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    What higher natural gas prices mean for CT's clean energy push


    November 28, 2022 - John Moritz, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

     

      Nov. 26—With the price of natural gas sending electric bills soaring across New England, some climate activists are pointing to Connecticut's pledge to wean itself off of fossil fuels by 2040 as a means of lowering the state's stubbornly high energy costs, too.

      While the cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have plummeted in recent years — especially when compared to the cost of operating traditional oil-and-gas fired power plants — those technologies continue to produce a small fraction of electricity used within the six-state power grid that covers Connecticut.

      The grid, ISO New England, gets roughly half of its electricity from natural gas, with nearly one-quarter coming from nuclear reactors. The largest source of renewable energy, hydroelectric power, accounted for about 6% of the region's electricity needs in 2021, with wind and solar combining to produce about 5%.

      Last week, Connecticut's two largest power utilities, United Illuminating and Eversource, announced that electric bills for most customers would increase between $79 and $85 a month starting in January as a result of the global natural gas shortage precipitated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

      The price increases reflect the costs both utilities pay to purchase power from generation plants, which are passed along to consumers at-cost under Connecticut's deregulated electricity markets.

      "Cleaner, longer-term electricity is cheaper. It just is," said Lori Brown, the executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which has advocated in favor of the state's transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner, renewable sources of electricity generation.

      Brown compared the sudden surge in utility bills to the "roller coaster" of gasoline prices and the impact those costs have on consumer's car-buying habits.

      "When the prices go down, everybody runs out and buys SUVs," Brown said. "But the moment it goes up, people are freaking out and they have no control of it whatsoever."

      Even before the current surge in natural gas prices, Connecticut's utilities had taken steps to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels through the development of a pair of offshore wind farms that are expected to power more than 550,000 homes when they come online in several years. In addition, the state and Eversource are funding a $255 million overhaul of the State Pier in New London to serve as a launching pad for offshore wind development, though the project has been mired in cost overruns and questions about conflicts of interests.

      Gov. Ned Lamont, who signed the pledge to make Connecticut's grid carbon-free by 2040, has defended the project and pledged that his administration, through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, is positioned to take advantage of billions of dollars of federal funds recently made available for renewable energy projects through the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Officials say that money can be put to use on solar and wind projects, as well as new transmission lines and battery storage technologies.

      "The recent rate hike further underscores the importance of diversifying the state's energy mix," DEEP spokesman Will Healey said in a statement Wednesday. "Bringing renewable options online will better insulate residents from volatile price swings in the fossil fuel market and from geopolitical events that are beyond our control. As the Governor has warned previously, and as the electric utilities recently cited in their rate hike proposals, the region's reliance on natural gas is the principal driver of higher rates."

      Even those who in the past have questioned the costs associated with Connecticut's clean-energy goals this week said that the current price of natural gas and its impact on resident's electric bills have made renewables, at least in the short term, appealing on economic and conservation grounds.

      "I think there's multiple ways we should be exploring tackling this," said state Rep. Stephen Harding, R- Brookfield, the ranking Republican on the Environment Committee. "Certain infrastructure may be helpful in curbing those costs, and if they are, then certainly we should be looking at that."

      Still, supporters of the state's transition to carbon-free and renewable energy sources warn that cheaper costs associated with those forms of generation alone may not be enough to dramatically reduce resident's utility bills, at least not right away. State Sen. Norm Needleman, D- Essex, who co-chairs the General Assembly's Energy and Environment Committee, said that's because of the need to maintain a backup supply of energy in the case of bad weather, which requires utilities to pay for traditional kinds of power plants, such as natural gas, to sit idle until they are needed.

      Those costs will likely rise as more renewables come online without sufficient battery technology to store any excess energy long-term, Needleman predicted.

      "They're great when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining," Needleman said. But "you still need the ability to generate [electricity] when you need it."

      Another confounding factor for state and industry leaders to contend with is the potential for local interests to delay or even derail projects that aim to bring clean energy to the region.

      Famously, wind projects off the coast of Long Island and Massachusetts have had to contend with residents who complain that the turbines will obstruct their ocean views, while fishermen and environmentalists have also questioned the impact larger wind farms will have on wildlife. More recently a plan to import clean, reliable hydroelectric power from Quebec to power homes in New England was put on hold when residents in Maine voted to block the construction of transmission lines through a forest.

      In an op-ed published this week in the Boston Globe, U.S. Sen Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley Campbell advocated for legislation to reform the permitting process for large, nationally significant infrastructure projects such as the development of offshore wind, transmission lines and mass transit.

      "For Connecticut to have a more stable pricing structure for energy, we need to have a greater amount of renewables funneling into the state," Murphy told CT Insider this week. "That's hard to [have] happen, when renewable projects and the transmission capacity necessary to bring renewables to Connecticut take so long to permit and get approved."

      Because the current market has made the cost of renewable energy projects more attractive to developers and utilities — while reducing the demand for new fossil-fuel-burning plants — Murphy said he was confident that permitting reform can attract a coalition in Washington, including more conservative Democrats and some Republicans.

      "If you solve permitting in a way that's energy source neutral, you actually give a big advantage to renewables," Murphy said. "Because that's where the incentives are right now."

      In Connecticut, lawmakers have even coalesced around previously taboo ideas, such as an expansion of nuclear energy as a way of fueling the state's transition from fossil fuels.

      Earlier this year, Lamont signed legislation to partially lift the state's decade-old moratorium on nuclear energy, allowing new reactors to be constructed at the existing site of the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Waterford. While the plant's owners have not announced plans to build any reactors, officials have publicly floated the idea that the plant could one day be home to emerging technology for smaller, modular units with about half the output of a traditional large reactor.

      In 2019, Lamont announced a deal to keep Millstone — by far the state's largest source of carbon-free power — running for at least another decade.

      ___

      (c)2022 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.)

      Visit the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) at www.ctpost.com

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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