After near derailment, energy bill heads to governor as fence-mending begins

Energy legislation that will fundamentally change how renewable energy is valued financially in Connecticut passed the state House early Wednesday morning and is now headed to the governor for his expected signature.

While the vote was 100 to 45 and followed a lopsided 29 to 3 vote in the Senate, the vote margins belie how contentious the road to passage was. The legislation – which essentially implements the recently updated Comprehensive Energy Strategy and is considered the most consequential energy legislation since 2011 – was rewritten top to bottom with concessions and compromises throughout.

Independence Solar

Workers installing solar panels at Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford.

Last minute changes attempted in the House failed. Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, withdrew an amendment after it passed that probably would have risked the entire bill given the short amount of time left to get any new provisions back to the Senate.

“I thought I had the better outcome, but the bill needed to pass,” said Steinberg, who ultimately voted for the bill. “I was trying to do the right thing.”

In the end, just about everyone was unhappy and it split both the environmental advocacy community and the state’s solar industry, with some willing to support the bill because of its many other provisions while at the same time acknowledging its flaws. A number cited a concern that getting some renewable energy policy in place now was critical with the uncertainties of an election in November.

Others would not support the bill because of one – albeit major – provision: how to compensate people and businesses with solar and other renewable or clean energy systems for the excess power they produce and put into the electric grid during certain times of the day.

“We know this bill was flawed,” said John Humphries, lead organizer for the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, in a statement. His group supported the bill while acknowledging it had the potential to harm solar job creation. And he noted the stresses it put on the advocacy community. “Personally, this last week has been very challenging, as the imperfections in this bill fractured our broader coalition of allies. I respect the decisions of colleagues whose assessment of the compromises in this bill led them to work against it. I believe that we will be able to mend frayed relationships and continue our collective efforts to build the clean energy future we need.”

Chris Phelps of Environment Connecticut, a group that did not support the legislation said in a statement: “The bill’s deeply flawed provisions undermining rooftop solar make it a bad deal for Connecticut’s environment and economy.”

Rob Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, stepping back from the fray after a night of lobbying said, “There were passionate advocates on all sides.

“That’s a good thing in general,” he said. He complimented the work done by all of them and legislators in crafting a compromise.

“They were doing yeoman’s work trying to keep everyone engaged, talking with each other,” he said. “The advocates in Connecticut – I wouldn’t trade them for anywhere.”

Under current law, the state uses an energy compensation system called “net-metering” in which solar customers are paid the retail electric rate for power they sell back to the grid. Nationally net-metering has been under assault by utilities for years because they consider it a threat to their business model and bottom line. Most efforts to change it have been beaten back.

This legislation effectively gets rid of net-metering, making Connecticut one of the first states to do that. For commercial projects, that would come in about a year and a half. For residential customers it will be in a few years. Existing customers would be grandfathered for about 20 years.

In place of net-metering consumers would have a choice. One would be rates – known as tariffs – and formulas for applying them that would be determined by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Some argue those unknown factors might be disruptive, if not downright stagnating for the solar industry in the state.

“I’m nervous that we’re laying a lot on PURA,” Steinberg said. “I’m very nervous about the tariff structure.”

Clean Energy Collective

A shared solar field in Rehoboth, Mass. Investment in the concept is heavy in that state.

Solar owners could could also choose what’s known as a “buy-all/sell-all” system, in which a solar owner would have to sell all his or her power to the grid at a to-be-determined rate set by PURA and buy back what he or she needs at the retail rate. It would increase certain fees for solar owners and make it difficult, if not impossible, to install battery storage or home-based smart energy systems to help reduce demand.

Acadia Center – which did not support the bill – called out these issues as well as caps on certain commercial deployments as their key reasons. It noted that Connecticut has fallen to fourth in New England in terms of solar deployment per person. According to its calculations, that will make it difficult to meet mandated greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“Along with many allies, Acadia Center has worked for months to fix this critically flawed bill, which will imperil the future of distributed solar in Connecticut,” Amy McLean Salls, Acadia Connecticut director, said in a statement. “Several improvements were made, but it is unfortunate that important progress on grid-scale renewables was paired in S.B. 9 with a severe setback on distributed solar.”

Distributed solar is the industry term for the solar installations at individual homes and businesses.

Speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Solar Choice, Stephen Lassiter of the solar company Sunrun said the legislation as passed weakens the kind of predictability clean energy companies need to grow. But he said, despite differences with other solar companies and clean energy advocates, he expects to join them in working toward a better outcome.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We are heartened that there was a widespread consensus that this bill was not perfect.”

The many other initiatives and policies in the legislation that had environmental advocates and legislators so conflicted about opposing it included some new ones, some updates of older ones and some that put Connecticut back in the national forefront of clean and renewable energy efforts.

By far the biggest of those is an increase in how much renewable energy the state has to purchase – known as the renewable portfolio standard. It is presently 20 percent of load by 2020. The legislation increases that to 40 percent by 2030 – a very aggressive standard nationally.

Another critical piece was an extension of the existing commercial solar and fuel cell program put in place in 2011. It already is on a one-year extension that ends this year. The compromise in the bill extends it another year while a new program is finalized based on the new metering rules and other factors.

The bill also allows for a full shared-solar program so many of those who cannot put solar on their own roofs or property can benefit from solar anyway. Solar advocates have been asking for that for several years instead of the small pilot project that now exists. Some still say the program will fall far short of what neighboring states are doing.

It also sets energy consumption reduction levels for the state beginning in 2020. It reconfigures funding for energy efficiency programs in the wake of the sweep of some of those funds in the last budget cycle. And it expands the amount of renewable energy the state will allow utilities to purchase from 4 percent to 6 percent of load, something that had been sought by the state’s fuel cell industry.

Klee said the first thing up would be the rollout of a shared-solar program. His staff already was looking at that Wednesday, even before the bill was signed into law. And he’s made it clear to them there needs to be a process that engages all stakeholders, even those who have been at odds with one another.

“I think we’re all – let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out how to do this,” he said.

Environmental Measure Passes

As something of a companion measure, the General Assembly completed passage of an environmental bill. It sets an interim target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions: 45 percent below 2001 levels by 2030. The state already has an 80 percent reduction by 2050 on the books as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The bill also requires updating sea level-rise measurements prepared through the University of Connecticut using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It requires state and federally funded projects in shoreline zones to incorporate that information in planning.

This was a stripped down version of the original bill, which would have required shoreline cities and towns incorporate the sea level-rise data in their planning. It also eliminated a provision to make the Governor’s Council on Climate Change permanent. And it eliminated changes to the Comprehensive Energy Strategy format that would have increased the time period between revisions. And it would have changed the name to reflect that it also was a climate document.

The votes were 34 to 2 in the Senate and 137 to 11 in the House.

This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. with House passage of the environmental measure.

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