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What CT could learn from other states’ climate change policies

Connecticut has struggled with community solar. This project in Bloomfield is still the only one in the state, but the program has been re-vamped and more projects are in the pipeline.
CTEC Solar
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CT Mirror
Connecticut has struggled with community solar. This project in Bloomfield is still the only one in the state, but the program has been re-vamped and more projects are in the pipeline.

New York has been churning out a seemingly endless stream of clean energy initiatives going back to its groundbreaking Reforming the Energy Vision initiative of 10 years ago.

But even among those, the late-November press release was a stunner.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, NYSERDA, announced the state now had more than 2,000 megawatts of installed community solar — meaning that some 400,000 homes that couldn’t put solar panels on their roofs could still get at least some of their power from the sun.

That also happens to be the same amount of power generated by both units of Connecticut’s Millstone nuclear power station, New England’s largest power source. And it’s the same as the maximum amount of offshore wind Connecticut is permitted by statute to get.

New York says it has another 3,300 megawatts of community solar in its pipeline.

This community solar installation developed by Arcadia is among dozens of community solar systems operating in New York state now. They total more than 2,000 megawatts. That’s the same amount of power generated by New England’s largest power plant, the Millstone Nuclear Power Station.
Arcadia Power
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CT Mirror
This community solar installation developed by Arcadia is among dozens of community solar systems operating in New York state now. They total more than 2,000 megawatts. That’s the same amount of power generated by New England’s largest power plant, the Millstone Nuclear Power Station. 

In Connecticut, however, community solar has only one project to show for it, though it’s been available for years in pilot project form and a revamp of the program has put more project proposals in the pipeline.

For years, Connecticut has struggled with a number of clean energy initiatives as the legislature has been reluctant to authorize policy or money for them. Nevermind just keeping pace with the neighbors, there are lessons for Connecticut in the region and elsewhere for innovative ways to tackle climate change from energy and emissions standpoints.

New York, though obviously a much larger state with its own electric grid, has the same mandate for a zero-emission electric sector by 2040 that Connecticut has, along with comparable greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets to Connecticut’s 80% below 2001 levels by 2050. (New York’s is 85% below 1990 levels by 2050).

As of more than a year ago, New York has a new “scoping plan” for economy-wide GHG emission reductions. Through NYSERDA, there are dozens of programs already helping to achieve that. The state claims investments of more than $50 billion in 66 large-scale renewable and transmission projects across the state, $6.8 billion towards reducing building emissions, $3.3 billion to scale up solar and nearly $3 billion for clean transportation initiatives.

“We’ve got a target, and we’ve got all these associated policies that also have targets and incentives in there to get there. We just need to do a better job of implementing what we have on the books,” said Bryan Garcia, president of the Connecticut Green Bank, whose program and loan innovations have been some of the state’s brightest spots, serving as models nationally if not globally. “Connecticut needs to have a race-to-the-top mentality. We need to use it to our advantage to enable more investment.”

Many of New York’s initiatives use competition as a vehicle for innovative ideas. The state was among the first to employ less expensive and more reliable non-wires alternatives when several years ago it opted for energy efficiency, solar and fuel cells to avoid building a pricey new sub-station for Brooklyn and Queens. Now the state is looking at an economy-wide cap-and-invest program, kind of a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for everything.

I’m dead serious. You need to get into the communities.
ROB LAFRANCE, POLICY DIRECTOR FOR AUDUBON CONNECTICUT

Since 2016, New York also has had a Clean Energy Communities Program that, through a network of regional coordinators, helps all levels of local jurisdiction, from villages to counties, access and implement energy saving and emission reductions. Communities earn points for taking certain actions that in turn can help them qualify for bigger grants. For projects in disadvantaged areas, communities can qualify for even more funding.

NYSERDA says that nearly 4,000 actions by nearly 900 local governments have been completed through the program and that more than 533 have attained clean energy community designation.

“All politics is local,” said Rob LaFrance, who served for many years as the legislative liaison for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and its predecessor agency. He is now the policy director for Audubon Connecticut. “I’m dead serious. You need to get into the communities. You need to establish relationships with those senators, particularly, but they will bring along with them representatives, and you have to show them why this works for their constituents.

“Where is the department in terms of outreach to municipal entities to help them do that in their towns? … You got to build trust. How do you build trust? You deliver. You gotta deliver.”

Katie Dykes, DEEP’s commissioner, became acutely aware of the benefits of municipal outreach in late 2020 — during the pandemic — when her online initiative to deal with waste issues drew dozens of local officials. She called it her “aha moment.”

