Energy, Fish and Family: Paul Formica Takes a Bow

State. Sen. Paul Formica stepped down from the General Assembly after an eight year tenure. (Photo courtesy of Old Saybrook Republicans)


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Before retiring from his seat in the legislature, State Sen. Paul Formica sat down in December to talk with CT Examiner by zoom about his political career, energy policy, and what’s next for him. It was a fitting bookend to our 2020 interview when Formica talked about energy opportunities, protecting the fishing industry and a range of issues with a certain optimism and an emphasis on bipartisanship. Three years later, Formica continued the energy conversation — peppered with issues that are important to him– with a consistent blend of looking toward the future and emphasizing collaboration as the path to solving problems not only in politics but in business and family life. 

As co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, Formica, a Republican, was instrumental in the state’s decision to sign a power purchase agreement with Dominion in 2017 to keep the Millstone nuclear power plant in operation. Formica previously served in East Lyme as First Selectman in East Lyme and on the Board of  Finance and Zoning Commission. He has owned and operated Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme since 1983. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

CTEx: What are the highlights of your eight years as State Senator? What do you want to be remembered for?

FORMICA: The first thing that I want to bring to mind is just how fortunate we are to live in this great country, in this great state and just to have the opportunities that I’ve had to serve in elected office over the last 31 years – 23 years in East Lyme and eight years in the Senate – and to operate my business freely and to raise my family. 

This really is just the greatest country in the world when you can start from a humble beginning and end up having your name on a seat in the Senate circle. 

I’m hopeful that my successor and those to follow share that same belief and share that same belief that we have a great country – but we have to come together in ways to solve it. I think we saw a number of those opportunities happen over the last eight years.

The national political scene changed a lot in the last eight years. There used to be disagreements on policy and people would get excitable, but never the polarization that we’ve had over the last eight years. I don’t think that that’s been good for our country and for the state – although it’s not been anywhere near as prevalent here in Connecticut.

I started in the General Assembly in January of 2015. I came to it from a businessman’s perspective and a leader of the small community of East Lyme of about 18,000 people. When I was first elected first selectman in December of 2007, that was another beginning of a big change in our country as we were entering the Great Recession. I certainly had management experience, but I had no municipal CEO experience to bring to the table. 

The first thing that I did in early 2008 was to attend a meeting of the Democrat Town Committee in East Lyme, realizing that they were 40 passionate and committed people to the betterment of the town. I appealed to them for help, that we needed people with passion and people that understood the process, people with experience working on things like a pension committee that I wanted to start because the bank that handled all of the town’s pension money – I think it was around $5 million at the time – was teetering and asking for support as many of the banks across the country did at that time. 

I think that conversation set the tone and I got a lot of wonderful volunteers from the Democratic party to assist in managing the community and it was not about who got the credit for being a savior or being the one that solved the problem. But, together, we worked to create solutions that made a difference for the town of East Lyme. By the time we left, through the end of the Great Recession, we had actually grown the pension as a result of the expertise of Republicans and Democrats that had populated that Pension Committee.

When I got to the state, it certainly was a little more partisan then – we were 21-15 in the State Senate, Democrats having the majority. I got on the Appropriations Committee because we had seven balanced budgets with surpluses in the Town of East Lyme, so I wanted to do that. 

I got on Public Safety because I was the administrative Chief of Police in East Lyme because we had a Resident Trooper program at the time. 

And I thought the best thing would be the Energy committee because Millstone Station, which is the largest generator of electricity in New England, is right smack in the middle of our district. Little did I know what that was going to mean for Millstone, for the state, for the region, for ISO New England – and for me personally to go from a guy that managed a small business selling seafood to having to be able to speak intelligently about energy policy that affected Connecticut and New England. 

Fortunately, we have a great staff of Senate Republicans who were knowledgeable in a lot of those things, and I was able to work with great co-chairs that took the partisanship away from it. 

Lonnie Reed, the House Democrat chairman of the committee at the time, and Democratic Senator Paul Doyle, who was a hero in many ways, was on Energy and later helped us pass the first bipartisan budget.

