February 24, 2024
After a lackluster 2023, CT’s efforts on climate policy are still stalled


This is the first of a two-part series examining how Connecticut stacks up against neighboring states on climate policy and what we could be doing differently.

Katie Dykes’ eyes bug out noticeably at the notion that 2023 may have had ups as well as downs for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. It is two weeks before Christmas, and the full breadth of the year’s policy and other failures is not debatable.

“It’s a good thing you’re not a photographer,” says Dykes, who is commissioner of DEEP. “They can’t see my face.”

The year more or less ended with the headline-grabbing failure to move cars and trucks purchased in Connecticut largely off fossil fuels in the next dozen years, though the final word may be yet to come. While the motor vehicle regulations have become the poster child for the state’s recent failed efforts to address climate change causes and impacts, the rest of the year was equally apocalyptic.

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Even as extreme weather fueled by climate change pummeled the state with floods, droughts, smoke, heat and cold, and the world struggled through its hottest year on record, all major climate legislation failed, save a few provisions left in an otherwise gutted bill or two.

Offshore wind — seen as the region’s, if not the world’s, carbon-free energy salvation — hit the shoals everywhere due to major global economic headwinds.

The few bright spots were largely obscured by the reality that most of Connecticut’s neighboring states, as well as other states around the country, seemed to be cruising past us on climate change actions and genuine innovation.

If Connecticut ever was a leader in that arena, as it likes to claim and continued to claim even as the motor vehicle regulations crashed, it no longer is, experts and policy makers agree.

“Well, we’re far from last, let’s just say that,” said Ken Gillingham, who specializes in energy and environmental economics as a professor at Yale. He was also a senior economist for energy and the environment on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “I’m just going to say it’s been a disappointment over the past few years that shows that Connecticut’s no longer leading by any means, even if it was.”

“Connecticut’s actually getting left behind,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who co-chaired the Environment Committee when one of the motor vehicle statutes that is now in limbo was passed. Cohen is now co-chair of the Transportation Committee.

“It certainly begs the question, ‘should Connecticut be doing more?’ And my answer is, yes, we should be doing more,” Cohen said. “We’re going to need to take a hard look at how we’re going to move forward.”

Republicans generally don’t disagree that Connecticut needs to take more action than it has on climate change, but legislators on both sides of the aisle tend to stick with standard political solutions.

“I think as a state we need to focus on the issues that we can find common ground on,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, the Republican leader in the House. “Internally, when you talk to both sides of the aisle, even people who want to see climate change initiatives pass, they’re not convinced that Connecticut policy has any impact on global climate issues. And so it makes it difficult for people, I think, collectively to come behind some of these proposals. And I think that’s part of the issue with the EV regs.”

Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“I don’t know what the answer is, other than we need reliable sources of power to bring our prices down, and what the legislature can do to solve that right now, I don’t know,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, a ranking member on the Environment Committee. “I’m not in favor of our legislature passing bills that continue to make the cost of living unaffordable in Connecticut.”

Connecticut legislators across the board continue to argue that energy prices are already too high as their rationale for not adopting climate change-conscious approaches to energy — focusing on the short-term cost increases as opposed to the long-term savings they offer or the cost of inaction on factors like human health.

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It’s a dynamic that Leah Lopez Schmalz has contemplated for a long time. Now president of Save the Sound, she has spent many years lobbying for the group at the Capitol.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I think it’s the million dollar question. I don’t think we’d be where we are right now at all if there was a way to do that well.”

The tension between these competing needs is exacerbated by fairly ambitious state goals for reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and the climate change impacts such warming has produced. The state is not on track to meet many of them — most notably state-set greenhouse gas emission reductions and federal air quality standards.

But most of those are only goals, not mandates, with no enforcement component.

All of this raises the question: How does Connecticut, suffering as it does from impacts of climate change that include flooding, more extreme storms, excessive heat, bad air quality and more, move ahead?

“I don’t know,” Dykes said. “How do you?”

Dykes often expresses exasperation that in Connecticut, commissioners like her do not have the kind executive power their counterparts in other states have. She is more reliant on legislative action, including approval of regulations the legislature authorizes her to develop — the dynamic that crashed the car and truck emission regulations.

“In other states, the executive branch agencies also have broader regulatory authority to implement regulatory programs that are critical to achieving those targets. And in some other states, there’s also citizen suit enforcement provisions that essentially contribute to those targets becoming mandatory,” Dykes said.

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Legislation that would have given Dykes more authority over implementing emissions requirements died early in the last session amid complaints from lawmakers that they didn’t want to give DEEP so much power.

But Dykes and her department have come in for criticism from both political parties, advocates and others for opaque processes and a top-down approach that doesn’t always bring legislators along, let alone cities, towns and the people who live in them.

And the department, along with the Lamont administration, has been faulted for just getting out-messaged.