There’s just an extraordinary amount of decision-making and investment that is happening at the municipal level.
KATIE DYKES, DEEP COMMISSIONER

“Every agency has a legislative liaison; DEEP now has a municipal liaison as well, because I see so many of the things that need to be accomplished to advance sustainability and climate goals are really in the hands of municipal officials,” she said. “Being able to work directly with municipalities who are making decisions about their own municipal bonding, their own municipal waste programs, or how they’re deploying EV charging or supporting transit-oriented development — there’s just an extraordinary amount of decision-making and investment that is happening at the municipal level.”

But is talking with local officials enough? Does the state need a more formal outreach and incentive approach, or do some of these ideas need to go straight to the people? One non-neighbor state may offer some insight.

Looking west

Connecticut has had its eye on Colorado lately because of its approach to the thorny motor vehicle emissions standards issue. In Connecticut, the standards have become a flashpoint over how the state moves forward to meet the greenhouse gas emission goals it has set for itself, as well as limiting pollutants that create the smog that makes Connecticut air quality some of the worst in the country.

Two laws on the books, one of which has been in place for more than 20 years, require the state to follow the stricter emissions standards set by California. For cars, that means, beginning in 2035, zero-emission vehicles and plug-in hybrids would be the only new vehicles allowed to be sold. Under federal Clean Air Act rules in place since its inception in 1970, the only other choice is the looser emissions standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Colorado’s implementation plan is providing an enticing compromise. That state is going with the strict California standards but without committing to the full 2035 end-point and checking periodically on how well the state is doing.

But what Connecticut has not grasped is the full scope of how Colorado is approaching climate change: with an economy-wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Roadmap authorized by its legislature in 2018 and operative since 2021. The Colorado Energy Office does biannual reports that look at the previous six months, making changes as needed.

By mid-2022, the state had already completed 95% of its near-term actions. It was 85% of the way to its 2030 GHG emissions targets and on pace to hit 95% in the next three years.

The Colorado roadmap involves many state agencies in an exhaustive outreach to basically everyone.

“Engagement is such a key part of the process,” said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, who explained there were two levels of outreach for the original roadmap: a technical one for stakeholders and then seven sessions in cities and towns around the state for the general public, all followed by revisions based on the input.

“That sort of openness to input throughout the process, as well as sharing the process, is the most key thing to getting everyone on board.”

Community engagement session on the state of Colorado’s updated climate action plan in the Montbello neighborhood in Denver, Colo., December 2023.
Colorado Energy Office
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CT Mirror
Community engagement session on the state of Colorado’s updated climate action plan in the Montbello neighborhood in Denver, Colo., December 2023. 

For the EV component specifically, the outreach tackled many myths about EVs and concerns about cost, said Kelly Blynn, a transportation and climate change specialist brought in to help implement transportation actions in the original roadmap.

“It was a good reminder of how much education work we have to do. And so I think that was a big part of our stakeholder work and realizing we’re still bringing people along.”

Blynn said their context was holistic — if they were going to adopt this rule, what else would need to be in place to make it affordable and accessible to a broader swath than just early adopters? The point, she said, was not just asking people what they thought about the rules.

“That, for most people, is not the question. They want to know what programs are going to be available and how it’s going to work in their communities,” she said. “I think ultimately, given some of the trepidations we heard from some stakeholders, it just felt like it made more sense to take a phased approach and say we’ll know more in 2028 or 2029 about how the market’s evolving.”

As part of the permanent outreach on EVs, the Colorado Energy Office established a program it calls “ReCharge Coaches” — essentially ambassadors on the ground covering every county to help everyone from individuals to governments navigate every level of EV adoption.

We continue to want to throw money at things, and I still have yet to see anyone telling me what the results are going to be, if any.
REP. PATRICK CALLAHAN, R-NEW FAIRFIELD

Among the other transportation components launched in the Colorado roadmap is an ozone-season transit grant program that provides free fares in Denver’s Regional Transit District in July and August to get people out of their cars. In its second season, it registered a 22% increase in ridership from June.

The state’s largest utility, Xcel, has entered into a private partnership with Ford to start building charging infrastructure for business customers. Xcel is also looking at a virtual power plant plan for Colorado, linking combinations like solar and storage in systems that will keep customers from losing power.

In Connecticut, though, the question of a comprehensive roadmap was a non-starter last session. So was legislation to lower building emissions, something the Colorado plan has embraced following robust public and stakeholder engagement. And the carbon-free motor vehicle rules are stuck at the moment.

