Katie Dykes takes helm at DEEP in era of escalating climate change
Katie Dykes has sat at the large conference table in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner’s office many, many times. But not the way she does now.
Now she sits at the head of that table as the third person to lead DEEP since it was created from the old Department of Environmental Protection in 2011.
A self-described geek who admits she wears the description energy wonk as “a badge of honor,” Dykes was the deputy commissioner of DEEP’s Energy Bureau from 2012 until 2015 as it created the first-ever energy strategy for the state, including the first organized policy around renewable and clean energy deployment.
She moved into the world of energy regulation in 2015, becoming chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), until Gov. Ned Lamont, in a move that surprised just about everyone, tapped her to run the department.
Now back — not only in DEEP administration but as the boss — she lives a packed, sometimes double-booked life that has her racing across the state while juggling the care of three young children with her husband Mackey Dykes, who is equally busy as vice president of commercial and industrial programs at the Connecticut Green Bank.
A wonk family for sure when it comes to the often highly technical, complex, jargon- and acronym-filled vagaries of energy policy – renewable or otherwise.
Dykes takes over as the department arguably moves into its second generation. DEEP’s first commissioner, Dan Esty – Dykes’ professor when she was a Yale undergrad and then a law student — Esty’s successor Rob Klee, and the governor they served – Dan Malloy – are gone.
Their philosophy and very clear marching orders over eight years – to usher in cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy – sometimes succeeded and sometimes didn’t. The department Dykes inherited has been battered by budget cuts and personnel losses and faces a federal government that is openly hostile to many of its own environmental mandates, leaving states like Connecticut to pick up the slack with fewer federal resources.
Meanwhile, the energy and environmental philosophy from Lamont – create jobs and reduce carbon emissions — remains a bit fuzzy. And Dykes faces growing pains that remain unresolved from the Malloy years, as well as divisive new issues. Most of them involve that wonky subject she loves – energy.
But DEEP’s other missions involve classic environmental concerns, encompassing everything from running state parks and wildlife management to tackling more recent challenges associated with climate change, such as the sea level rise that threatens the Connecticut coast.
“What is surprising and shocking and sobering, frankly, is how rapidly we are experiencing the effects and seeing the unfolding of climate change. Climate change clearly has to be at the top of our agenda.”
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes
It’s somewhat new territory for the energy-focused Dykes and she returns repeatedly to her energy comfort zone for paradigms. But the first subject she addresses when asked to contemplate her return to DEEP administration is environmental.
“Climate change clearly has to be at the top of our agenda,” she said, sitting at her big conference table on a recent morning, a sports fleece over her commissioner-appropriate clothes – not unlike her two predecessors, who sometimes turned up at work in suits and hiking boots.
“What is surprising and shocking and sobering, frankly, is how rapidly we are experiencing the effects and seeing the unfolding of climate change,” she added. “So when I think back over the last six years and really what’s changed – that’s really what’s present for me. I just cannot underscore enough how quickly things have changed in this short time period.”
Past versus present
As one of the architects of that first energy strategy in 2012 that focused on a transition to natural gas-based electricity generation and heat as a bridge from oil and coal to renewables, Dykes faced considerable pushback from an unhappy environmental advocacy community and like-minded lawmakers because of the climate implications of continuing with gas. A concerted regional effort eventually thwarted all plans for additional natural gas pipelines in New England and New York.
“I think we have traveled a very long way on that bridge in a short period of time,” she said, indicating there was likely to be no similar push for gas moving forward.
That is likely welcome news to the environmental community which, while not saying I-told-you-so, is not giving Dykes much of a honeymoon given that she is a DEEP veteran.
But she is getting complimentary reviews so far from the many constituent groups that have met with her, including from non-energy environmental advocates who worry, as they have since DEEP was formed, that Connecticut’s long-standing environmental mission would be a poor cousin to its younger, sexier renewable energy relative.
“There’s always been a tension and a challenge,” said Chris Phelps of Environment Connecticut, who along with others questioned the structure of DEEP from the start. “Katie is well-aware and sensitive to not be the energy DEEP commissioner.”
Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said he’s had several conversations with Dykes and found her to be a quick study on conservation and land issues.
“She’s generally open, interested, willing to learn,” said Hammerling. “She’s certainly been a very strong advocate for Passport to Parks,” he said of the new dedicated-funding system for state parks.
“Energy and the balance with environmental quality – that’s one of the things we’re measuring her and the entire Lamont administration on.”
President, Connecticut Fund for the Environment
The Appropriations Committee recently voted to strip some of the money for Passport to Parks, which comes from vehicle registration fees, for other uses. Dykes called that “disheartening,” saying that even in its infancy, the program already had an impact on department planning because of the dedicated funding.