Message wars

The opposition message each time, largely from Republicans and traditional energy interests, was the fear of higher costs, usually portrayed as a tax.

“Which turned out to be their most effective tool,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee.

First it scuttled Lamont’s plan to implement truck tolls on Connecticut highways; then it killed the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional plan to incentivize motor vehicle emission reductions through producer fees on gasoline. Finally, it undermined a mandate for emission-free vehicles.

“They’ve been easy to manipulate into something that that Republicans made scary and that’s a reflection of, I just think, really crappy strategy on our part,” Steinberg said.

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

It’s also easier to say “no” than explain the nuances and complexity of the programs at issue, Steinberg and others said. Over and over, the retrospective advice is that the state needed and still needs a simple, direct message that clearly states the benefits of whatever environmental or energy-related action it is trying to take.

“The word ‘no’ takes not even a second to say, and it’s bad and you don’t have to produce the evidence as to why it’s bad or the reason why you’re saying no. That goes to the responsibility of the people that are proposing it,” said Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, who is co-chair of the Environment Committee and a member of the Energy and Technology Committee. “It’s easier to believe and hear the negative than it is to understand the evolution, whether it’s our grid system, whether it’s how we fuel our personal passenger vehicles.”

Candelora, the Republican House leader, points to Dykes when asked what would be a better approach.

“There has to be better conversation, cooperation coming out of that agency. They don’t have a lot of wins,” he said. “They need to evaluate how they’re interacting with the state legislature because it’s not necessarily ideology that tanks these things.

“For us, it’s less about the substance. It’s about how we’re operating as a state.”

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House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, takes it further, saying broadly that Democrats don’t do a good job touting a lot of the work they do.

“We often lose the public relations battle versus what’s easy to point out about the difficult decisions that we’re making. The decisions we are making do come at a cost,” he said, noting that green energy can initially cost more and people don’t necessarily understand why they’re paying for something from which they’re not seeing a direct benefit.

Those in the advocacy community admit they’re partly to blame for pushing the notion of global annihilation from climate change as the main message.

“It motivates the far left and it motivates the people who are worried about the environment at large,” Schmalz said. “I don’t think it motivates the person who is living their life day-to-day and hears about climate change and all the bad stuff that’s happening but doesn’t really understand how that’s impacting them here and doesn’t really understand that no matter what Connecticut does, how is that going to stop this thing?”

Shannon Laun, the Conservation Law Foundation’s vice president for Connecticut, said the connection can’t be the wonky techno-messaging that the advocacy world trades in. “That just does not speak to a lot of people,” she said. “We need to be able to explain things in plain language that people understand.”

The legwork needs to encompass legislators and regular folks alike, said Nathan Frohling of the Nature Conservancy. “If you’re in a response mode trying to defend or explain, you’re already 10 steps behind,” he said.

Some of these messages have gotten through to DEEP.

Dykes lets it be known multiple times during an interview that she is reaching out more to municipalities. It’s a lesson she learned from her effort in 2020 that brought together dozens of local officials over many months to brainstorm solutions to the state’s waste disposal crisis. They came up with loads of actionable ideas. Almost none of them were approved by the legislature.

It’s not the only thing that hasn’t worked lately.

What’s not working

Connecticut has no single planning mandate like Massachusetts, other states in the region, and Colorado. Generally called a roadmap, it is an economy-wide strategy for addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Legislation that would have begun to create one in Connecticut — watered down from its original form — never made it to the floor last session.

“I’ll be frank, the first iterations of those plans in several of our states have been a little underwhelming,” said Greg Cunningham, vice president for clean energy and climate change at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has operated in New England for two generations. “They are nonetheless formalized processes that require state stakeholder input that ultimately render a document that has some legal force in several of our states. And that requires the state to go through a really thoughtful exercise of examining where it is and where it needs to go.”

That legal linkage between the plan and an obligation to undertake regulation is critical, he said. “Our states can be really good at planning. It’s acting on plans that has proven more challenging.”

DEEP likes to point to Connecticut’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy, CES. But the department is more than a year behind on its statutory five-year update. There still isn’t even a draft.

Dykes says the plan now is to release the CES piecemeal, starting with a section on reducing building emissions — the second largest source of greenhouse gases after transportation. Legislation to deal with building emissions also flopped last year.

She also points to the state’s EV roadmap, which has been around since 2020, unbeknownst to many lawmakers. And she cites the many recommendations of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change a few years ago. But the GC3 has only met sporadically since then. 

Dykes said part of the current problem is the scramble to get some of the flood of federal funds unleashed by the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Some of the staffers who would normally be working on the CES, she said, have been repurposed to do applications for federal funds.

They have not been entirely successful.

On the bright side, the state just scored $15 million in federal funding for more than 100 electric vehicle chargers in seven communities and it will get 50 electric school buses for two districts. Connecticut actually has an electric school bus adoption program in place as part of legislation passed in 2022, but it’s not clear how much progress has been made toward meetings the program’s benchmarks.

