Utility Reform Bill Passes State House, Heads to Lamont’s Desk

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, explains a wide-ranging bill meant to tighten regulations on Connecticut's utilities on June 5, 2023 in Hartford. (CT-N)


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HARTFORD – A wide-ranging bill aimed at tightening regulations on the state’s giant utility companies will head to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk despite criticism from lawmakers that it fails to significantly lower electric bills. 

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee said the bill was a “sequel” to the Take Back Our Grid Act, a utility reform bill passed in the wake of 2020 Tropical Storm Isaias, which included an order for Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to set up a system of performance-based regulation.

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly by a 115-33 vote on Monday, with 19 Republicans joining Democrats in support. The bill already passed the Senate 33-0, and will go to Lamont for his signature.

A representative of Eversource said the company needed time to review the final bill before commenting.

Despite the widespread support, State Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford, the ranking House Republican on the energy committee, said the bill doesn’t do enough to lower electric costs in Connecticut, where customers consistently pay some of the highest electric bills in the country.

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘Godfather 2,’” he said. “I think some sequels are fantastic, and others leave more to be desired, and that’s where I fall on this bill.”

Buckbee said the bill has “wonderful pieces,” including a study to push forward hydropower that could lead to a much cheaper source of renewable energy. But nothing in the bill will help immediately with the state’s high electric costs, he said.

Steinberg said there are many pieces that can incrementally trend toward lower rates over time; however, he doesn’t want people to expect it will lead to a huge reduction in bills. The point is to ensure utilities provide good value for the cost customers pay, he said.

“If anything, over the next four or five years, we have to make more investments to upgrade the grid and do our transmission network, which we want the utilities to do,” Steinberg said. “So even though it is our intention to give ratepayers value, we’re not talking about a huge decrease in rates over the next several years.”

United Illuminating and its parent company Avangrid have pushed lawmakers to focus more on the issue they say drove the record-high supply prices customers have paid since January: That New England is too reliant on natural gas plants without enough gas supply, exposing it to volatile energy prices in the winter.

Along the same line, State Rep. David Yaccarino, R-North Haven, questioned why the state wasn’t doing more to boost hydrogen fuel cells, hydropower or expand natural gas infrastructure to keep prices from soaring in the winter.

“What happens when we do bills like this, they look great on paper, we’re going to at least look at lowering energy costs,” Yaccarino said. “It’s a paper tiger. It doesn’t do anything. Yes, the companies might not spend another $2 [million] or $3 million [of customer money] on their meals, but that’s nothing compared to – and I’m not a fan at all of the utilities – the money that ratepayers could save, that families could save by having more capacity, and we just don’t do it.”

Past efforts to build a natural gas pipeline between Connecticut and gas-rich Pennsylvania have been blocked by New York. 

Steinberg said natural gas is where energy is and has been in the past, but it’s not the future of energy in New England. Instead, the bill directs studies on nuclear and hydropower.

“Given the huge cost and the time involved in expanding natural gas pipelines, that’s not the best focus that we might have going forward,” Steinberg said.

State Reps. John Piscopo, R-Thomaston, and Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, questioned the wisdom of a bill that expands PURA’s power to “target” utility companies. 

Piscopo said lawmakers heard from voters while campaigning last fall amid high natural gas prices and anticipated record-high electric rates. 

While the bill was an honest effort to help, said Piscopo, it doesn’t do enough and, in some cases, could add to customer costs. He argued that Connecticut’s high electric costs could be partially attributed to mandates on utilities, ranging from renewable energy to staffing levels.

“It just seems when you’re mad at somebody, you kind of add more regulations on them, and that drives up the cost,” he said.

Steinberg said the point of the bill is to ensure customers in Connecticut are getting a good value. The expectation that utilities are looking out for their customers is an “archaic” fallacy held over from the days of public utilities, he said, before deregulation in the 1990s allowed electric companies to become publicly traded corporations. 

Now utilities don’t just have to worry about repairing the grid, they have to worry about satisfying shareholders, he said.

“Our utilities are owned by profit-making, multistate corporations which are beholden to shareholders,” Steinberg said. “That dual set of responsibilities, caring for ratepayers while seeking returns for shareholders, represents a potential conflict.”