“I believe that our environmental resources in the state are really key to our economic competitiveness,” Dykes said. “They are a very important part of what advantages Connecticut as a place to live and do business.”
But she is on notice.
“Energy and the balance with environmental quality – that’s one of the things we’re measuring her and the entire Lamont administration on,” said Curt Johnson, president of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, who made no secret of his frustration with the previous two administrations, particularly when it came to funding for such projects as inland flooding.
On the Energy and Technology Committee, now largely under new and in some cases inexperienced leadership, the relationship is off to a promising start.
“I’ve learned a lot from her in the first four months “ said the new committee co-chair, Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury. “It’s not to say we haven’t disagreed on things. At the end of the day, I think all of our hearts are in the right place.”
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who chaired the committee in 2011 when it passed the massive legislation that created DEEP and the programs to go with it, is back on the committee after several years away – now as co-vice-chair.
“I’m a big fan of Katie Dykes,” he said, noting the complexity and difficulty of energy policy. “We’re incredibly well-served by her knowledge and her studiousness. I feel like we’re in good hands in terms of her stewardship.”
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, is in her second term in the legislature and on the committee. “I’m always concerned with ratepayer impact and I’ve been pleased that she seems to be taking this into account,” she said. “I think we need to find that sweet spot.”
But others say that DEEP, and PURA (which is technically part of DEEP) with Dykes at the helm, have put too much focus on electric rates and not enough on the long-term value of renewable energy.
“It is incredibly concerning to me,” said Amy McLean Salls, Connecticut director of Acadia Center. In the last few years Acadia has tangled with DEEP and PURA over solar policy that environmental advocates say threatens to sacrifice Connecticut’s solar industry in favor of low electric rates. “Anyone who wants to create a business has to put money down in the beginning so you can thrive,” Salls said.
Ed Davis, director of rates at Eversource, has also worked with and observed Dykes — initially at DEEP and later at PURA — most recently as the state’s utilities have worked through forming new complex rate structures around that same solar policy.
He said having Dykes back at DEEP brings important continuity to the process. “I think there’s an evolution and progression there,” he said. “Going from policy to regulatory and back to the policy side – I think the continuity is very helpful.”
But first things first, and the start of Dykes’ tenure coincides with crunch-time for the legislature on several energy matters, including that solar policy, which has been in planning stages since the end of last year’s session.
The first item that went to a floor vote, however, was offshore wind. It scored an overwhelming win for proponents in the House and now heads to the Senate. But it took a year or more of effort to get DEEP, and eventually Dykes, on board.
Offshore wind – to mandate or not to mandate
For a few years now proponents of offshore wind have criticized Connecticut’s anemic embrace and lack of a specific policy compared with neighboring states. New York has a 9,000-megawatt offshore wind commitment – with 18 initial bids for up to 1,200 megawatts now under consideration. Massachusetts has a 3,200-megawatt mandate with 800 megawatts already under contract.
Connecticut has accepted 300 megawatts so far, but there has been no requirement for offshore wind. Even without the recently announced plans for a $93-million redevelopment plan for the State Pier in New London to make it ready for offshore-wind, mandate proponents strategized for months on how to get a 2,000 megawatt requirement.
But Dykes had concerns.
“Details matter – how much, by what date,” she said, adding she believes specific dates and amounts undermine competitiveness. She also said 2,000 megawatts constituted too much of the state’s overall energy needs – one third – and a higher percentage than that required by neighboring states.
“We know this is a critical time right now,” she conceded, citing the nexus of better technology that is providing bigger, more efficient and less expensive turbines, the political will to adopt offshore wind, and the benefits of acting quickly before the federal tax credit runs out – again – at the end of the year.
The compromise language approved by the House last week does call for 2,000 megawatts – that’s roughly the same size as Millstone , by 2030 – about the time its new contract runs out. But it’s a maximum, not a minimum – which is how other states structure their mandates.
The initial solicitation process kicks off two weeks after the bill is signed – designed to also align with a solicitation already underway in Massachusetts with the goal of getting better pricing for both sates.
“I’m pleased with this bill,” Dykes said.
John Humphries, executive director of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs has been on the frontline of offshore wind advocacy, worrying along with others that Connecticut was falling behind in the race for offshore wind’s onshore economic development potential.
“This is the last best opportunity to catch up and really get back in the game,” he said. “The timing seems to make that possible.”
Cheeseman, whose district stands to benefit from the New London development, also worried that the 2,000 megawatts might be too much.
“I think it’s finding that line between embracing the potential of offshore wind, possibly other technologies, and ratepayer impact,” she said. Cheeseman abstained during the House vote.
