In January, Worthington spent $2,720 to purchase 3,092 megawatt-hours – the estimated power the city will need for the year for its facilities, street lights and lights at such public spaces as tennis courts – of RECs from Colorado-based energy company Renewable Choice Energy.

According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, each REC represents a megawatt-hour of renewably generated energy. The sources for the RECs can be wind turbines, solar panels or hydropower. The certificates denote that energy purchased will be from a renewable energy source.

The REC purchases are separate from Worthington's energy use because the city is not on a power grid supplied by renewable sources, city spokeswoman Anne Brown said previously. Worthington still will use distributor American Electric Power and supplier Capital Energy, with the RECs serving as an "investment" in clean energy sources, she said.

Those RECs are the only real option for many communities, Surace explained, because energy on the grid is combined and not specifically from one source.

Although the RECs aren't the same as getting clean energy directly from a wind turbine, Robinson said, the change would be an environmentally conscious one for the city.

"This policy gives real substance to Worthington's claim to being a city committed to sustainability," he said. "That's not only good for the environment, but it's good for attracting forward-thinking businesses and people to our town. That's the intangible benefit."

If the plan did not work, City Manager Matt Greeson, council members and Surace all said the city would pull the plug on the idea.

How it would proceed

Several City Council members emphasized the need for outreach and education for Worthington residents.

That process, along with drafting ballot language, researching pricing, working with distributors and passing along information to the state, will be handled by Energy Alliances. Per an agreement, the consultant group would be paid only if the ballot issue is approved and a deal with a supplier is approved by City Council, in which case a fee would be worked into it, city officials said.

Smith said he thinks the questions and concerns would be "consistent from now through November" from council members and residents alike, which is why he is happy to have the consultants on board.

"Throughout the next few months, I think we'll see lot more on honing in on education ... which I'm pleased about," he said.

Smith said he wants to be involved in that "outreach," a process that will require a lot of help from the consultants.

"They're professionals at this and really figuring out what the concerns are and what the questions are," he said. "Yeah, it's daunting. But at the core of it, it's a basic concept. It's like going to the grocery store and buying bulk foods at a cheaper rate."

Myers said he hopes the consultants would convey "an even message" to residents and see the situation as "educational outreach as opposed to an advocacy outreach."

"I'm sure there are downsides to this; I'm just not far enough along to know what they are," he said.

"Because on its face, it sounds pretty good."

Michael said she expects educational outreach, largely because of Energy Alliances' experience.

Surace said the organization has helped coordinate 72 ballot initiatives and has faced defeat only twice.

"They have experience in doing this in the past," she said. "They have a track record of being able to adequately educate other (municipalities).

"Their time and work is not going to cost us anything and they're not going to make anything unless it passes."

If the ballot issue is approved, it will be because Worthington residents voted for it, not because of a council decision.

"That's why this one is kind of easy to go along with," Myers said, "because ultimately the people can decide.

For more information on the topic, go to worthington.org.