Session tally: Energy and environment hits, misses and almosts

Energy and environmental initiatives in the legislature were already heading toward half-a-loaf results before the end-of-session budget impasse erupted. In the end, several of those bills were among the many that died when time ran out.

Most notable was an energy bill that would have set in motion actions designed to begin modernizing Connecticut’s electric grid.

Rep. Lonnie Reed -- “I believe there has to be more environmentalism in energy."

Rep. Lonnie Reed

“I’m not happy about it, but this is not a business for sissies,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. “You don’t get all weepy. You figure out a new way.”

Reed said she’ll try to get at least some of the bill’s provisions enacted during the special session that will be necessary to complete implementation of the budget. But she also noted that her vote against that budget may cost her a smoother path to passage.

“If it doesn’t get into the implementer, we’ll maybe be able to do something administrative,” she said, noting that the legislation had been supported by the governor’s office, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, environmental advocates and others — though not the utilities especially. “One way or the other, I am absolutely adamant about getting this into policy and into action.”

The original bill included measures to encourage expansions of individual renewable energy systems and other non-traditional power sources that can be connected to the grid, along with better ways to integrate them.

The legislation initially also capped at $10 the fixed charge all electric customers pay regardless of how much power they use. That charge has skyrocketed to $19.25 for Eversource and $17.25 for United Illuminating, though each company requested much more. The bill — which passed the Senate but never made it to the House floor — eliminated a specific cap and replaced it with a new delineation of what could be calculated as part of the fixed charge, a prospect that worried environmental advocates, who were unsure how it might play out.

The bill also took down with it what remained of a non-monetary incentive package for electric vehicles, particularly low rates for charging cars overnight.

A number of high-profile energy bills did pass, but some were vastly scaled back, leaving their environmental advocates and sponsors disappointed.

Though more consumer than energy, the bill that made Connecticut the first state to ban variable electric rates — after several years of allegations of bait-and-switch tactics — turned out to be one of the bigger wins for the committee.

Renewable energy advocates pointed to a number of bills aimed at increasing its use, but the fine print often told another story. One bill that did pass allows DEEP to negotiate long-term power supply contracts to stabilize energy supplies in the winter while encouraging use of renewable sources, energy efficiency measures and natural gas.

The bill still leans heavily toward the use of natural gas – something that continues to concern environmental advocates.

“The big energy winners this session were rooftop solar and natural gas,” said a statement from Bill Dornbos, Connecticut director and senior attorney for the regional advocacy group Acadia Center.  “We’re committed to making potentially massive new investments in both the clean fuel of the future and the best of the old-school fossil fuels. I’m not sure both can be right, but we’re placing the bets, and they’re in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Two solar bills passed – one designed to increase 10-fold the amount of residential solar power financed through the Connecticut Green Bank. The bill creates a new and more complex funding mechanism to provide 300 megawatts of new solar power by 2022.

“That’s a big deal,” said Chris Phelps of Environment Connecticut. “It sets the stage to get over 40,000 homes in Connecticut to go solar. That’s pretty important.”

A shared solar installation in Putney, VT.

Clean Energy Collective

A shared solar installation in Putney, VT

But the other solar bill – establishing a shared solar pilot program – was a disappointment to Phelps, other advocates and many legislators.

Shared solar is a concept in which homes that are unsuitable for solar can buy into a system that is located elsewhere. After a similar attempt was defeated last year, advocates, including co-chair Reed, vowed to be back with a full program patterned after the many that exist around the country.

But that effort was scaled back to a pilot, though shared solar advocates did ultimately win a few small concessions. The pilot was shortened from three years to two and the number of projects was not limited, though the amount of power that can be generated and the distribution of projects between the two utility company service areas were.

By doing this sort of a pilot, many said, time was being wasted and an opportunity was missed to try the concept out in situations like low-income housing.

“It’s disappointing,” Phelps said. “Some pretty big ideas and opportunities were introduced this session. But with a couple exceptions,” he said, “like with shared solar, they ended up very limited.”

But Reed wasn’t willing to call the session results anything close to a disappointment. “We need to be really encouraged by what we accomplished. We put the focus back on the consumer. Why the heck can’t we bring down these prices?” she asked. “Some things are undone. But I’m feeling very good about what we accomplished.”

Reed’s counterpart on the Environment Committee, Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, expressed similar sentiments. “A lot of compromises on all types of legislation were made,” he said, noting that because party representation was more evenly split than in recent years, such give-and-take was more necessary. “It’s reasonable to say we wish we could have gotten more. I think we were able to accomplish a lot.”

Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, ranking member on the Environment Committee, said he wasn’t totally surprised that a number of items from the committee “ended with a thud, like the rest of the session.”

“A lot of stuff always dies just because we don’t always get to it,” he said.

But like Albis, he felt a lot was accomplished, and he cited allowing Sunday bow hunting, boating safety and a bill making it easier to purchase open space.

“We do most of our work in a bipartisan way and cordially,” he said of the committee. “Where we do part ways is on budgetary issues and taxation.”

The biggest conservation accomplishment was the Blue Plan — a comprehensive strategy for Long Island Sound that includes a top-to-bottom analysis of all factors affecting the Sound and how to protect it. It lost out in last year’s legislative time crunch and subsequently became part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election platform.

A much-publicized ban on single use plastic and paper bags from certain stores by 2019 never made it to the floor.

A crowded day at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

Connecticut DEEP

A crowded day at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

An effort by freshman senator and committee co-chair Ted Kennedy, Jr., D-Branford, to address a large budget cutback for state parks by establishing a dedicated funding stream did pass, though without its key funding provisions: a $5 optional “charitable donation” on motor vehicle registrations and an extended fee-paying park season.

Some money has been restored to the conservation fund that includes the park budget, but it’s unclear how much will go to parks. Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association said he was disappointed with how the legislation turned out.

“It certainly didn’t have the impact for parks funding we’d been hoping for,” he said. A dedicated funding stream would put Connecticut in line with nearly every other state, he said. “We need to have something that’s dedicated in some fashion so as not to start at ground zero again.”

Two other bills also fell victim to the end-of-session budget meltdown. A bill that would have further limited pesticide use around public schools made it through the Senate, but not the House. And a bill that would have phased out the use of water-polluting plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products made it through the House, but not the Senate.

“I’m disappointed,” Albis said. “But we will be back next year.”

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