But Connecticut was not among the 44 states this past October that shared $3.5 billion in federal Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnership (GRIP) funding for 55 projects. DEEP had applied for money but didn’t make the cut.

“We were very disappointed,” Dykes said. DEEP applied for $100 million to fund onshore grid upgrades in preparation for future offshore wind interconnections. The department is talking with the federal Department of Energy to learn how to improve its application and will apply again in the next round, but due to the competitive nature of the process would not disclose what project it is pitching.

Among other pools of federal money announced in the third quarter of 2023, the state also did not receive money for Climate Adaptation Partnerships, Coastal Resilience, HUD low income funds for energy efficiency and conservation, or regional tech hubs, for which New York and all of the New England states except Connecticut received funding. DEEP did not respond to questions about whether it had applied for any of those funds.

The regional hydrogen hub, led by New York, that Connecticut is part of, also was not chosen.

Connecticut also faces the same offshore wind problem as every other early-adopter state in the northeast — namely, developers backing out of contracts because of dramatically changed economic conditions caused by the one-two punch of COVID and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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This fall, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island decided to link their new bidding rounds, including rebids on the voided contracts, as a way to access economies of scale to keep costs from going too high. It’s now facing a two-month delay over federal tax credit uncertainties.

Dykes regards the new requests for proposals (RFPs) as the tiniest bit of a silver lining.

“I think it is going to be a really interesting and promising test case. And if it’s successful, I think we might see opportunities for coordination of RFPs for other resources and involving even more states,” she said.

She mentioned heat pump purchases, hydrogen policy and the biggest fish of all, shared transmission investments. “It’s, I think, a catalyst for a lot of really productive conversations among the New England states,” she said.

And that is actually some of what is working.

What is working

“We have an unprecedented level of collaboration among the New England states and frankly, the Northeast states,” Dykes said.

A good bit of that is due to Dykes herself. Four years ago, she made it clear to the operators of the New England electric grid — ISO-New England — that their paradigm for purchasing power did not adequately meet the states’ priorities for cleaner power, not more fossil fuels, and restraints on costs.

The coalition of states and stakeholders she pulled together as the pandemic surged through the region is already paying dividends in how the ISO is reforming its operation. Planning for the long-term, including changes to the power mix and increased electricity needs, is already happening.

A study called the Operational Impact of Extreme Weather Events, undertaken by the ISO and the Electric Power Research Institute, developed a tool to make better long-term grid projections, specifically looking at energy needs in 2027 and 2032. It accounts for the many resource and demand variables of the grid in the face of climate change-driven weather and other pressures.

The ISO has also done a transmission study looking out to 2050 of needs, costs and options as the region works through its clean energy transition and electrification of many services. The costs could be substantial — as high as $26 billion. But the ISO points out that reducing peak demands through efficiency and non-wires alternatives, like on-site generation from solar or fuel cells, could knock that price tag down by $9 billion.

Next up is what the ISO calls REST, regional energy shortfall thresholds. The ISO essentially wants to determine what level of risk the region is willing to accept, how to see those risks coming earlier, and what to do to keep them from getting out of control.

“Rather than kind of waiting and saying, ‘Oh, we have a problem today,’ it’s more about, ‘OK, this is where you’re going, this is what you’re looking to do from an electric vehicle perspective, from a heat pump perspective. Here’s what you’re looking at from a solar adoption perspective.’ How do all these things play together?” ISO spokesman Matt Kakley said. “And if they don’t, let’s see that a decade ahead of time so that you can ramp up your solar.”

Solar, in fact, is already making a big difference. Growth of residential and commercial rooftop solar, also known as behind-the-meter solar, is taking noticeable pressure off the grid. The ISO now includes estimates of how much that kind of solar is lowering grid demand, and in the last couple of years, there have been days where the grid has set record low demand due to solar.

The addition of storage is making solar even more valuable and Connecticut, after years of baby steps, is actually leading some of that charge. The updated residential solar program that began two years ago also removed caps that, in an earlier iteration, limited the amount of solar that could be installed.

After some initial confusion, the new program, which now also includes multi-family homes, has taken off. Residential solar deployment as of October 2023 was already more than double what it was in all of 2022.

The updated commercial rooftop solar program still has some caps, though they’re higher than they were and other restrictions have been loosened. By August of 2023 the program had already surpassed 2022 in terms of the number of projects and the total power from them.

In the Northeast, which includes New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Connecticut is now first in installed residential solar per capita.

Community solar, which provides virtual solar power to locations unsuited to having actual panels, is another story. It has languished from the start of the initial pilot program with only one operating system in the state.

Neighboring states like Massachusetts have had much greater success with community solar, and their innovative approach to community solar may be the least of what other states, many of them Connecticut’s neighbors, are doing as they make big strides into clean energy.