CTEx: You supported the power purchase agreement to prevent Millston from closing – a controversial decision at the time. Your successor, Democrat Martha Marx, said she would have called Dominion’s bluff. What was your decision process and where do you see energy policy going in the state and region in the coming years?

FORMICA: Listen, to me, it was a no brainer, it was not controversial at all supporting Millstone. It was evident throughout the country at the time that nuclear plants were having trouble. It all stemmed from the fact that there was a new way to “mine” natural gas in our country using fracking. We were able to get natural gas out of the ground from states to our west much more efficiently, although you could make the argument that using all of that water wasn’t the best environmental process. 

That put downward pressure on the electric prices, which put nuclear plants at a big disadvantage because they’re big, huge plants that need a lot of money to operate. Thirteen nuclear plants around New England and into the Midwest closed or threatened to close as a result of not being able to sustain their operations due to the fact that natural gas was driving wholesale prices down so they couldn’t operate. 

Dominion purchased the Millstone Station after Connecticut Light and Power had a lot of trouble operating that station. Dominion brought their vast resources to the table here in Connecticut, and they’ve done a magnificent job in managing that facility. They upgraded it, they put a lot of investment in there, they brought some wonderful people up from Virginia to manage the plant. They were doing a great job but they came to me in early 2016, I think, and said we are under the same pressures that these other plants around the country are and we’re not going to be able to sustain our business here. 

One of the things that I think got lost in the conversation was that Millstone Station is a small part of the portfolio of Dominion, a Fortune 500 company. If you look at the total assets that Dominion had, Millstone represented 1% of the assets.

Millstone provides almost 50% of the power to the state of Connecticut, 38 to 40% of the power in New England, and 1500 everyday paying jobs plus 1000s of other jobs that go in and out of there over the course of the year, be it through shutdowns or vendor support. It’s a $1.5 billion economic impact to the state of Connecticut, much less the largest taxpayer in the town of Waterford. 

But at 1% of their portfolio, it’s easy for a board of directors to say hey, we’re going backwards, we’re not making any money here, we can just close this down and put our resources elsewhere – that was the threat. 

So, to the senator elect’s statement at the time about “I’d call their bluff,” there was no bluff to call. They were very certain that without this happening and given the nuclear landscape around the country – people from Green Bay came here to work when they closed their nuclear plant – was bleak at the time. 

We didn’t have any other opportunities. One of the things we did on Energy was to try to access more energy generation from outside of our state because Connecticut is like an island for energy – we produce Millstone nuclear power but that’s it and most of that is sent out.

Natural gas is produced two states West, it comes in on a pipeline, we are at the tail end of that pipeline, and the pipeline was at capacity. We passed a bill to try to increase the pipeline capacity or try to build new pipelines, but states to the West said no, not in my backyard. 

That’s typical of these large things. That’s why the country is having trouble with refineries and other large producers of essential needs because it’s tough to put them in our backyard. The nuclear depository in Nevada, for example, billions of dollars got taken out of everybody’s electric bill to build that facility and yet the political will wasn’t there to ever have it open and so it never happened – so, not in my backyard.

We couldn’t bring more natural gas in. Hydro power from Quebec – there’s excess power there, and those falls provide electricity for most of Canada and a lot of the areas in the Upper Northeast. We tried to find a way to get more transmission lines to bring some of that power down through Maine or New Hampshire down into Massachusetts and into Connecticut so that we could get some – the hydro power was environmentally positive power and sustainable –  but again, not in my backyard, “we don’t want to have those transmission lines coming down our landscape and in those beautiful states to the north.”

In a lot of ways you can’t blame people for that, but it left Connecticut at a disadvantage in terms of energy

Energy deregulation back in the early ‘90s or late ‘80s forced companies to buy the power utilities. Eversource and United Illuminating are now just ‘pass through’ on energy that they buy. 

And it left the state without enough controls, I believe, to really solve some of the problems that we’re seeing now. 

Perhaps people 30 years ago when deregulation happened didn’t foresee these things going on but there are problems that the Energy Committee in the future and the state of Connecticut are going to need to address. We’re going to need to talk about deregulation– do we want to get rid of it in whole or in part and how best to do that? How do we give PURA more control so that policy can be created to help the ratepayers and the taxpayers in the state of Connecticut?

