A diesel generator. Saud via Wikimedia Commons

This is crunch time at the General Assembly. As a former legislator, lobbyist and later policy director at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, I know it becomes increasingly difficult to get legislation passed late in the session.

It is often a lot easier to kill a bill, or simply fail to act upon it. I fear that Senate Bill 236, An Act Concerning the Use of Back-Up Diesel Generators for Purposes of Peak Shaving, may fall into the latter category.

This bill would impose stricter emission standards on generators used to “peak shave,” that is, to use onsite power generation on days when high demand drives up the cost of buying electricity from the grid. As DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes stated in her testimony in support of SB 236, “adopting these more stringent standards will ensure that the development of data centers in the State can proceed in a manner that is more environmentally sound, and that does not increase overall emissions in a way that will prompt greater emission restrictions and economic costs on other industrial facilities.”

Utility-generated power must meet stringent air-quality standards, but current regulations allow diesel generators to emit 16 times the pollutants of a grid-connected power plant. Passage of SB 236 would give DEEP the tools it needs to require newly installed generators to meet higher standards, thereby dramatically increasing protections for our most vulnerable residents and the environment.

The emissions at issue are primarily particulate matter (PM), or soot, nitrous oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). PM and NOx have very negative health effects, particularly for those with lung issues such as asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and other lung and heart conditions.

The double whammy is that these generators are most likely to be used on hot summer days when air quality is already at its worst and when DEEP issues health advisories. Connecticut had 21 such days in 2021. In addition to the human health issues, these generators emit far more greenhouse gases than Connecticut’s relatively efficient power plants, thereby making it even more difficult for us to meet our climate goals.

This straightforward legislation would only apply to generators installed at a facility on or after July 1, 2022 and that have the capacity to generate more than five megawatts (MW) of electricity. It would not affect existing generators or the future use of generators in emergencies or for routine testing and maintenance. This issue is of immediate concern as we see proposed data centers hoping to benefit financially from using dirtier energy to meet their massive power needs—to the detriment of others. These facilities often require 100 to 250 MW of electricity, or the amount needed to serve 6,000 to 8,000 homes!

Failure to pass this legislation now will likely result in a proliferation of dirty diesel generators for “peak shaving” at data centers or elsewhere, and, as Commissioner Dykes indicated, will probably raise the bar on existing businesses in order for the state to meet EPA’s ozone standards. Enabling private interests to benefit financially at the expense of of our residents’ health, the environment, and other businesses is, from my perspective, unconscionable public policy.

Last year, the General Assembly rushed through emergency-certified HB 6514, An Act Concerning Incentives for Qualified Data Centers to Locate in the State, which became Public Act 21-1. This law provides generous tax exemptions for qualifying data centers, but includes no environmental safeguards for host municipalities or the public.

The General Assembly adjourns May 4, so we don’t have much time, but I also know that the concerted efforts of individuals can spur action even when time its session is short, so let’s be noisy! Join me in calling on your Senator and Representative to pass SB 236 this session and avoid any unintended consequences of PA 21-1.

Jessie Stratton of Groton is a former State Representative and retired Deputy Director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.