Deadlines loom for many DEEP programs

January 1 probably felt a long way off last spring when legislators were pulling together the hundreds of pages, 140 sections and countless new programs in the final version of the big energy bill.

What is now known as Public Act 11-80 was also packed with close to three dozen deadlines for those programs as well as dates for various reports — a large number due by the first day of 2012.

“In general terms I think we’re in pretty good shape,” said Jonathan Schrag, deputy commissioner in charge of energy at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which itself was formed by the legislation. Schrag wasn’t hired until late September.

“I have had my chest thumping the last few weeks knowing that these deadlines were coming,” Schrag said. “Everyone here and down in New Britain (also a DEEP office) has made an extraordinary effort these last couple of months to put in place the concepts outlined in 11-80.”

A new way to buy power

There are delays, however. The most critical, though it had no specific deadline, is hiring a procurement manager, a person responsible for buying electricity, replacing the utilities that do it now. Considered a bold move, it would make Connecticut just the second state in the nation to purchase power this way.

Final interviews have been completed, and Schrag said he expects to have an offer to the leading candidate shortly and someone on board soon after the first of the year.

The delay has backed up other requirements under 11-80, namely the procurement plan the procurement manager was supposed to do by Jan. 1.

Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, vice-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, which shepherded the energy bill into law, was not wringing her hands over the procurement manager delay. “These people are hard to find,” she said, noting that few people have the expertise to do the job. “I understand that this person is incredibly vital, and I don’t want to put somebody on deck to just meet a deadline.”

To be fair, the run-up to Jan. 1 has faced multiple challenges. The budget and labor crisis over the summer brought planning to a halt for two months, followed by delays after Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm. More than those was the daunting task of creating DEEP and then navigating 11-80’s provisions.

The environmental community is giving DEEP praise, however, even if specific deadlines are missed.

“If given the choice between doing it well by July 1 or doing it half-baked by Jan. 1, I’ll take well by July 1,” said Chris Phelps of Environment Connecticut, who said the department had to perform triage just to get itself up and running. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to rush the job and get it wrong,” he said. “But you don’t want it to slide an extra month and then another month or two, and then you wake up in a year and haven’t gotten it done.”

Roger Smith of Clean Water Action noted provisions likely to hit their deadlines. Two would provide electric and gas usage data for buildings free of charge. Another is the development of a standardized performance contract, a mechanism in which savings from energy efficiency upgrades are guaranteed and used to pay for the work. The contracts are complicated and expensive; this provision is designed to make them easier for both the state and municipalities.

“I’ve seen more activity in the last six month than I’ve seen in the last 15 years in two administrations,” Smith said.

But both have concerns. Among them is a Feb. 1 deadline for what’s known as virtual net metering — a way for ratepayers to benefit from alternative energy systems they don’t own. “It’s totally broken,” Smith said. “A $1 million cap for the whole state is a joke.”

Among the biggest success stories: new utility-run programs for financing commercial zero- and low-emission renewable energy projects, much of which are designed to re-ignite the solar industry in Connecticut, which has suffered in recent years because of a lack of incentive funding.

An intense process, with DEEP brokering discussions between the utilities and the solar industry, produced a plan, filed with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, or PURA, that addresses industry concerns about how money is to be divided, bonding requirements and other points. As for the deadline: “We beat it,” said Alex Kragie, DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty’s special assistant and the point-person on the programs.

The Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which also faces deadlines, said its new residential solar incentive program should be ready to roll by Feb 1. CEFIA also expects to hit its March 1 deadline for a three-year combined heat and power pilot program, as well as an anaerobic digester pilot project.

But a stand-alone condo renewable energy grant program that should have been ready Oct. 31 is not, though spokesman David Goldberg said condos can still get funding through existing programs. He also said that part of a nearly $500,000 Department of Energy grant will be used to sort through the difficulties of doing renewable energy projects at condos and gated communities.

Ahead of schedule

Schrag said that despite the balky start, some key provisions in 11-80 were ahead of schedule.

A comprehensive energy plan due July 1 has been in progress for months. The Lead By Example program, which is using bond money to do major state energy efficiency retrofits to meet a 2013 deadline to lower state energy use by 10 percent, already has contracts out to bid for several projects.

And he said, in this post storms environment, his office is looking at issues of not just cheaper and cleaner energy, but also resilient energy. “It’s throwing yeast into the mix,” he said. “All of a sudden we can start talking about distributed generation in a real way. We can talk about smart grids in a viable way.”

All of which is giving regulators and legislators confidence, even with a slipped deadline here and there.

“Meeting these deadlines in the midst of this transition process surely has been challenging at times,” said Joe Rosenthal, PURA’s chief attorney. “Not that people are saying, ‘nice deadline, we’ll get to it.’ I think there is more concern about deadlines in legislative enactments than there once were.”

Rep. Reed, head of the Energy and Technology Committee, agreed. “If they were slipping under the old system I would be very concerned,” she said. “But I really do have confidence in those who are pulling together all the balkanized energy components in this state.

“I have a really good sense the people are really working hard.”