The Millstone bill is, I think, one of the biggest policy successes we’ve had during my time on Energy. Without having Millstone Station open, and given the situation around the world and in our country, I’m not sure where we would get the electricity that we need to operate – there would be rolling brownouts, rolling blackouts. Go back to the early ‘90s and Hurricane Gloria came in – I was a fairly new owner of a small business that used a lot of refrigeration. We had some brownouts and the brownouts mean that you don’t turn the power off like a blackout. It just kind of feathers it down and then feathers it back up. But what happened was I lost most of the compressors on all of the refrigeration in my building because we didn’t as a small business have the filters to manage that fluctuation in power. So each of those compressors cost a few thousand dollars – so I was mindful that we have to stay away from brownouts and blackouts.

I for one, in the beginning, couldn’t understand the opposition to Millstone generating power. I understand people’s opposition to nuclear power, I understand people are afraid of it. I understand that it’s dangerous, I understand it’s a situation that people are very passionate about. 

And when I say it’s dangerous, I say it could be dangerous – the people at Dominion make it very, very safe and they’ve done a wonderful job. We have it on our submarines and we have it on any number of places that have been helpful to the population. 

So, I never understood what the opposition was, so I just couldn’t let it close. There was just no way that I could let it close. We had to find a way. And Governor Malloy during his time, fought us every step of the way. Katie Dykes fought us every step of the way. But you know, we just kept plodding along and trying to convince people one at a time that without this economic value to our state, without this job producer, without this energy producer, there were going to be ripple effects throughout our state and throughout our country. 

It took us four years to pass that legislation – [Republican State Representatives] Holly Cheeseman, Kathleen McCarty, Devin Carney – {Democratic State Senator] Cathy Osten was huge in her role as Chairman of Appropriations. All of those people finally came together and convinced people in the General Assembly House that this needed to pass. We got it through the Senate, working in a bipartisan fashion with Senator Osten and we were able to get the fact that we needed to save it passed through the legislature. 

Then the negotiations with the power purchase agreement happened and that was a whole different story. 

There’s a wind farm up in Colebrook that’s been operating for a decade or so, maybe even longer. They have a power purchase agreement with the utilities that was paying 10, 11 or 12 cents for a kilowatt hour. It was good environmental policy to put the wind farm there and it’s done very well. 

But that was the number and then with Millstone, we ended up agreeing to a 4.99 cent kilowatt per hour that the electric companies are buying. I think it’s 50% of the power for Millstone at 4.99 cents now. The standard service for companies like Eversource and United Illuminating is the general price that they pay to pass through the electricity that they have to buy to satisfy their customers. 

They make a lot of money on distribution, and that’s how they run their business supposedly, but they were at 12 cents per kilowatt hour, and as of January 1, it’s gonna go to 24 cents. And that’s a result of the replacement power that they feel they need to have to buy – yet they’re buying 50% of the power at 4.99 cents from Millstone. 

So, to me, my question to the utilities and what I think the legislature needs to poke around at and give PURA the opportunity to discuss, is what is the other 50% of the power that we need to provide? And, why is it 24 cents? 

And so those are questions that need to be asked – but what’s actually happening is the utilities are taking that power, buying it at 4.99 cents, selling it on the open market because the price is higher, taking the profits and putting it back into their company. And that’s what the governor just talked to them, I think over Thanksgiving holiday, to accelerate the refund to the ratepayers from some of those profits – and that equals about $10 a month on the energy portion of everyone’s electric bill. 

So there’s money coming back from Millstone but it’s still an incredible value for the people in the state of Connecticut and it saved – I think the numbers they’re talking about – ratepayers over $2 billion so far, and it’s only been there for a couple of years in that power purchase agreement. 

There was just no question to me that Millstone could close, we couldn’t let that happen. And so for four years, I worked hard on that, and we were able to get that done. It’s now seven or eight years left on that power purchase agreement and people are gonna have to think very seriously about how we continue that because without Dominion’s Millstone Station being open, we’re going to find ourselves at the mercy of other states, other opportunities, the country, the world. 

