Bill would cut targets for use of renewable energy

Halfway into a 20-year program to increase the use of renewable energy in Connecticut, leaders of the legislature’s energy committee want to drastically alter the program’s goals, saying it is not promoting investment in the state.

“The bottom line is, (renewable energy) projects aren’t being built,” said Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Bethany, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee. “It hasn’t worked up to this point and it’s been there for a number of years.”

Under current state law, a portion of every electric bill goes to the Clean Energy Fund for purchase of energy from renewable sources, such as wind power, hydro-electric, solar or fuel cells. By 2020, utility companies will be required to buy 20 percent of the electricity they distribute from renewable sources.

But a bill now before the committee would reduce the 2020 target to 11.5 percent, and use the rest of the Clean Energy money to provide loans to Connecticut residents purchasing energy-efficient products such a solar panels.

Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the committee and sponsor of the legislation, said the current policy is “unsuccessful” because only 3 percent of the state’s energy comes from in-state renewable projects and energy producers.

“We need to rebalance these investments, not to shut out-of-state investments, but to reinvest in our state,” Fonfara said. “We have to keep the dollars that are currently flowing out of state and generate our economy.”

But Jessie Stratton, a co-chairman of the committee when the original legislation was passed, said the proposed changes would hurt development of renewable energy in the state.

“You are taking away the ability to get renewable energy built,” Stratton said. “This (renewable) energy’s more expensive, so the only thing that’s going to get it built is this requirement.”

Nathan Hesel, director of Energy Trading Boralex, an international renewable energy company told committee members the proposal does more harm than good.

“You are guaranteeing fewer projects are built anywhere, whether it is Connecticut or in Maine or in Massachusetts,” he said.

Christopher Phelps, director for Environment Connecticut, said this bill would “dramatically increase” how much pollution the state would be producing.

“This would make Connecticut the only state going backwards,” he said. “It pulls the legs out on renewable energy.”

The original law mandating the 20 percent by 2020 was intended to bring down energy costs while helping the environment. But several committee members said the the bill has not achieved the savings hoped for.

Connecticut’s electric rates are much higher than the national average. According to a legislative report, electric rates in Connecticut were 50 percent above the national average in 1999, the year before renewable energy purchases were mandated. Last year, electric rates were 80 percent above national rates.

Stratton, now director of government relations for Environment Northeast, said the spike is not attributable to this law.

“Energy efficiency saves consumers $4 for every $1 we invest,” she said.

The fact that most of the renewable energy bought under the program comes from out-of-state also concerned committee members, none of whom spoke in favor of keeping the 20 percent threshold in place.

“Large scale renewables are not going to be built in this state. And if that’s the case, how can I justify spending $300 million a year of rate payer dollars?” said Rep. Elizabeth H. Etsy, D-Cheshire. “We are putting a lot of money from our small state into this.”

Fonfara said the alternative, subsidizing purchase of energy-efficient products by consumers, will keep the money in the state and provide easy financing for residents to reduce their energy consumption. He said the proposed bill would provide loans that would be paid through a customer’s utility bill over the expected life of the product purchased.

“This is good for the environment and taxpayers. I have no interest in spending their money by supporting a power plant in upstate Maine,” he said.