Clean energy battles transition from Malloy to Lamont

December 14, 2018

As Gov.-elect Ned Lamont’s Energy Transition Committee began its work late last month, one member held up a cellphone and said if telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell were dropped into Hartford today, he wouldn’t recognize the phone system.

But — the person added — if Thomas Edison were dropped into Hartford today, he’d pretty much find the same electric distribution system he invented nearly 140 years ago.

That reality may be something the fledgling Lamont administration wants to heed as it picks up the reins of energy policy from the Malloy administration next month.

The Malloy administration tried for eight years to upend the state’s existing energy paradigm by creating a state energy department and rolling out dozens of programs intended to fight climate change and provide cheaper, cleaner, more reliable energy, as its mantra went.

But the administration’s success was limited by its inability to convince the state’s utilities to substantially alter — let alone abandon — the electricity delivery model that has provided them and their investors with financial reward for more than a century.

That mindset, and the persistent standoffs that accompanied it, likely will carry over into Gov.-elect Ned Lamont’s administration, leaving the new governor to fight many of the same battles with utilities that dogged the Malloy administration.

It’s possible that Lamont will wind up with the same commissioner at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection who’s there now. Rob Klee, who has run the department since 2014 after serving as its chief of staff, said this week he is “interested in having a conversation” with Lamont.

The only other name to surface as a potential DEEP commissioner is Bill Finch, who, as mayor of Bridgeport, undertook energy transformation policies and who also served on the legislature’s Environment Committee when he was a state representative. According to sources, Finch has met with Lamont to discuss the job.

Lamont also will inherit a number of knotty problems that remain unresolved — a host of outstanding policy decisions and rulings, potential backlash from a multiyear battle to keep the Millstone Nuclear Power Station open, and downright anger over the tens of millions of dollars taken from the Green Bank and energy efficiency fund to plug budget holes.

But some of the most consistent frustration has been with the utilities.

“All roads lead essentially to the rapidly failing utility business model — that’s the problem,” said Karl Rabago, executive director of the Pace University Law School Energy and Climate Center. Rabago has run utilities, served as a utility regulator, worked for the U.S. Department of Energy, and has advised Connecticut leaders on many energy policies.

He and others believe the longstanding system of central electricity generation needs to give way to a modernized, at least partially decentralized, and more efficient grid that values distributed generation — electricity people provide to themselves, such as rooftop solar power — and values less electricity usage, not more.

“Eversource and United Illuminating aren’t moving it along and have been able to slog it down and frustrate it,” Rabago said, observing that neighboring states — especially New York and Massachusetts — have zoomed past Connecticut with innovative clean energy development and distribution in recent years. “I think it’s time for something bold.”

Tony Marone, the CEO of United Illuminating (UI), the smaller of the state’s two utilities, has heard these complaints before. Eversource, the larger utility, declined to speak with the CT Mirror.

“We are not afraid to do bold things, but we need to do bold smart things,” Marone said. “It is important that we not chase after something that seems like the latest and greatest idea, but do things in a very measured approach.”

UI, which in the last few years became a subsidiary of Avangrid — itself an arm of the Spanish energy powerhouse Iberdrola — has embraced some of the modernization policies offered by the Malloy team. These include ownership of renewable generation, the first generation the utilities have been allowed to own since deregulation.

Eversource chose not to do that.

But legislators and advocates alike have complained that both companies have steadfastly protected their core business model, fighting the details of a laundry list of clean and renewable energy policies as they have wound through the legislature, DEEP and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

“It’s always a fight over the next incremental policy change. Do we do X? Or do we go a little bit slow, maybe do X, but study it first? It becomes a very bogged, cautious, incremental change in public policy,” said Chris Phelps of Environment CT. “We have to get to zero-carbon energy or damn close to it by the time a child born today is graduating from college. If we just do incremental, we won’t get there.”

Klee said the utilities have started to come around. “I think over these eight years we’ve already seen some of the evolution and what may have been new and more resistance in the beginning (by utilities) has been turning around in some key places where they see new opportunities in the utility models.”

Even with the utility struggle, Malloy gets generally good marks for his efforts toward groundbreaking energy strategies to address climate change. And he pretty much started from scratch.

From DEP to DEEP

Malloy came into office with his first environmental commissioner, Dan Esty, and plans already in progress to add an energy component to the existing Department of Environmental Protection. Oil prices were extremely high, in the 160 million over two years from the energy efficiency fund and the Green Bank to plug state budget holes, with negative consequences for both. The legality of those sweeps still is being fought out in court.

Even without Malloy’s leftover problems, the Lamont transition team — which would not make anyone available to speak to the CT Mirror — already is catching blowback despite a full-throated climate change and renewable energy policy in his campaign literature.

From Malloy to Lamont

Lamont’s goals broadly mirror those of the Malloy administration, with a few more aggressive targets.

He wants to get greenhouse gas emissions to carbon-neutral and the state’s energy portfolio to 100 percent renewable, both by 2050. He is calling for internal carbon pricing for state and local governments and for all new homes and buildings to be zero-carbon by 2035.

He also has come down forcefully against future energy fund sweeps but does not offer any specifics on how to reach those goals or how to convince the utilities that any of this is worth supporting.

While calling Lamont’s ideas for “Addressing Climate Change and Expanding Renewable Energy” bold and assertive on one hand, many members of the state’s environmental advocacy community found it strikingly familiar, since much of it was drawn from their joint Climate Change Action Agenda in 2017. At least one part was lifted verbatim.

Some also bristled when Lamont’s 19-member Steering Committee included a person from Eversource but no environmental advocate. And a number looked warily at the large and potentially unwieldy Energy Transition Committee tasked with working through the many complicated policies and coming up with priorities in a very short period of time.

That committee’s work is due to be unveiled as a two-page document on Monday. Members of the committee declined to speak to the CT Mirror, saying Lamont’s team instructed them to not talk to the media.

Klee has his own thoughts on where the Lamont administration should focus. First is the intersection of climate and energy and being a national leader against rollbacks by the Trump administration. Transportation is another, pushing electric vehicle adoption and making sure the grid and utilities are ready for the influx. A third is to guard against more funding sweeps.

Lamont may find himself with more room to do all of the above than Malloy had, especially the last few years. While he will have similar economic pressures, Lamont will have a stronger Democratic majority in both legislative chambers that probably will be less inclined to compromise with either the Republicans or the utilities.

Ken Gillingham, an environmental economist at Yale and a senior economist for energy and the environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, said he would like to see a less antagonistic relationship with utilities.

That will probably take some sort of regulatory and incentive process to help shift the utility business model to one that would also accommodate a smarter, more dynamic and flexible grid, Gillingham said.

“I think there’s a very high likelihood that that’s what’s going to be happening over the next few years, as sad as it is to say,” he said. “I just worry that there’s so much tension built up over the last several years and a lot of the same players are going to be sitting in the room again who don’t trust each other. I would love it if we could get past it.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2018 © The Connecticut Mirror.


Update hourly