“We continue to want to throw money at things, and I still have yet to see anyone telling me what the results are going to be, if any,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, ranking member on the Environment Committee.

As for doing the kind of outreach Colorado has done: “Absolutely,” said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora. “It’s both,” he said about whether to prioritize politicians or people. “It’s definitely both.”

Candelora, who mentioned he now has solar panels on his house, said he actually hears very little from his constituents in North Branford, East Haven, Durham and Guilford on climate change issues and isn’t sure they’re making the connection from climate change to the recent weather extremes.

“It’s far more difficult to articulate for the average consumer or the average taxpayer why it is we need to do something about this now,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas. “And it’s even more difficult to rationalize the cost when everybody’s so sensitive, particularly for the last couple of years, with this hyper-inflationary environment. It’s really hard to articulate that, ‘Hey, you should be willing to pay a little bit more for X. It’s going to be worth it to you 10 years from now,’ when you worry about the price of milk today.”

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, speak with the media on the floor of the House after Gov. Ned Lamont’s State of the State speech on Jan. 4, 2023. Rojas says it can be very hard to explain to economically strapped people why they should pay more now for systems to deal with climate change when they won’t the benefit for many years.
Stephen Busemeyer
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CT Mirror
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, speak with the media on the floor of the House after Gov. Ned Lamont’s State of the State speech on Jan. 4, 2023. Rojas says it can be very hard to explain to economically strapped people why they should pay more now for systems to deal with climate change when they won’t the benefit for many years. 

Dykes sees it as a one-two punch sort of solution. “The more successful we are in working with municipalities on deployment, the more I think that legislators will be reassured that these investments are affordable, that they’re delivering value,” she said.

But she repeatedly goes back to Connecticut’s lack of executive branch authority to implement programs and the lack of enforcement muscle compared with most other states. The Connecticut focus, she said, gets stuck constantly trying to reinforce support for existing programs. “Other states, I think, are pushing into looking at the next-step measures that are on the horizon,” she said. “We’re not there right now.”

A number of those states are not too far up I-91 and I-95.

Looking north

In Vermont, Green Mountain Power, GMP — the only investor-owned utility in the state and by far the largest power supplier — unveiled what it calls the Zero Outages Initiative, which it says is the first of its kind in the country.

By 2030, GMP plans to have multiple types of resiliency in place for its more than 270,000 customers to prevent the kind of outages the state has faced in recent years due to extreme weather from climate change.

The initial costs will be $250 million for undergrounding and hardening of lines and $30 million for storage. In the last 10 years, major storms have cost GMP $115 million, 40% of that in the last two years alone.

Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s only investor-owned utility, is starting a Zero Outages Initiative. It will be setting up resiliency systems to keep the power from going out during extreme weather events.
Emily Alfin Johnson / Vermont Public Radio
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CT Mirror
Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s only investor-owned utility, is starting a Zero Outages Initiative. It will be setting up resiliency systems to keep the power from going out during extreme weather events. 

In Maine, the mantra has been heat pumps in a state that has largely relied on oil, which is heavy on greenhouse gas emissions, to heat homes. The state reached its goal of 100,000 pumps by 2025 two years early and has now increased the goal to another 175,000 by 2027.

The state is also two years into its Community Resilience Partnership, which provides expertise and funding assistance to participating municipalities, regional and tribal governments, similar to New York’s program.

Both are similar to the Massachusetts Green Communities Program, begun in 2010 and at last count including 291 of the state’s 351 municipalities. Participants are eligible for assistance and funding, which now totals more than $177 million.

There are resources available to Connecticut municipalities through ventures like Sustainable CT. But those are not state-run and do not have inherent funding or incentives.

Massachusetts is launching the Climate Leader Communities Program, which will allow Green Communities participants meeting specific certifications — including elimination of fossil fuel use in municipal buildings and vehicles — to access grant funds for big-ticket projects such a solar and battery storage systems and electric vehicles.

This move builds on the state’s broader and long-standing commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including a decarbonization roadmap, first unveiled in 2020. Since then, the state has undertaken initiatives to lower emissions in new and old buildings. It is on board with a pilot project by Eversource in Framingham to network geothermal systems to heat and cool about 40 buildings, carbon free.

The most recent groundbreaking move from Massachusetts is its future of gas initiative, which is starting the process to make the state the first to drastically reduce and potentially eliminate the use of natural gas. Rhode Island is among other states considering something similar.

