For the next nine months, Connecticut will work to expand its definition of renewable power, changing the focus to cleaner, cheaper and more reliable energy.
The move specifically would benefit Canadian hydropower, a low-cost source of emissions-free electricity favored by Gov. Dannel Malloy.
"The big breakthrough idea here is to try to expand renewables while bringing costs down," said Dan Esty, commissioner of the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.
The new definition would change Connecticut's renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, program started in 2005 that calls for 27 percent of the state's electricity to come from three different tiers of renewable sources by 2020. The highest tier — Class I — calls for sources such as solar, wind, biomass, and fuel cells to make up 20 percent of Connecticut's electricity.
When adopted, the RPS objectives included reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Connecticut; providing subsidies to renewable technologies so they eventually could compete on cost with grid power; and developing clean energy industries and technological research and development in Connecticut.
Those goals have competed with each other as well as Connecticut's desire to drive down its electricity rates, which rank as the second most expensive in the nation behind Hawaii. In an effort to keep prices down while meeting RPS standards, the state's electric utilities have gotten 96 percent of their Class I renewables from outside Connecticut while buying from the least expensive form of renewable — biomass and landfill gas cumulatively make up 86 percent of Connecticut's Class I renewable power.
The problem will exacerbate as the rate of RPS adoption increases toward the 2020 goal.
Reliability is a concern as well — especially following the two widespread power outages in 2011 — and the majority of Class I renewable only provide electricity intermittently when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
To address these concerns, Malloy and DEEP have proposed revamping the RPS into separate categories seeking to independently increase cleaner energy; support technological development; and help Connecticut industry.
"This is a strategy that attempts to look short, middle, and long term," Esty said.
The RPS change is part of Connecticut's overall comprehensive energy strategy announced by Malloy on Oct. 5. Public comment on the proposals will run through Dec. 14. DEEP hopes to finish the RPS study by the end of the year so the General Assembly can consider the changes during the 2013 legislative session, which runs January through June.
"We have to reconsider the definition of renewable power… and have a conversation about our objectives for the RPS," said State Sen. John Fonfara (D-Hartford), co-chair of the legislature's Energy & Technology Committee.
Fonfara has made proposals in the past to re-examine the RPS, but none has gained serious traction because legislators have been wary of being cast as anti-environment, he said.
Malloy's support of changing the RPS will help move the idea through the legislature, Fonfara said, as well as the idea popularized by Malloy and Esty that environment and business interests are not mutually exclusive and can work together.
"It, for too long, has been controlled by people who have one view of the world, and we need to have a more balanced view of the world," Fonfara said.
To help make Connecticut electricity cleaner, DEEP would consider broadening the definition of renewable to include more low-cost technologies that produce little to no emissions. These technologies would not be eligible for credits or subsidies but would go toward expanding the state's portfolio of emissions-free power.
Large-scale hydropower was specifically named in the DEEP strategy to be included in the new RPS category. Connecticut's current RPS only classifies run-of-river hydro producing less than five megawatts as renewable, leaving out electricity from dams.
"You will hear a lot of noise on that suggestion," said David Bogan, partner in the Hartford office of law firm Edwards Wildman Palmer, LLP. "There is a long, long way to go before we get there."
Other technologies will be considered for this renewable-but-not-incentivized category. Electricity generators such as nuclear and trash-to-energy plants also might be classified as clean, although their admission to the Connecticut RPS might strain the definition of renewable too far, Esty said.
Because technologies such as hydro and nuclear don't need incentives to be economical, the benefit of including them in RPS would be to lessen Connecticut's dependence on more polluting sources of electricity, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Hartford conglomerate Northeast Utilities is trying to build its Northern Pass transmission line through New Hampshire to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Quebec, equal to 16 percent of the electricity demand in Connecticut.
"The economics of the Northern Pass stand own their own and do not need RPS certification in order for the project to move forward," said NU spokesman Michael Skelton.
By using cheaper ways to meet clean air goals, Connecticut can focus its subsidy money on those renewable technologies such as solar, wind, and fuel cells that still need incentives to be competitive with grid power, Esty said. In-state development of these technologies would be a specific part of the new RPS.
Fonfara favors the idea of taking RPS one step further, looking beyond electricity generation. He wants to make incentives available for people to drive electric cars or upgrade their home heating systems.
If the ultimate goal is cleaner air in Connecticut and less dependence on foreign oil, then all measures working toward that goal should be considered, Fonfara said.
"Let's have a healthy debate on this," Fonfara said.