After blocking similar bills over two years, the House of Representatives voted 75 to 66 for final passage Thursday of a measure variously derided as a windfall for a major energy company and praised as a responsible first step toward stabilizing the finances of Connecticut’s last nuclear plant.
Passage came on a dramatic note, with a half-dozen legislators scanning the tally board before casting their decisive votes in favor. A shift of just five would have turned a 75-to-66 win for Millstone into a 71-to-70 loss.
The bill would permit, not require, state energy officials to change the rules for how Dominion Energy sells electricity from its nuclear plant, Millstone, whose profits have eroded as energy prices have been depressed by competition from electricity generated by relatively cheap and plentiful natural gas.
If deemed in the public interest after completing a market study already under way, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority could allow Millstone to compete in a more favorable market against solar, wind and hydro power that commands higher prices.
Millstone could sell up to three-quarters of its output in competition with the other zero-carbon sources of electricity under the bill.
Undisputed is that the nuclear industry is under distress, prompting the premature retirement of nuclear plants across the U.S., a loss of what environmentalists and others view as an important bridge to an era when renewable energy can produce a larger share of electricity.
“We are in a transition period,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, the co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee and lead House sponsor of the bill.
Millstone produces nearly all of Connecticut’s zero-carbon energy, and its loss would jeopardize the state’s ability to meet its long-term goals for reducing carbon emissions. But the questions of how soon Millstone will become unprofitable and what relief will cost ratepayers and the developing solar and wind-power industries have been bitterly contested at the State Capitol.
“It’s win-win,” said Rep. Kathleen M. McCarty, R-Waterford, who represents most of Waterford, the home of Millstone. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the environment.”
But opponents questioned the timing, urging colleagues to delay action until completion of the market study in February, when lawmakers are to return for their 2018 session.
“Does Millstone actually need the money?” asked Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, an opponent.
Attempts to amend the bill and return it to the Senate failed by wide margins. One amendment would have required any decision by DEEP and PURA to change market rules to be reviewed next year by the General Assembly.
A majority of Democrats opposed the bill; A majority of Republicans supported it.
“On behalf of the 1,500 women and men working at Millstone power station, Dominion Energy thanks the General Assembly for giving Millstone an opportunity to participate in a clean-energy procurement process if state regulators determine our bid benefits customers,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, the chairman and CEO of Dominion. “We are grateful to the Malloy administration for its work in negotiating the current form of the legislation.“
The House Democratic leadership killed the Senate’s first two Millstone bills in the 2016 and 2017 regular sessions by refusing to call votes on measures opposed by Dominion’s competitors and some environmental and consumer groups, such as the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and AARP.
“My belief is the process will be rigged in favor of Millstone,” said John Erlingheuser, who oversees legislative advocacy for AARP in Connecticut. “We don’t need this legislation.”
Chris Phelps of Environment Connecticut predicted it will be bad for ratepayers and the emerging solar and wind industries.
The Senate voted 23-8 for a new version in special session five weeks ago. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, declined to schedule a vote until final passage of the budget, which came earlier Thursday.
Dominion has broadly hinted that without the changes it would prematurely retire the two reactors at the plant, which is the largest power plant in New England. Its output, which is the equivalent of about half the state’s needs, is sold throughout the region.
But Dominion has refused to provide the state with copies of proprietary documents supporting its claim of a need for financial relief, saying it was not confident a promise of confidentiality would survive a challenge under the Freedom of Information Act.
Instead, it has offered an oral presentation.