July 26, 2017 | last updated July 26, 2017 3:11 pm

State energy plan calls for more renewables

Photo | Greenskies Renewable Energy
Photo | Greenskies Renewable Energy
DEEP wants to rely more heavily on large renewable energy developments, such as this this East Lyme solar farm developed by Middletown's Greenskies Renewable Energy.
Contributed photo
Rooftop solar panels on 777 Main in Hartford
Matt Pilon
A Spectra gas pipeline marker in Berlin
DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee

Perhaps the biggest energy question in Connecticut at the moment is what will happen to its massive nuclear generator – Dominion-owned Millstone Power Station.

What, if anything, state energy policy experts think should be done to help the plant, which has said it is struggling against low natural gas prices, is not answered in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Comprehensive Energy Strategy (CES), a draft of which the agency unveiled Wednesday.

Gov. Dannel Malloy issued an executive order this week instructing DEEP to assess the economic viability of Millstone's reactors a task that may involve a reluctant Dominion opening its books, perhaps behind closed doors, to regulators.

DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee said Wednesday that the Millstone evaluation will be one of his agency's biggest projects over the coming months, as the report is due Feb. 1, in time for the 2018 legislative session.

"We assembled a team to get started yesterday," said Klee, who called on Millstone and other energy sector players to work cooperatively with DEEP during the process.

Millstone lobbied hard for legislative action in the recently concluded session, but ultimately could not get a bill through the House that would have instructed utilities to purchase a sizable amount of nuclear power directly through a bidding process. The company has said it still hopes for legislative action in a special session, though DEEP's analysis won't be ready by then.

Dominion faces opposition from fossil fuel generators and others who argued the bill would lead to higher utility bills in a state that already has the highest energy prices in the country.

RPS growth

While the nuclear question remains on the table, the new CES plan, which DEEP will finalize after a public comment period, weighs in on many other areas of consequence in the energy sector.

One of the main goals of the CES is to help Connecticut meet its lofty emissions-reduction pledges, which call for an 80 percent reduction below 2001 emissions levels by 2050.

A major change in the CES, should the legislature agree to pass it into law, would be to increase the so-called renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which requires utilities and electricity suppliers to purchase a steadily increasing amount of electricity from various renewable sources. Those source can range from solar, wind and fuel cells to landfill methane, geothermal and waste incineration.

Ratepayers pay a premium for the right to use cleaner energy in the place of fossil fuel generation. DEEP estimates that the annual net cost of the RPS program will approach $400 million in the years ahead.

The state's current RPS schedule ends in 2020, when suppliers will be required to buy 20 percent of their electricity from the cleanest renewable sources, known as Class I (solar, wind, fuel cells, anaerobic digesters and others).

DEEP is recommending that the Class I requirement increase by 1 percentage point per year, reaching 30 percent by 2030.

Some states, such as California, have gone further, passing RPS requirements of 50 percent.

Klee noted Wednesday that Connecticut has a relatively tight definition of Class I. In particular, the state does not allow large-scale hydropower to participate in the Class I market.

Klee said DEEP wants that to change. DEEP already has the authority to order utilities to purchase large-scale hydropower, but the agency says it hopes the legislature will eventually create a new RPS tier specifically for hydro.

"Hydropower may provide a similar profile of carbon-free baseload power that Millstone currently provides, which can help meet any interim [emissions] goals and plan for Millstone replacement either post-relicensing date or sooner," the draft plan says.

The agency is also recommending that landfill methane and biomass be phased out of the state's Class I mix.

Cost concerns

While DEEP is concerned about reducing emissions that contribute to climate change, it says it's also worried about cost.

In recent DEEP-led competitive bidding processes for clean energy developers seeking long-term utility contracts, cost was the biggest scoring factor.

Since 2012, developers have quoted cheaper rates for "grid-scale" projects (two megawatts or more), falling from 17 cents per kilowatt hour in 2012 to just under 8.5 cents last year.

But in another set of ratepayer-backed programs known as "behind-the-meter," there hasn't been as large a decline.

Pricing in the Zero Emissions Renewable Energy Credit (ZREC) program dipped 18 percent, to 24.2 cents, between 2013 and 2016. Its Low Emissions Renewable Energy Credit (LREC) counterpart saw a slight increase over that period. Meanwhile, a residential solar program called RSIP saw a price decline of 7 percent.

Klee said DEEP wants to see faster growth in the grid-side projects in the coming years, and called for "thoughtful deployment" of rooftop solar.

He insisted such a policy would not shut down the state's rooftop market, noting that there would still be capacity for approximately 20 megawatts of rooftop solar per year over the next five years.

Grid-scale deployments are already outpacing behind-the-meter. Through 2016, Connecticut had 557 megawatts of operational grid-scale renewables and 247 megawatts of operational behind-the-meter.

No answer for pipeline challenge

DEEP wants Connecticut to have more natural gas pipeline capacity for electricity generation, but cannot solve the matter on its own.

Massachusetts has refused to agree to a proposed scheme that would see electric ratepayers funding the buildout of pipeline capacity throughout New England.

Without that key state, other states in the regional market would be shouldering the cost burden alone.

"It's a challenge we still haven't found a pathway to get around," DEEP Deputy Commissioner Mary Sotos said Wednesday.

Natural gas was a significant piece of the 2013 CES, which called on utilities to convert 300,000 ratepayers to gas, to be used for heating purposes.

But as the once attractive price gap between gas and heating oil narrowed, the task became more difficult. From 2014 to 2016, utilities converted just over 51,000 customers.

Environmental groups react

A variety of environmental nonprofits this week said they liked many aspects of the plan, but think it should go further.

Claire Coleman, an attorney with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said she hoped the plan would call for a full-scale shared solar program, specific recommendations on how to decarbonize the transportation sector -- which is the state's largest emitter -- and a call for carbon pricing.

Connecticut Sierra Club Chair Martha Klein said she doesn't believe the plan does enough to meet the state's emissions pledge, enshrined in the Global Warming Solution Act of 2009.

John Humphries and organizer with the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a member of the Governor's Council on Climate Change, said he was pleased about the phasing out of certain resources from Class I.

"...but we are disappointed that the document does not clearly evaluate the overall impact on projected greenhouse gas emissions and whether the proposed strategies will be sufficient to achieve the state's climate goals," he said. "We need to know whether this CES puts us squarely on the path to achieving even the 2020 goal of a 10% reduction in emissions, not to mention the broader vision of a clean energy future."

Louis Burch, Connecticut director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the state should not endorse a pipeline expansion.

"Simply put, we will never solve the problem of climate change by perpetuating our reliance on dirty fossil fuels," Burch said.

Read more

CT throws a lifeline to fuel cells, waste to energy

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