HARTFORD — Though just five of the state’s Energy and Technology Committee’s proposed bills were signed into law last year, one particular measure aimed at reforming energy regulations was a monumental win, according to committee Co-Chair State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.
“It was obviously the dominant bill of last year’s session,” said Steinberg, who leads the 20-member committee with State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex. “We have described the bill as the ‘Take Back Our Grid Act,’ which came in the way of some superstorms intended to hold the utility companies accountable.”
Steinberg, a retired marketing executive, said there was a lot of lobbying and compromise on the “controversial” law, which requires the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to shift electric rates based on performance and not just costs.
“There were a lot of people trying to influence the governor, perhaps not to sign off on it,” Steinberg told CT Examiner on Friday. “But, we worked collaboratively with the governor’s office and, ultimately, the utilities themselves to see where the areas were where either the language wasn’t perfectly clear or perhaps it was a bit too punitive. We made some compromises at that end.”
According to the law, the creation of a performance-based rate model “could result in lower general rates for ratepayers depending on implementation.”
The legislation additionally outlines penalties and fines for utilities failing to comply with reporting obligations, including the submission of monthly reports to PURA regarding planned and unplanned electrical outages. It also modifies the items eligible for recovery through the utilities’ rate-setting process.
“They [utilities] would actually have to provide quality service on a timely basis, or risk getting a much smaller return,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg, who has been a lawmaker since 2010, also discussed advancing solar energy and electric cars while collaborating with Republicans on the committee. He expressed dismay that a “relatively modest solar bill” committee members worked on last year passed the state House but died in the Senate.
“At the very least, that is something we are going to pick up again this year,” he said. “I have had conversations with my co-chair, and we are pretty much convinced that solar is going to be the most significant focus in 2024.”
The solar bill introduced last year makes changes to solar generating facilities, including taxation and property tax, siting, solar canopies, and agency reporting requirements.
The bill would have removed a 25 kilowatt capacity requirement for the measure’s property tax exemption; and added provisions on agency reporting requirements, municipal participation in Siting Council proceedings, siting solar canopies, and solar facilities at public schools in environmental justice [urban setting] communities. It would have also examined the ramifications of directing electric distribution companies to recover the costs of transmission upgrades related to residential solar installations of all customers.
Another hot-button issue in Connecticut is electric vehicles, something Steinberg claims the Republicans have made divisive.
“There has been a Republican roadshow campaign that has really put fear into people. It’s part of a national campaign by the fossil fuels industry. It’s really an underhanded approach to scare people to be worried about things 11 years from now that none of us can really envision,” he said.
Steinberg was referring to a 2022 California law that mandates all sales of new cars and trucks be zero-emission by 2035. Since then, Massachusetts. Vermont and New York, among other states, have adopted similar rules. Connecticut was attempting to follow suit, but Gov. Ned Lamont pulled the plug on the plan amid growing pressure by several lawmakers.
Political leaders of both parties are still working on an agreement related to electric vehicles this year, Steinberg said.
According to state data, there were more than 3 million vehicles registered in Connecticut in July, of which only 36,000 were electric. They included such vehicles as the Chevrolet Volt, Honda Clarity, and Toyota Prius Prime.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Steinberg said of electric vehicles, noting that topics like cost and charging stations still need to be discussed. “… If you are living in an inner city, you can’t afford a new car that costs $60,000. And where are you going to charge it if you are living in an apartment building? These are legitimate questions that need to be asked and that other states are struggling with as well.”
On other issues, Steinberg said it was possible for Connecticut to achieve zero carbon electricity by 2040, especially with recent investments into fuel cell, solar and offshore wind energy. In 2019, Lamont approved the procurement of 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy in the state by 2030. But Steinberg acknowledged progress was slow.
“We had a setback during the Trump administration where they intentionally slowed down the adoption and expansion of offshore wind,” he said, noting other obstacles like supply chain issues and COVID.
When questioned about ensuring affordable electricity, Steinberg said it’s a topic he frequently encounters.
“I always say we are trying, but I don’t want to mislead anyone about our immediate prospects,” he said. “We are one of the highest energy states, and some people are making hard choices about paying the rent and buying food or medication or sending my kids to school.”
Steinberg said there’s an urgent need to upgrade the electric grid and that the federal government is starting to allocate money for these projects.
Connecticut lawmakers continue to explore regional solutions with neighboring states as well.
“We are all in this together, and I think there are a lot of constructive conversations going on. The planning piece still needs a lot more work,” Steinberg said. “We need to be clear what our priorities are for infrastructure investment, but it’s on everybody’s radar. There is no ignoring the need for us to get our act together as a region.”
Steinberg praised various offshore projects, pointing to the State Pier Port of New London, which is being developed as an offshore wind port.
“It’s already brought a lot of jobs,” he said. “It has transformed the pier, which doesn’t even look anything like it used to before. It really has the capacity to deal with this giant technology. It’s inspiring.”
Steinberg said he looks forward to leading the committee when the legislative session begins Feb. 7.