We all see what’s happening in Ukraine. Russia is using that as a pawn for holding energy hostage, if you will, for Europe and all of the liquefied natural gas now that we used to use here in the state of Connecticut to generate power via gas – a lot of that is being shipped over to Europe because the price is just so much better. They’re making so much more profit that they’re shipping it over and that’s again putting upward pressure on our price but downward pressure on the availability of natural gas here in New England. 

So hopefully that war is over soon, not only for the great people of Ukraine and the people suffering in that area, but for stability in a lot of ways in the world. And I’m sure that there are greater minds than mine thinking about how to do that, but all of that is kind of the big energy picture. I don’t think we blame it all on Europe. I don’t think we blame it all on deregulation. But I think we need to come together, strengthen PURA, allow them the opportunity to have more teeth in the energy policy here in Connecticut. 

And so I think that’s the conversation for energy moving forward. And Senator [Norm] Needleman has been a great co-chair, Dave Arconti, who was House co-chair of Energy, is a brilliant young man who didn’t run for reelection. We worked very well together. Charlie Ferraro was the House Republican ranking member on Energy — I believe he’s going to be back with Norm, which is important to lend some stability to the committee. 

But those are conversations that we have to have. And that leads to the next generation of energy generation, and that is offshore wind. At the same time, how do we save nuclear power here in Connecticut to keep 40 or 50% of our power stable? What do we do in the future? So we’ve pushed through a bill that provided for 2000 megawatts of energy from offshore wind that was the largest procurement that we made available to date, I think only 850 megawatts has been awarded. But as you know, New York is working on offshore wind power and so is Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine. 

This is an interesting conversation because this is a new industry in the United States, an emerging industry. It’s a mature industry in Europe where it’s been around for 25 or 30 years and there’s a lot of people that have wind power providing a majority of their power over there. 

Now, there are some issues, and things we should learn from their experiences in Europe as we move forward. But here along the coast of New England, we have the continental shelf, and once you get to the end of the continental shelf, the water drastically deepens – but the continental shelf almost provides a table for these wind turbines to sit on and take advantage of the Gulf Stream that is the “engine” that’s going to power the wind turbines that they’re going to put out there. 

It’s an exciting opportunity, especially in my district, for New London. There was a lot of conversation for a few years to make sure New London got its due and didn’t go backwards, so we had a number of conversations – Mayor Passero and I up in Hartford, and around here in the region to make sure that happened. Norm Needleman and Cathy Osten were involved. It’s important that we get that off to a good start.

It was unfortunate that the Connecticut Port Authority in their management of the state facility at the State Pier had all of these problems. It kind of took everyone’s eye off the ball, when the intent was, “how do we get power and replace the problem that we’re gonna have with natural gas, and potentially with Millstone at the time?” So, it’s important to move that forward. 

We have a number of situations that the Energy Committee is going to have to look at. One is the cabling that’s going to be required to tie together the 500 or 1000 turbines that are going to be off our coast. What happens to the ocean bottom when that happens? What happens to fishing, what happens to marine life, how do we do that? The other side of that is 80% of the insurance claims in Europe for operating offshore wind are a result of cables either popping up, coming up by an anchor being dragged, or something shifting. 

There’s a lot of lessons we need to learn from that. 

I think the most important thing is we have to make sure it’s safe –  I talked with the fishing industry about that. We can’t destroy one industry at the behest of another. I don’t think that that’s the way to go. 

It’s such a difficult job. Can you imagine on a four degree day in January – we’re trying to keep our thermostats at 70 degrees and these guys are out on the water pulling nets up of fish, wind blowing like crazy. It’s a tough way of life but these people are committed generation after generation to operate these fishing boats. And people don’t realize it’s the last major food source that is still hunted. 

It’s the ups and downs of supply and demand and pricing and sometimes these poor people go out there and they make nothing for it – there has to be a way to make sure we keep that industry afloat. 

And that’s why I’ve been so involved in at least getting them to the table and making sure that the people making these decisions about where to run these cables and where to locate these turbines don’t do it in the middle of the most prolific fishing grounds in the world and that’s what we have here. There are ways that we can cohabitate, work together, because we do need the energy. We’ll need the energy, especially if people want to make sure we have no use of fossil fuel any longer – that’s going to make it more challenging – but we have to make sure we protect those industries that are generational and full of family, like the fishing industry. 

