Energy bill sails through Senate over ferocious opposition by environmental, solar groups

Earthlight Technologies

Solar panels on a home in Cheshire

After months of acrimonious wrangling over a new energy policy already delayed by more than a year, the Connecticut Senate overwhelming passed a plan that will fundamentally reimagine how the state values the solar energy people generate on their roofs.

The bill overall was championed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as essentially the implementation of the state’s updated Comprehensive Energy Strategy that sets out multiple initiatives and policies for renewable and clean energy as well as increases the amount of it the state is required to purchase.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it could face more opposition, though passage is expected.

Within seconds of the vote – 29 to 3 with four recusals – the governor’s office issued a joint statement with Rob Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“Connecticut has been a national leader in policies designed to combat the effects of climate change and this bill is no exception” the statement said. “By promoting clean, renewable energy, we will not only reduce our overall emissions, we will create good jobs in the green economy. I want to thank all of the advocates who worked tirelessly to push for this common-sense legislation, and the co-chairs of the Energy Committee for their collaboration.”

Equally as speedy was a joint statement from a coalition of 18 solar companies and environmental advocates that had fought the solar provisions when they were first floated nearly a year ago.

Their main complaint by far centered on the issue of “net-metering,” under which Connecticut solar owners have traditionally been paid the retail electric rate for the power they sell back to the power grid during the times of the day their systems make more power than they need. Net-metering has long been fought by electric utility companies who have seen it as upending their long-standing business models.

Attempts to get rid of net-metering in other states have mostly been beaten back. Connecticut’s shift in its policy will make it among the first in the country, and certainly the first “blue” state, to make this radical change.

“It is regretful that the Senate voted to terminate one of the most successful solar energy policies in the nation, net-metering. States like Nevada that hastily ended net metering lost thousands of solar jobs and have since reinstated productive policy for distributed generation. Connecticut must not repeat their mistakes,” the coalition’s statement said. “Rather than building Connecticut’s local clean-energy economy, the current bill language puts the future of solar in Connecticut and thousands of jobs at risk.”

In fact both the environmental advocacy community and members of the solar industry were split on whether the legislation should be defeated because of the net-metering component. Another coalition of about a dozen environmental and business groups and renewable energy companies felt it contained too many other important initiatives to throw out entirely.

“We believe the gains in SB 9 are extensive and should be passed this year. We will continue to fight the net-metering provisions at PURA, and then be back next year for a better fix,” said Claire Coleman, energy attorney at Connecticut Fund for the Environment in a statement that echoed the supporting coalition’s sentiment. “Given the uncertain political climate after the elections and the start of the new ‘rate-payer impact statement’ next year, we worry the window to achieve some of the most meaningful climate change legislation in over a decade will close at midnight Wednesday.”

The legislation moves the state to a dual system of payment – a compromise from the original plan for a “buy-all/credit-all” concept. Essentially a solar owner would have to sell all his or her power to the grid at a rate to be set by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) and to buy what he or she needed at the retail rate.

Such a system would mean higher fees for solar owners and would probably make it impossible to install battery storage or home-based smart energy systems that would help reduce energy demands and integrate with more modern grid concepts.

Solar owners can choose that or a system that will allow owners to sell their excess power to the grid at a rate – known as a tariff – that will be set by PURA. PURA will also determine how often the crediting for power purchased by the grid can be done. The more frequently, the better it is for utilities.

Read here for more about some of the other components of the legislation.

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