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Connecticut climate change bills face the ticking legislative clock, again

Wilson Ring

As the legislative session heads toward its final week, energy and environmental measures geared to address climate change once again face a race against the clock — some of them for the second year in a row.

Disputes over details appear to be ironed out or close to it, though Republicans remain generally opposed to the highest-profile bills.

As has happened so many times before, solar legislation has been among the most contentious, but in the last few days, the remaining disagreement over caps on solar programs seems to be resolved. A major and lengthy transportation and climate bill designed to make up for a loss on that subject last year, and to ensure federal funds do not go to waste, has been fine-tuned to accommodate several concerns. And the measure to put into statute by Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order to have a carbon-free electric grid by 2040 is exactly where it was around this time last year: waiting.

These bills, along with several others — some of which are also re-treads from last year — could go a long and sustained way toward the state’s effort to tackle climate change as well as some longstanding environmental concerns. But their consideration, let alone passage, may be more contingent on other matters, including the budget, being resolved first.

“The time is tight, and there’s a lot of things moving,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “I’m hopeful that it’ll get done.”

Solar program changes

According to multiple sources, up until late last week, the solar bill had been in negotiations between committee leadership and DEEP — a frustrating situation for the solar industry and environmental advocates watching from the sidelines who had lobbied successfully to increase the scope of the bill.

The bill was originally offered as a plan to increase existing caps on what’s known as community or shared solar; Connecticut calls it shared clean energy facilities, or SCEF. That’s a way to provide solar power to residences that can’t otherwise get it: multifamily units, rentals, homes with shaded or unusable roofs. It is particularly suited to low-income households.

But solar advocates and many legislators said that wasn’t good enough. They also wanted the caps raised or removed on commercial solar projects and the rules changed to allow projects to use all the available roof space even if it’s more than the building needs. As part of a recent reconfiguration of all solar programs in Connecticut, the commercial program is now called the non-residential solar program or NRES.

Advocates also wanted caps ended or increased for a third program for municipalities. But in the end, the bill approved by the committee doubled the caps only on SCEF and NRES and allowed for full-roof buildouts for commercial projects.

“That’s what I’m for, and I believe that that’s reasonable,” said Sen. Norman Needleman, D-Essex, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee who is responsible for guiding the legislation through the Senate.

That’s when more trouble started. According to multiple sources, DEEP was willing to allow full-roof buildouts on commercial projects but didn’t want the cap doubled. At the end of last week, DEEP backed off.

“We support the bill as it was passed out of committee,” Dykes said on Friday without explaining the reason for the change. Asked whether she preferred the cap doubled, Dykes said: “I’m not answering that question.”

Part of the dispute involved an additional fiscal note DEEP wanted included. The original note by the Office of Fiscal Analysis said there would be no impact from the program. DEEP got its calculations published as an addendum, showing a small impact on those not using solar.

That’s a long-standing talking point for the utilities and Republican lawmakers, often referred to as cost shift. It contends that those who don’t have solar (lower-income people) wind up subsidizing those who do (wealthier people). It’s been discounted time after time, with many studies showing the use of solar power benefits all users of the power grid.

“I think all of the fiscal analysis demonstrates that it’s not really a problem from a financial perspective,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney for Save the Sound. “It will go a long way toward helping Connecticut achieve its clean energy goals, to help with grid reliability and resilience.”

Needleman and others also said DEEP’s calculation used outdated information and did not consider the geopolitical fallout on fossil fuel prices and the need to ramp up renewables quickly as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Needleman said he was also skeptical because it was based on worst-case scenario numbers.

“I don’t think that that was an accurate way to calculate the impact on the ratepayers,” he said. “I don’t know how you budget numbers based on an ongoing war.”

The solar bill will not be Needleman’s only headache. The bill that codifies a zero-carbon grid by 2040 is back this year for a second try. It’s a petite 15 lines. But there is a Republican-offered 12-page amendment that would separate DEEP from the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority — a dispute that has been around since DEEP was formed in 2011 and PURA was wrapped into it. Separating them has been offered as legislation repeatedly since then.