There’s been a lot of talk about quotas but the fishermen police themselves for the most part, they want it sustainable and they want to you know that.

The New London fishermen have found a way to coexist with the development of offshore wind by actually creating a business where they take their boats out and they’re like scouts and guides, showing the folks around the waters that they’ve fished all their life. We got that idea in New London from Ireland and other places that have said, “Hey, how do we coexist?” That’s happening and there’s revenue being generated for the New London fishing fleet as a result of that.

But when that energy gets from the turbine to the cables to the point where they enter the land, the infrastructure here in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York isn’t capable of handling all of that. So there’s going to be a huge bill coming due to upgrade the infrastructure, the transmission lines, and all of those conversations have to happen. Just like what do we do with the demise of solar panels after their useful life and 20-25 years? How do we get rid of those? How do we recycle those? I don’t know that the conversation has fully been had on that problem down the road. 

There are a lot of issues that are going to take a lot of different conversations and they’re going to have to be not political. They’re going to have to be collaborative, because energy is not a Democrat or Republican issue, it’s a people issue. 

I served on the Council of State Governments, which is an organization that brings states and provinces and Canada together to talk about better ways to achieve successes for their electorate. 

I was co-chair of the Energy Committee for that regional board with Mark Pacheco, a [state representative] from Massachusetts, and the reason that I wanted to do that. And the great Lonnie Reed was the previous co-chair and she retired a few years ago from that, from the House. 

But I think it’s important not only to have communication within parties here in the state of Connecticut, but we have to bridge the boundaries that are between our states. 

There are no boundaries in energy, right there’s only boundaries in state and communities. And we have to find ways to collaborate with Rhode Island and Massachusetts and New York on how best to implement some of these infrastructure upgrades that are going to be necessary and how do we do it together? 

I think that’s the challenge, and that’s part of the problem with the partisan conversation that got pretty nasty, if you will. Now, you can probably decide who you want to blame for that, but I think it’s too late. I think we have to get back to being able to disagree without being disagreeable. And we have to put the people first and say this is what we need to do and these are the solutions we need to have.

So for my time and the Energy Public Act 17-3, Millstone Public Act 20-5 – the Take Back the Grid Act – the utilities have to perform in order to get a rate increase – just like you do in your job I do in my job. We just went through an election, and the people that didn’t perform, didn’t get reelected. The utilities should be held to the same standard and that’s what the Take Back the Grid Act did. 

But finally, I’ll close my energy conversation with the fact that those technologies, that are here, may not be practical or quite affordable yet. So, we kind of have that balance that we have to achieve. You know, we may be rushing it a little bit on the national level saying no more closing pipelines and things and I would caution people to be cautious about that, because there’s no doubt that the future is going to be wind and solar, supplemented by battery powered technology as evidenced by the increase in electric vehicles that the major manufacturers are getting into.

CTEx: Why step down now? What will you be doing with your time and energy? 

FORMICA: I do want to just touch on one policy that we haven’t talked about and that was the time when we were 18-18 in the Senate. We were able to be at the table as co-chairs of committees. I served as co-chair of Appropriations, and we put together a bipartisan budget that is still paying dividends today. 

I think on top of the energy successes, that budget is one of one of my proudest times in the Senate working with leaders like Len Fasano and Craig Miner and people on the other side of the aisle, Jonathan Steinburg, and Cathy Osten. That was in 2017.

Donald Trump got elected in the fall of 2016 and started office in 2017. That was the time, the promise of what he said to the country was, “there’s going to be change.” And that change, I think, helped Connecticut Republicans achieve a tie in the Senate and came within a four vote difference in the House. And so we were able to have conversations at a table that meant something. Negotiations meant something. And look what’s happened – we have some wonderful opportunities in healthcare and certainly that budget that produced a large surplus with a spending cap, a borrowing cap, a volatility cap, those controls that are generating hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis that we’re now using to also pay down pension debt – that was a result of a bipartisan conversation.

