EAST LYME — It was raining but Sen. Paul Formica said he was happy it wasn’t snow.
“The whole town shuts down, nobody comes out,” he said, scanning the parking lot from his perch at a high-top table at Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant, which Formica and his late wife, Donna, opened in 1983.
It was a little after 11 a.m. on Friday and the waitstaff were beginning to take orders from lunch customers.
Formica ordered an herbal tea and began to talk about the fishing industry, a passion of his both professionally and civically, as well as other topics — like energy and commerce — that he plans to raise in the General Assembly’s session this February.
“New London and Stonington — between the two of them, they land between 8 and 10 million pounds of seafood a year. Imagine what Bedford and Boston are landing if we’re landing that, so that’s why it’s so important that the fishermen are protected,” he said. “It’s hard, these guys are out there when it’s three degrees. It’s cold, it’s hard work.”
The interests of the fishing industry, and the proposed offshore wind farm — an almost necessary step toward ending Connecticut’s dependence on fossils — can be reconciled through perseverance and hard work, he said.
Even the recent problems at the Connecticut Port Authority and Ørsted and Eversource’s failed bid to secure a large slice of Gov. Lamont’s envisioned 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power for New London’s State Pier were no reason to lose faith, he said.
“I think we should still be bullish. I still feel bullish because I think it’s the strongest opportunity we have to generate the next generation of energy,” he said. “We have to be bold, we have to push, we have to have protections for the fishermen, we have to have protections for a lot of the habitats that we worried about. We have to make sure the transmission lines are available and capable of transmitting all of this new power and what happens on the ocean floor. There’s a lot of details we’ve got to work on.”
With the eventual closure of the Millstone nuclear power plant — which Formica sees likely pushed into the future — and the constraints on natural gas, Formica underscored the necessity of grasping the opportunities at hand. Moving forward, Formica said, requires a willingness to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Ørsted.
“These guys are interested, they’re interested in coming over. We have an opportunity with the continental shelf and the gulf stream. It’s almost like a table that you can set this up on,” he said. “We can solve some of these other problems, and I think we can if we work together, then when we should be generating significant energy and then Millstone’s deal will be up — but I think Millstone can go another 25 years — [and it’s] got to take the place of natural gas.”
Formica said he didn’t know of any other energy source other than offshore wind that can generate the same amount of megawatts during the needed time frame.
“It’s like wack-a-mole,” he laughed, referring to the area’s energy needs.
“You have wind and you have solar, but they’re both intermittent power — the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow … so in order for those to be near baseload effective they’re going to have to be tied to storage,” said Formica, who is ranking member on the Energy Committee.
He said Millstone is 98 percent baseload effective, compared to solar and wind which are 50 and 60 percent effective. Storage is a linchpin for the success of renewables, he said.
“We have to incentivize that, put a target on it, but we also have to understand where we really are with the technology. It’s got to be practical in performance,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the technology, but if you can’t use it and if it adds money exorbitantly to the cost then you have to figure a way around it.”
Formica said he’s working with leaders in the energy sector on the mechanics of a bill that will incentivize the creation of “pockets” of megawatt storage along the transmission line, which could prevent blackouts during major weather events.
Building the infrastructure for energy transmission and storage is essential and cannot be delayed, especially since Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is talking about eliminating the use of natural gas, he said.
“Where are we going to be 10 years from now and what power are we going to have?” he said. “We’re just nowhere near the position to say we can’t use natural gas — it’s 40 percent of our energy production. It would be nice to do, but these wind turbines have got to be up and running.”
Another issue Formica said he will address in the coming session is accountability for quasi-public agencies, an issue in headlines recently because of the Connecticut Port Authority.
“We’ve been the canary in the coal mine for five years … We’ve been sounding the alarm that these quasi’s are a little bit out of control and they need to be reigned in and they’ve rebuffed our bills for the last three years, so we’ll be focusing on that more as a caucus,” he said. “It’s an interesting dynamic — you create the quasi so they’re a step or two outside of the system and give them a little freedom and then you have to kind of control that freedom somehow.”
As far as fixing the port authority’s woes, Formica recommended a complete personnel overhaul, especially after the agency’s problems overshadowed negotiations with Ørsted during a critical period.
“Everybody should resign and start over and we should figure out where we are. I like a lot of the folks that were on there, but they just took advantage of a lot of things and that kind of tainted or colored or seemed to affect the Ørsted deal,” he said. “I think the port authority’s indiscretions changed the conversation to what they were doing wrong instead of what we were doing right.”
Casinos, marijuana, tolling
“It’s time to have online gaming and sports betting. I think the governor has held that up long enough,” Formica said of a casino bill that he will work on with Osten. The bill would allow the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to build an estimated $300 million facility in East Windsor as well as the potential for other tribes to build in other locations.
Formica said it’s cheaper to work with the casinos than to litigate. And casinos will protect Connecticut jobs, especially in Southeastern Connecticut, he said.
“We will support these guys. It’s a lot of people in our district who work there, generate a lot of money, $263 million a year, and it’s not something you want to take a chance on losing,” he said. “They’ve been good partners and we should respect good partners.”
He will also work on a bill to study the legalization of adult recreational use of marijuana in terms of social impacts, costs and tax revenue.
As far as tolling, Formica said he didn’t think Lamont had the votes to pass a bill, comparing it to the Republican plan to use part of the Rainy Day Fund to pay down the state’s pension liability and to use the resulting savings to fund transportation.
Finding solutions requires listening and working with others who have a different viewpoint, whether in seafood or politics, he said.
“The way I’ve been able to work, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what kind of fish I’m going to buy everyday. Monkfish? I wasn’t going to buy monkfish, but a fisherman called and said he had monkfish today,” he said.
He said he prefers to craft bills that incorporate different perspectives and often works with Osten as well as Sen. Heather Somers.
“Osten is a strong lead on the other side and she’s strong in her opinions and she does her homework. We share a region so it’s good for us to be able to work together,” he said. “It’s easy to get agreement when you have everyone on the same team. I like to go to the other side and find out what they’re thinking and how we can do it and then I can tailor a conversation that might end up to be a bill based on bipartisan support.”
Note: This story was updated to correct two errors in the text: Formica is working with Osten on casino, not marijuana, legislation, and is supporting efforts to study the legalization of marijuana, not legalization directly.