February 10, 2014

Esty: Push infrastructure improvements

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
Dan Esty said his craziest day as DEEP commissioner came in 2011 when he had 14 television crews in his office asking about the mountain lion killed in Connecticut that had walked here from South Dakota.
Photo | Pablo Robles
Esty said he was fortunate to have support for his policies from both Connecticut Republicans and Democrats.

As Dan Esty departs his position as Connecticut's top energy and environmental officer, he says it's important his successors continue to push for new energy infrastructure throughout New England.

"I wish I had gotten that further down the track," Esty said. "I have worked hard over the last three years to get the New England governors to come together."

Connecticut and the rest of New England suffer from a lack of electric transmission and natural gas pipelines, a key reason the region's energy prices are higher than the rest of the nation, save for Alaska and Hawaii.

In December, the six New England governors announced a new partnership designed to make the pathways to transmission construction and pipeline expansions easier. Esty said keeping that momentum going for the next several years will have lasting impact on energy costs.

"There is no doubt that we need to expand infrastructure," said Marc Brown, executive director of the New England Ratepayers Association.

Esty was the first commissioner of the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recruited him out of Yale University to see how Esty's theories about marrying energy and environmental policies would work in practice.

"We've got the early hard work done to get that vision in place," Malloy said.

Esty departed his post Feb. 3, as his three-year leave of absence from Yale was coming to a close. His chief of staff, Robert Klee, took over as DEEP commissioner.

"I am very pleased with how this theory worked in practice," Esty said. "It has been an extraordinary last three years. It has been the opportunity of a lifetime."

Under Esty, the Department of Environmental Protection changed to the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. The state developed its first-ever comprehensive energy strategy, a series of policies calling for energy efficiency, renewable energy, natural gas expansion, and alternative vehicle infrastructure — all designed to fulfill Malloy's mantra of making Connecticut energy cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable.

Malloy said the strategy is already bearing fruit. As New England energy prices spiked during cold days in December and January due to constraints on the natural gas system, Connecticut was better insulated than the rest of the region, he said.

"Our prices went up at a slower rate than the other New England states and came down at a quicker rate," Malloy said.

Also in his three-year term, Connecticut developed its Zero-emissions/Low-emissions Renewable Energy Credit program, designed to proliferate the installation of clean technology for the lowest possible government incentive. The state also created new measures for the large-scale purchase of renewable energy, in order to drive down costs to ratepayers. The state doubled its funding for energy efficiency incentives in homes and businesses.

Esty was particularly proud of the launch of the nation's first green bank — the Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority — that leverages limited public funding to raise private financing for renewable and efficient projects. The showcase CEFIA offering is the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy program, where business property owners can finance energy improvements at no upfront costs.

"We have fundamentally changed the way Connecticut operates its energy and environmental policy and in doing so, provided a model for the country," Esty said.

Despite his strives in energy, Esty said his proudest accomplishment over the last three years was the remaking of DEEP's environmental protection and permitting process. Before he took over as commissioner, DEP was notoriously slow at awarding permits to the business community, with some permits idling for years.

In Esty's three years, DEEP eliminated 97 percent of the backlog of permits and now gets 90 percent of permits processed in 60 days or fewer. By eliminating outdated regulation, the agency processes permits quicker while not decreasing protection standards.

"That is transformative," Esty said. "Connecticut has provided a national model of how to remake environmental protection regulation."

Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, said reducing redunancies and inefficiencies is terrific, but the environmental community is concerned permitting moves too quickly now, especially since DEEP's staff has shrunk in the last 20 years.

"If the mantra is 'No backlogs,' then that could be interpreted as just move permits faster," Johnson said.

While returning to Yale, Esty said he will continue to push to make an energy policy protecting the environment and the economy. The key to the global climate change crisis, he said, is lowering the cost of renewable energy below the cost of fossil fuel.

Esty has a history of working for governments, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration transition team. His wife, Elizabeth Esty, was elected to U.S. Congress in 2012. Despite the call for public service, Esty said his primary concern now is Yale, where he returns as a professor of environmental law and policy, the director of the Center for Business and The Environment and the director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

"Now, I get to burden the Yale students with a dose of reality that might not otherwise be part of the curriculum," Esty said.

Esty said one thing he'll miss most is being commissioner of Connecticut outdoor recreation, which had him biking across the state, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, boating, and enjoying the state parks.

"Those are the days where my children asked if I really had a job," Esty said.

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