Encouraging the development of shared solar projects, planning a path to “green hydrogen,” and lowering electric bills for customers of the state’s largest utilities will top an abbreviated agenda of the legislature’s Energy & Technology Committee when it reconvenes in February State Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, told CT Examiner.
Arconti, who co-chairs the committee, said that lawmakers will finalize the agenda over the next weeks before the Feb 9 start of session, but with a short election year calendar, he said he has several priorities of his own that he’d like to see addressed in the coming months.
“We tend to have to prioritize in a short session, and sometimes bills take on a life of their own,” Arconti said. “There’s always certain concepts that people don’t really see coming, but they take on a life of their own during the session and get the groundswell of support to get through both chambers.”
Incentivizing local solar projects
Arconti said that in his view a key priority would be to address how the state can encourage more local, cost-effective clean energy projects that spur local investment and jobs – especially by raising the cap of the Shared Clean Energy Facility program.
Arconti said the focus will be more on smaller, local projects – which the Shared Clean Energy Facility program is geared towards. Awarding more contracts to larger, grid-scale projects could lead to Connecticut buying from out-of-state, or to more out-of-state companies and workers being involved in the projects, he said.
“This is going to entail looking at current programs and adjusting rules to allow for more localized resources, which have the most positive impact on rates, and also delivering clean energy jobs to Connecticut workers,” Arconti said.
The Shared Clean Energy Facility program funds mid-sized solar projects that generate between 100 kilowatts and 4 megawatts – larger than rooftop home solar installations, but not as large as bigger solar farms. These projects are “shared” because they have at least 10 subscribers – individuals, businesses, governments – who all pay for the project in exchange for credits on their electric bill for the electricity generated by the project.
The program, which is entering its third year, allows the state to award contracts of up to 25 megawatts of generating capacity each year. Arconti said that he wants to consider raising that cap to allow more projects to be built.
Arconti said he also wants to consider increasing the percentage of those projects that have to be located in poorer communities. Helping poorer communities take advantage of renewables will be a focus for the session, Arconti said – especially communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the emissions from fossil-fuel burning plants.
“I think you get the biggest bang for your buck in deploying clean energy in the communities that have borne the burden of hosting fossil fuel plants,” Arconti said. “The program is designed to help those communities take advantage of clean energy, and we want to really increase deployment in those environmental justice communities.”
Roadmap to a “green hydrogen” hub
The Biden administration has pushed “clean hydrogen” as a crucial piece to reducing carbon emissions, especially with heavy trucks and industrial manufacturing.
The infrastructure bill Congress passed in November included $9.5 billion for “clean hydrogen” projects – including $8 billion for developing four hydrogen hubs in the U.S.
Arconti said the federal infrastructure bill “puts a big bet” on building up hydrogen as a major tool to help reduce emissions from transportation and manufacturing, and that the commitments to offshore wind made in Connecticut and the northeast set it up to play a major role in hydrogen.
Arconti said Connecticut the state should develop a roadmap to guide the state towards becoming a hub for producing “green hydrogen” – where renewable energy sources like wind or solar power are harnessed to do the energy-intensive work of extracting hydrogen gas from water molecules. For the legislature, that means initiating a task force.
“Using advanced green hydrogen like that could help us decarbonize hard-to-decarbonize sectors like industrial transportation and manufacturing,” he said.
Electricity costs and utility companies
In 2020, a bipartisan group of lawmakers passed sweeping changes to how the state regulates storm response by electric utilities Eversource and United Illuminating.
Arconti said that so far the “Take Back Our Grid Act” was working as intended, and that lawmakers would continue to tweak the state’s rate-setting formulas in an effort to help energy customers. Connecticut electric customers shouldn’t have more risk with their energy bills than the utilities’ shareholders have, he said.
The earning sharing mechanism – which splits the money utilities make in excess of their allowed return on investment between the company and its customers – could use some “favorable tweaking” so more money goes to customers, Arconti said.
And there are some other mechanisms that are “a little bit too favorable” to the utilities that lawmakers could look at tweaking, Arconti said.
“I think that would lead to more dollars flowing back to ratepayers,” Arconti said.
Arconti and co-chair State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex say they also want a frank evaluation of how the decision to deregulate the energy market in 1998 has shaped the market we have today.
Arconti said that conversation is especially important now, given that most of the New England states continue to push for reforms regarding how ISO-New England operates the regional grid.
But given the short session, he said that it’s unlikely that conversation will happen this year.
“I think we need the utilities to be more engaged on how deregulation has worked,” Arconti said. “They’re the ones who really participate in the market every day, and I’d like them to state, a little more publicly, their thoughts on how deregulation has worked out – in markets, in reliability and planning, and also just cost to the ratepayers.”