HARTFORD – Republicans called for moving renewable energy costs out of customer’s bills and into the state budget as a key piece of their proposal to attempt to lower Connecticut’s high energy costs.
While Republicans and Democrats both said it was essential to work together to find solutions to the persistent problem, the Democratic co-chair of the Energy and Technology committee said he isn’t convinced shifting those costs is a good idea.
A sharp spike in supply costs has drawn headlines and left families re-evaluating their budgets this winter, but high energy costs have long been a fact of life in Connecticut, where residents consistently pay some of the highest electric bills in the U.S.
“It’s been personally gratifying for lawmakers to beat up on energy companies and to blame them for the high cost of energy,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford said. “But the bottom line is, I think our lawmakers need to look at themselves and ask why these increases have been occurring time after time.”
State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, the ranking Senate Republican on the Energy and Technology Committee, said ongoing high electric costs are the result of “mistakes of public policy and government policy in this capitol dome.”
The most concrete proposal Republicans put forward was to take what they called public policy costs out of customers’ bills, and move them into the general fund of the state government’s budget – paid out of taxes, rather than through utility bills.
Republicans listed a dozen charges aimed at speeding up the development of renewable energy – including solar incentives and state procurements of renewable energy projects — that are borne by customers. Fazio said the shift would reduce the average electric customer’s bill by $210 a year.
Fazio said the policies were effectively social programs, and moving them to the budget would allow lawmakers to vet the costs like they do with other government spending. They shouldn’t be embedded in electric bills “out of plain sight,” he said.
“We would expect that if you migrate a lot of these policies to the budget, they will be continued as is – and we probably agree that many of them should,” Fazio said. “They should be weighed against any other number of spending priorities too.”
State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, the co-chair of the Energy & Technology Committee said that he was open to hearing arguments in favor of shifting those costs from bills into the state budget, but said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“When we vote on these programs, or when we vote to authorize these programs, they belong where they are as offsets or increases on the energy bills,” he said.
Several of the Republican proposals were to look closer at broad ideas – including a plan to create a task force to examine improvements to the standard supply rate the utilities charge.” Fazio said it’s a complex question that needs careful consideration.
“We don’t want to throw out solutions where we haven’t carefully been able to study them,” Fazio said.
Needleman agreed lawmakers need to carefully consider any changes to a procurement process that he said has worked well for a long time, before leading to serious problems this year because of what Needleman described as an anomaly in the market.
“You go to the argument of whether you want certainty, or the lowest possible price,” Needleman said. “You want both, but they don’t necessarily run hand in hand. It’s complicated.”
In addition to shifting costs to the general fund, Republicans proposed trying to strengthen oversight of electric rates by separating the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority from DEEP – which they said conflicts with PURA’s role, given that the authority has its own policies and goals to promote renewable energy. Republicans also proposed looking to put “guardrails” on PURA’s process for settling rate cases to make sure settlements benefit customers.
Needleman said there’s room for discussion on all of those priorities, and the committee is working through organizing proposals into the three goals he said the committee is trying to achieve – how to ensure electricity is reliable, how to make sure it’s affordable, and how to make sure energy policies address environmental concerns.
“My feeling is, we’re going to listen to all ideas and come up with the best solutions possible for the ratepayers,” he said.
Needleman said the energy committee is focused on doing what’s right for Connecticut electric customers, and will be open to public hearings and debates on ideas, regardless of what party raised them.
Republicans also emphasized that they did not want energy policy to become a partisan fight or overly politicized.
“That is why we are providing a more substantive solution, rather than continuing to just put it out here as a political weapon that I think we’ve seen lead to really bad decisions in the past,” Candelora said.