And again, that goes back to my beginning point, that should be what the focus is moving forward: to get as much bipartisan conversation as you can.

In the Senate there’s a veto proof majority now, 24 to 12. We lost my seat, but that shouldn’t mean that Republican ideas should be discounted just because we’re not in the majority – we do represent a lot of people in the state. 

In terms of why now? My 40th year at the Flanders fish market [has begun] – we opened December 23 1983. I have a couple of my children there that are running the place along with a great crew of managers and staff – I have the best staff in the business. Without them taking care of the daily to-dos at the restaurant, I don’t get the opportunity to go out and talk about energy and be involved in the Senate and be involved in my passion.

It just felt like it was time for me to move on time. You know, a presidential election is coming up in two years – I wasn’t sure that I was going to run then… I thought if we had an opportunity to keep our seat Republican, which prior to me, 40 of the previous 44 years was a Democrat seat. 

I thought it would be a good time to spend more time with my family. I have a new grandson. And that kind of said to me, listen, there are things you have to slow down for and appreciate. I get my grandson every Thursday, we spend the day together and it’s just been wonderful. 

My kids are doing a great job in the business, but there are transitional things that we’ll have to do to move to the next generation of ownership and I’m not getting any younger and there’s no guarantees about tomorrow. So, I want to take some time. I have a wonderful woman in my life now that I’d like to spend some time with and travel. Susan has had the three new grandchildren this year alone and one on the way next year – so we’re gonna have a slew of grandkids under three. It’s just time to just enjoy the store at a time when I don’t have to, hopefully, worry so much about the day-to-day operation – because I’ve always loved the place and I love the whole feel of it and I love the people that I’ve met there, But it doesn’t mean I’m going away forever, I’m just going to sit back and see what life brings.

CTEx: Any predictions? Will you run for office again?  

FORMICA: You know you never say never but I had a wonderful retirement party thrown the other night and there were a lot of people there and there was no talk about anything in the future. I’ve worked with some wonderful people, and we’ve got some great things done, and we missed some opportunities, made a few mistakes along the way. 

But, it’s the American dream personified here for me. When I started the business 39 years ago, we got ready to open the doors at 11 o’clock – we had everything in the store to do it and I didn’t have any money for the cash register. So I called my wife and I said, “how many tips did you make the night before?” She was bartending at the Danny’s cafe in downtown Niantic. And she said, “$41.” And so I said, “well, we need dimes, nickels,quarters, dollars – and you know we got to put it into a cash register so we could open.” And that’s that’s what happened 39 years ago.

It was a little frightening and exciting at the same time – I’d never cut a fish before in my life – but we did I think $223 In business the first day and we were so ecstatic. Donna and I worked hard and when my son Matthew was born in May we had to bring people in to help. It’s what the people wanted there and hopefully what they will continue to want there. We’ve been able to expand in a large part due to the great, great, great, great, great staff that we have. Kathy’s been there about 28 years, Devon and Janaya, 26 years, Michelle, probably all of that past 20 years.

We’ve tried to make it a career, we’ve tried to make it a business and a job where people can put their families first. You work five days a week. That’s what we hoped to have. And in the restaurant business, when I grew up, you work six days and they called you in on the seventh. And that’s just what it was and there were no benefits back then. Today we offer health insurance and pension opportunities, paid vacations, sick days. If you have to go see a little league game, that’s important, and we make sure you get there, or a band concert, or a parent teacher conference. Kids are first and families are first and I think that’s in large part to why we still have people there and they’re creating the culture and some of their children are working there. 

It’s kind of an interesting process and I couldn’t be more proud or grateful. My two daughters are there now and I’m hoping to get my third daughter back and my son is in a different business, but you never know what’s going to happen there. We’ll see, we have some exciting plans for the future.

But I’m just so grateful to have had this opportunity, I’ll always take that with me. But, interestingly enough, I kind of have an eight year term limit for myself. I did eight years on zoning, eight years on finance, I was on my eighth year as First Selectman and now finishing my eighth as a state senator. I mean, not by design, but that seems just how it worked out – so we’ll see what the next eight years bring.