That outcome is not likely in Connecticut, if the recent failures are any indication.

“I think a lot of people that have been supportive of some of our proposed ideas would lose their mind,” said Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford and co-chair of the Environment Committee as well as a member of the Energy and Technology Committee. “I don’t foresee that happening in the state of Connecticut. I want to be able to accomplish what is accomplishable and not seek to potentially be on someone’s political mailer banning their use of natural gas-powered stoves or coming to take your stove and he’s the one that’s responsible.”

But there are some big ideas kicking around Connecticut quietly at, believe it or not, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority

What are the big ideas?

“PURA has done much more than either DEEP or the legislature in recent years to help us move us towards our climate goals,” said Shannon Laun, vice president for Connecticut at the Conservation Law Foundation. “I have more confidence in them, frankly, as an institution right now in getting things done and moving expeditiously.”

PURA has been using whatever policies the legislature has approved or other mechanisms, such as executive orders, to push innovation.

“We’re building off of the work that the legislature has done and that DEEP has done and the administration has done to come up with these programs that work together,” said Marissa Gillett, PURA’s chair.

PURA Chair Marissa Gillett, says PURA has launched programs aimed at innovative grid design that should help utilities be more flexible with providing power and save ratepayers money.
CT Mirror
PURA Chair Marissa Gillett, says PURA has launched programs aimed at innovative grid design that should help utilities be more flexible with providing power and save ratepayers money. 

She points to the Non-wires Solutions Program, whose framework was adopted in November 2022. Under it, before UI and Eversource make any investments to their distribution grid over a certain dollar amount, they have to seek bids on whether there are alternative solutions to traditional wires and poles.

“We have spent the last 12 months working through the implementation details with our consultant and the utilities,” Gillett said. “That’s designed to start in 2025.”

Another PURA endeavor is the Innovative Energy Solutions Program. The format uses themes and three pathways for pursuing those themes: developer-led projects; utility-led projects; and collaborative projects between a utility and a developer.

The first theme is demand-side flexibility — in other words, ways to deliver power more efficiently. In December, PURA awarded $25 million in grants to seven projects. One project would devise a vehicle-to-grid system for an EV school bus fleet and several that should provide utilities with more flexibility to move power around as needed.

The projects will pilot over the next 18 to 24 months. The next theme is empowering electrification. The grant process for that is underway.

“PURA is not sitting on its hands,” Gillett said. “We’re constantly looking at what Massachusetts is doing, what New York’s doing, and trying to improve our programs.”

Other ideas out there — more robust heat pump deployment and the idea of a climate czar — are models from other states.

“We have to fire on as many cylinders as we can and accept the fact that this is going to cost us money,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. “And how are we going to pay for it? Who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to do it? Somebody’s got to, and I don’t have any answer for that, because nobody wants to pay for it.”

There are big pots of federal money earmarked for climate change initiatives, and there is also concern that if Connecticut doesn’t step up with commitments to more climate programs, the state will lose out.

“I’m very worried about that,” said Dykes, singling out the hesitation on adopting the more stringent clean motor vehicle regulations. “Manufacturers are not going to prioritize sending EVs for sale in Connecticut.”

Uncertainty around Connecticut’s electrification future also makes it difficult for grid operator ISO-New England to plan future resources and transmission needs.

“The more information on where the states are looking to go, the better,” said ISO spokesman Matt Kakley, who noted that about 60% of the region’s demand is in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “What happens in those states is going to have a big impact regionally and something that we’re paying attention to.”

All of which points back to the problem of how to bring both legislators and residents along as climate change reality continues to set in.

“Everybody’s an environmentalist until it comes time for them to alter their routine or do something about it. And then it’s, ‘Well, you know, I couldn’t possibly do that,’” Gresko said. “If we all lived to be 3,000 years old, everyone would be an environmentalist.”

As for taking things like the motor vehicle regulations more slowly, “I don’t know how much more incremental we could be,” Rojas said. “It’s painfully incremental, the progress that we’re making. We often have to wait for a really acute crisis to happen before we can actually have the ability to do something politically. Those are not good answers for a legislative leader to provide, but I’m just going to be honest.”

Dykes has gotten the messages.

“I think it’s on us at DEEP to understand what the concerns are and ensure that we’re focusing on those concerns, whether it’s affordability, reliability or just greater awareness of the success of programs or the success of programs that other states are implementing. I’m really proud of the innovation and leadership that we’re employing,” she said — and then added, one more time: “with the authority that we have.”

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.