Protestors outside the Capitol in 2019 opposing the Killingly power plant project. Photo courtesy of Not Another Power Plant

On January 19, Gov. Ned Lamont gave his bluntest comments yet regarding the controversial Killingly natural gas plant, saying, “I don’t want to build Killingly.”  Yet, Lamont still refuses to wield his executive authority to actually stop its construction, and instead offers vague suggestions that market forces will stop the plant’s construction.

NTE Energy, the Florida based developer of the Killingly plant, has given no indication that it is concerned about market forces, with managing partner Tim Eves hopeful that construction will begin this year.  Furthermore, energy market watchers don’t see market forces capable of stopping Killingly at this point.  If the natural gas plant is to be stopped, it will require state action.

Time is almost up.  If Governor Lamont is serious about stopping the Killingly plant’s construction —and meeting his climate change goal of 100% clean energy by 2040— he must stop waffling from the sidelines and immediately assert himself.  With construction of the Killingly plant currently waiting for two permits, Lamont’s administration can still prevent the plant from materializing.

Katie Dykes, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), has tried to shift the blame by portraying DEEP and the State as hamstrung by ISO New England —the regional grid operator.  As Commissioner Dykes tells it, the state cannot stop the construction of Killingly because ISO New England has already committed to buying power from the Killingly plant.  Yet, ISO New England has pushed back against that assessment, insisting that “the state —not the ISO— determines if a plant gets developed within its borders.”

It’s clear that neither the state nor the ISO want to bear responsibility for the construction of another fossil fuel power plant.

Our membership in the ISO undoubtedly imposes restraints on the state.  Nevertheless, its untenable for DEEP to act as though Connecticut is helpless in this situation; it’s not like the state gave up its sovereignty to the grid operator.  There are multiple courses of action that Lamont’s administration could take to prevent the construction of the Killingly plant.

The nuclear option is to leave the ISO altogether.  The administration is contemplating this, as it views membership as a major restraint on the state’s climate change goals.  If membership in the ISO continues to handicap our clean energy goals, leaving may be necessary.  But there are ways to nix the Killingly plant without leaving the ISO.

Before going further, it’s important to understand a couple things about the Killingly plant and our relationship to the regional grid.  The Killingly plant isn’t being built to meet Connecticut’s energy needs.  Rather, it is being built to meet the (supposed) needs of the entire New England energy market.  So, although the natural gas plant would be built in Connecticut, impact our air quality, pollute our waters, and complicate our climate change targets, the benefits —extra power to the grid— will be felt by other New England states.

It’s also important to note that the Killingly gas plant will only produce 650 megawatts (MW) of energy, and that construction could take three years.  If construction begins this year, the plant may only begin generating power in 2024.

In short, the Killingly plant would relieve grid pressure by generating 650 MW of additional energy for the entire New England region, at no direct benefit for Connecticut.

However, there is another way to relieve regional grid pressure that would be hugely beneficial to Connecticut residents.  It’s an often grumbled-about fact that Connecticut has among the highest electricity rates in the continental United States.  Instead of pumping more energy into the grid, we could reduce our energy needs —and our electricity bills— by way of energy efficiency improvements.

In fact, for over two decades Connecticut has been supporting energy efficiency improvements, and clean energy projects, via a rate-based surcharge on the electricity bills of some Connecticut consumers.  These statutorily created programs have produced tangible results: by 2018, energy needs in Connecticut had been reduced by 130 MW.

Frustratingly, energy savings in Connecticut should be much higher.  In 2018 and 2019, the state legislature raided $117 million from the energy efficiency fund to plug holes in the general budget.  In 2017, the State’s Energy Efficiency Board anticipated that the raid would result in an estimated $275 million in lost bill savings, and the loss of access to energy-efficiency improvements for 13,000 homes, including 5,600 low-income households.  (Note: this projection expected a raid of $127 million.)  The state might partially rectify these raids by transferring the expected $70 million budget surplus back to the energy efficiency fund.

We should pay particular attention to the benefits energy efficiency would bestow on low-income families.  Federal research shows that, on average, a family of four earning less than $50,000 per year spends 16 percent of its income on energy costs.  Because Connecticut has exceptionally high electricity rates, that percentage is probably higher in our state.  Through energy efficiency upgrades, we can significantly reduce economic strain on households across Connecticut.  And while doing so, we can generate thousands of jobs: in 2018 there were 34,700 jobs created by energy efficiency projects.

If Governor Lamont scuttles the Killingly plant, Connecticut can still meet its grid obligations through improved energy efficiency.  If we can reduce energy needs across the state by 216 MW per year through 2024, we will have compensated for Killingly’s absence.  In doing so, we will reduce electricity costs, create jobs, and protect our environment.

Tennyson Benedict is a student at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

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