Eversource, which partnered with the Danish wind giant Orsted to provide more than 60 percent of the New London financing, not surprisingly is happy with the legislation and would like an even higher mandate, said Michael Ausere, vice president of business development. It will pay off long-term, he added.
“As additional economic development and supply chain choices are made, having Connecticut be a customer of offshore wind as well, we believe, will draw in additional supply chain opportunities,” he said.
Eversource and Orsted are the developers for the 300 megawatts Connecticut already approved. But that’s because they bought the company that actually won the bids. The partnership, which is 50-50, has yet to win a bid in the U.S. on its own.
Another round on net metering
Also headed for a floor vote is a bill amending last year’s major clean energy legislation – contentious from the start because it changed how people with solar power in particular are compensated for the excess power their panels make during certain times of the day.
For years Connecticut has used retail rate net metering, which is industry jargon for getting full retail electricity rates for any distributed generation — also called distributed energy resources or DER — someone with rooftop solar sends back into the grid. In short, they pay what they use, minus what they sell.
Nationally, as well as in Connecticut, utilities have balked at this calculation, arguing those without solar subsidize those with it by paying higher fees for transmission and delivery.
Last year’s legislation established a process to switch from net metering to a flat tariff system – the amount to be set by PURA, where Dykes was in charge at the time. But it became clear the time frame was too short.
Pending legislation holds net metering for commercial solar programs in place for another two years and for residential systems, about an extra year. It also authorizes what many in the environmental community have wanted for years – a value of solar, or DER, study that will quantify the other attributes, such as avoided costs, non-grid-scale renewable energy provides to the electric grid. That information would be used to help determine a tariff rate to replace net metering.
But Dykes believes one doesn’t have to wait for the other.
“We want to make progress on all of the elements as prudently as we can and ensure the information that we’re getting in the value of DER study can be incorporated as best as possible,” she said. “But I don’t think we want to wait for (the study) to start understanding how these other elements of a tariff design should be tackled.”
Solar and environmental activists – while agreeing to the legislative fix and underscoring the urgency of passing it – still push back.
“This is to keep current programs at their current levels,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Solar Connecticut. “It’s not creating jobs. You’re retaining jobs.”
Complicating it is the grid modernization issue now before PURA. It’s the state’s initial effort – which some say is already too late – to conceive of a 21st century power distribution and transmission system that will better integrate and use things like the solar on people’s roofs and make way for what many believe is the game changer technology of storage.
The process started at PURA under Dykes, who believes storage is at a pivot point along with other technologies that should help utilities to think outside the box of their century old grid structure.
“It is the right question to think about,” she said. “How are we incenting the utilities to ensure that they are going to be investing in those technologies necessary to extract those benefits so that they see an earning opportunity there?”
Dykes is already pointing to early accomplishments. An executive order by Lamont to restart an energy efficiency program known as Lead By Example to reduce the carbon footprint of state buildings and vehicles. Draft guidelines for an expansion of the shared solar program. Plans to begin testing electric buses in New Haven.
Among other environmental bills still showing signs of life in the legislature is a so-called Green New Economy measure – a one-off state incarnation of the Green New Deal. While still extremely short on specifics, the goal is to fashion it as a clean energy and jobs bill that includes things like training programs and potentially use it to join the ranks of other states that have set goals for 100 percent renewable power.
“It’s great to see the leadership in the legislature prioritizing these issues,” Dykes said.
“Every night I’m logging back in on my computer and thinking ‘can I push one more thing forward on this climate agenda? This is an urgent moment for us and we have to have flawless execution.”
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes
But the measure most likely will not include anything related to climate change and shoreline resilience – a subject Dykes admits she hasn’t fully thought through, falling back on energy models and talking about animating markets to invest in such strategies.
“We need somebody at cabinet level whose job it is to get up every morning thinking about it and that’s all they do,” said David Sutherland, government relations director for the Nature Conservancy. “I think that’s a crying need that we have.”
Sutherland points to Rhode Island’s climate czar concept, calling climate change “terrifying.”
Leah Lopez Schmalz, senior program director at Connecticut Fund for the Environment said she wants to know what DEEP is doing to get ready for the next big storm.
“Resiliency is going to be one of these things that can make or break Connecticut’s economy,” she said. “If we’re not prepared we’ll be losing businesses, and people will be losing money on their homes.”
For Dykes’ part she raised the question of whether adaptation on the shoreline will mean for municipal budgets as well as the environment.
“Now is a time that we need to make those decisions. We know that there’s a cost of inaction,” she said. “It’s a very urgent issue and one that I’m excited to work on.”
Which she often does after her kids go to bed.
“Every night I’m logging back in on my computer and thinking ‘can I push one more thing forward on this climate agenda?’” she said. “This is an urgent moment for us and we have to have flawless execution.”
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