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House passes energy bill with added restriction on hydropower

A bill redefining how Connecticut counts and categorizes clean energy passed the House on Tuesday after months of debate and negotiations over its treatment of large-scale hydropower.

The vote, 112-33, sent the measure back to the Senate to approve a House amendment to the bill.

That amendment – seen as a small win by some environmentalists – creates one more hurdle for the state to clear before resorting to large-scale hydropower in its clean-energy requirements.

“It’s an unambiguous improvement,” said Mark LeBel, an energy fellow at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. However, he said, “We still don’t think it goes far enough.”

The bill, passed by the Senate earlier in May, changes how energy sources qualify as “clean” in the state – a key definition to be eligible for some subsidies. It keeps the state’s clean energy requirement at 20 percent by 2020.

The sources of electricity for that requirement, classified as “class one” renewables, include solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal systems, biogas from landfills or other sources, wood-burning biomass plants, and smaller hydropower dams.

Environmentalists and other critics initially opposed the bill because it counted large-scale hydropower, like Hydro-Quebec, in class one – a category traditionally limited to up-and-coming sources like solar or wind that need subsidies much more than big hydropower, which is already available at low prices. That move would, in effect, make fewer subsidies available to developers of clean-energy projects.

The House amendment accepted Tuesday, along with earlier revisions to the bill, made hydropower a last-resort for the state if the energy markets couldn’t buy enough power from other more traditional clean-energy sources. Specifically, it requires that the energy department first look into setting up long-term contracts with other class-one sources that could fill a shortfall before counting hydropower toward the state’s requirement.

Outside of the debate on hydropower, the bill also makes changes to biogas projects, small-scale hydropower dams, biomass plants and any clean energy source that currently receives subsidies from other states or programs. It also gives the energy department permission to enter into long-term contracts with clean energy providers.

“This amendment is crafted to better incentive real renewables such as wind and solar and to move our state away from sending way too much money from Connecticut ratepayers to purchase dirtier, older biomass and land gas from plants that are located in Maine and New Hampshire,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s energy and technology committee.

Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown, said that the bill would help drive down rates, “add a little bit of competition to the renewable market and help in the long term stabilize our electricity rates.”

But there were critics on both the right and the left.

Rep. Larry Miller, R-Stratford, questioned the focus on renewable energy and said lawmakers ought to be focused about the cost to ratepayers.

“We’re trying to change the climate by pursuing [an] emission-free type of energy, and it’s going to cost us an arm and a leg,” Miller said. “What we’re going to do with this amendment is … increase the cost of electricity. Somebody’s going to make money.”

Democratic Rep. Mary Mushinsky of Wallingford said the bill does some good things, such as lessening the state’s dependence on wood-burning plants in northern New England. The governor of New Hampshire, Democrat Maggie Hassan, lobbied against the bill, sending letters to Connecticut lawmakers urging them to vote no.

“We’re swapping out dirtier, wood-fueled New Hampshire biomass for cleaner hydropower,” Mushinsky said. “New Hampshire would lose money if we don’t buy their wood chip power anymore.”

But while the amended bill is an improvement, Mushinsky said, it still doesn’t do enough to promote Connecticut solar and wind generators as well as energy-efficiency. “Anything we can do to promote energy efficiency is like finding energy,” Mushinsky said.

Mushinsky also questioned to cost of delivering hydropower to Connecticut. “Hydro is definitely cheaper but we do have to transmit it from far-away to here and those costs have to be considered,” she said.

The bill was also drew criticism after state energy Commissioner Daniel Esty briefed investors about the measure’s approach to a major transmission project being developed – in part by Northeast Utilities – that would make Canadian hydropower more readily available to southern New England.