Senate, House pass sweeping energy bill

The House gave final legislative approval at 6:01 a.m. today to a bill that subsidizes solar power, encourages energy efficiency and exerts influence over a deregulated electric industry that has given Connecticut the nation’s second-highest electric rates.

The most heavily lobbied bill of year was passed 20 to 14 in the Senate on Tuesday night and 81 to 40 in the House as the sun rose over the State Capitol today, the final day of the 2010 session.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has expressed opposition, but environmentalists urged her to sign a bill that encourages the consolidation of energy functions in one department, an idea proposed by Rell in 2007.

“This bill is an important first step in addressing a broken energy infrastructure, and a way for the state to move towards cleaner energy and a stronger economy,” said Charles Rothenberger, a staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

The bill reorganizes and renames the Public Utilities Control Authority as the Connecticut Energy and Technology Authority, which would have the added responsibility of promoting new technologies and renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

“It will result in over 300 megawatts of new solar power built over the course of the next decade. That’s enough solar to provide electricity to 100,000 homes,” said Christopher Phelps of Environment Connecticut, one of the advocacy groups that celebrated its passage.

But Christopher Kallaher, the government affairs director for an energy retailer, Direct Energy, said that the subsidies for solar panels may jump-start a new industry, but they are at cross purposes with one of the bill’s key goals — to lower rates.

“You are not going to make the prices of energy go down in Connecticut by building solar,” Kallaher said.

The bill also adopts Energy Star standards for all televisions sold in the state, forcing energy-gobbling models from the market. And it provides low-interest financing for homeowners to invest in energy-efficient boilers and other improvements.

An exhausted Senate began debate began after 7 p.m. Tuesday, ending days of frantic lobbying and uncertainty over whether the sweeping legislation would come to a vote.

Fonfara 5-5-10

Sen. John Fonfara, co-chairman of the legislature’s energy committee, listens to debate on a major energy bill Tuesday night (Jacqueline Rabe)

“People have been worn down on this. That’s clear,” said Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. “There’s been an army of lobbyists pushing one way and an army of citizen groups pushing the other.”

Sponsors promised the bill would lower electric rates by 15 percent by July 1, 2012, while opponents warned it would stifle an emerging competitive retail market with overreaching consumer protections and saddle rate payers with subsidizing expensive solar power.

No independent analysis was available. Legislative leaders certified the proposal as “emergency” legislation, exempting it from public hearings or analysis by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research.

“This area is not for the faint of heart,” said Sen. Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen.

Legislators were left to rely on competing fact sheets and analysis prepared by regulators, industry lobbyists, environmentalists and consumer advocates.

“This takes a very interventionist approach,” Kallaher said.

The bill requires retailers, who now sign up customers by telephone, to obtain written contracts. It directs the new authority to investigate ISO-New England, the organization of transmission line owners that some legislators blame for keeping wholesale electric rates high.

The original bill would have forced Connecticut to withdraw from ISO, but the Rell administration objected, even though Rell sought a criminal investigation of the organization last year.

A coalition of impatient consumer and environmental groups rallied around the measure, the work of Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, and Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, the co-chairs of the Energy and Technology Committee. Their differences over free markets has tied up the committee for two years.

“We’ve heard the complicated explanations from the utility companies and retail suppliers for why our bills are so high, but now is not the time to explain away the problem-it’s time to fix it,” said Brenda Kelly, the state director of AARP.

Some of the legislative opponents said the bill was too ambitious.

A little lobbying

Fonfara, left, and environmental lobbyist Chris Phelps, right. (Pazniokas)


“I have a general sense it is reaching too far, too fast,” said Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury. “I would urge us not to rush anything that is so dramatic.”

“Yes, these issues are complex,” Fonfara said. “But I say we must no longer accept as inevitable the title of the state with the highest electric rates in the continental United States.”

Only Hawaii is more expensive.

A nearly seven-hour debate on an education bill pushed the start of the House energy debate until 3 a.m., when an angry House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, tried to force an adjournment until later Wednesday.

After a rules fight, interrupted by the a bat that made several loops around the chamber, Nardello introduced the bill at nearly 3:40 a.m.

She said the deregulation of electricity clearly was not working.

Rep. Sean J. Williams, R-Watertown, the ranking House Republican on the Energy and Technology Committee, asked, how was it not working?

“Let’s start with the highest rates in the country. That’s not working for me,” Nardello replied.

Eleven of 12 Republicans opposed the bill in the Senate. The exception was Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, who recused himself as an employee of Northeast Utilities.

Twenty of 24 Democrats voted in favor, with one absence and three opposed: Robert Duff of Norwalk, Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Andrew J. McDonald of Stamford. Gayle S. Slossberg of Milford has been absent since the death of her father.

In the House, all 32 Republicans present voted against the bill, joined by eight Democrats: Emil “Buddy” Altobello of Meriden, Joseph Aresimowicz of Berlin, Jeffrey Berger of Waterbury, Karen Jarmoc of Enfield, John “Corky” Mazurek of Wolcott, Ted Moukawsher of Groton, Peggy Sayers of Windsor Locks and Kathy Tallarita of Enfield.