Needleman said he anticipates a half a day of debate.

“I don’t see it having more legs,” he said. “I just see it coming up again and being the source of endless talking.”

Needleman’s plan has been to run this bill and the solar one together — something he is ready to do any time. Both bills would still need to go through the House.

Climate measures

Also waiting for action is a climate and transportation bill called An Act Concerning the Connecticut Clean Air Act, being handled jointly by the transportation and environment committees. It’s now 20 sections, 35 pages, with some 65 co-sponsors and nearly 150 filed comments.

It establishes several large clean-transportation programs and funding mechanisms that would piggyback on the nearly $5.4 billion in federal funding from the infrastructure legislation that is coming to Connecticut, along with other competitive pools of infrastructure money that, in some cases, require state matching funds.

In many respects, these are initiatives and funding streams that could have been provided through the Transportation and Climate Initiative that failed in last year’s legislative session after Republicans inaccurately branded its funding source from an increase in gasoline prices as a tax, and the label stuck.

Republicans and others who did not support TCI are not supporting this either, though in its travels through the finance committee, it did manage a bit of bipartisan support.

Some problematic provisions have been reworked, said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who co-chairs the transportation committee and is a member of both the environment and energy and technology committees.

One is what’s known as the “right to charge,” which requires multi-family housing to allow residents to have level-two electric vehicle chargers. The changes make it clearer that any resident who wants a charger has to pay for it.

“It is entirely at their own cost,” Haskell said. “The landlord can’t be asked to pay for the maintenance, installation, the ongoing electrical costs associated with that charging infrastructure. It’s a choice made by the tenant. Now, in most cases under this bill, the landlord wouldn’t be able to say ‘no.’ That’s why it’s called the right to charge.”

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, ranking member of the energy and technology committee and a member of the finance committee, where he opposed the bill, was skeptical that a renter would be willing to pay for the charging station, the trench for conduit, drilling and repairs or replacement of anything damaged in the process.

“What individuals are going to do that? This is something we should let the market handle. Landlords will provide that just as businesses are providing it, when the market dictates it,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of telling a landlord what they can do on their property.”

Another component being fine-tuned is a voucher program to help companies convert truck fleets to electric. The financial assistance is now structured to pay out over time, anticipating that companies likely would convert their fleets gradually.

Money for charging infrastructure has been omitted, given the large sum coming from the federal government. Other components remain in the bill, though they are not immune from late changes. They include expansion of rebates for electric vehicles, especially for those who live in environmental justice communities; deadlines to have 100% electric school buses with environmental justice communities getting the earliest ones; electrification of state-owned light vehicles by 2030; upgrades to traffic signals to help lower emissions; and requirements for carbon mitigation projects to offset state-funded infrastructure projects that increase carbon emissions.

Another bill left from last year — after managing to get through the Senate — would have Connecticut adopt emissions standards set by California for medium and heavy-duty trucks. It’s been promoted widely by Gov. Ned Lamont as surrounding states have signed on to the standards, but Haskell and Environment committee co-chair Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, have indicated it will likely get rolled into the Clean Air Act bill.

“That’s kind of the stick,” Haskell said. “We also want to give businesses the carrot and that’s the medium and heavy duty voucher program. And to put those into the same bill to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to hold you to higher standards, but we’re also going to help you get there.’”

But the question, as it is almost every year, is whether the end-of-session traffic jam leaves any or even all of these complex bills on the side of the road.

“I’m hopeful that that won’t happen,” Cohen said. “We have a tremendous opportunity here to leverage federal funds like the likes of which we’ve not seen before.”

But Rothenberger of Save the Sound said he was extremely concerned that focus on the budget would eclipse everything else.

“It appears to always be the environmental priorities that get the shaft when these sort of political machinations begin,” he said. “That’s going to take all the oxygen out of the room, and these critical environmental bills are going to become pawns.”

Dykes was hopeful even after the major disappointments last year.

“We’re really excited about what the legislature is advancing in terms of clean transportation, clean energy, solar, carbon free electric grid,” she said. “This could be one of the most impactful legislative sessions for climate mitigation that we’ve seen. In a long time.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.