The Senate unanimously passed an omnibus energy bill Monday that seeks to lower energy costs and electric rates in a state that has the highest electricity rates in the continental United States.
The House is expected to take up the measure later today.
Most of the 273-page bill deals with the merger of the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Utility Control. It also creates, for the first time since the 1970s, a new energy department dedicated solely to energy policy.
“It goes much further than mere consolidations. It recognizes the inextricable relationship between energy and the environment and it brings together the disparate elements relating to energy so that there is a focused response, a focused effort to address the issues that we face today,” Sen. John Fonfara, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee said. “It reflects the evolutionism between a regulated world to a competitive market in many respects. Much of what happens in the energy world today, happens outside the regulated world.”
Fonfara said the bill creates a procurement officer who will look at purchasing long-term electricity contracts from a variety of generators.
“That’s a paradigm shift in itself. For years we have focused on ensuring that the lights stay on and we’ll continue to do that — it’s a priority. But for the first time we will have in law policies that look at how we can additionally change prices, lowering energy costs,” he said.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to keep the lights on.”
However, while this year’s bill had bipartisan support it’s the first big piece of energy legislation the state has passed since 2007.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, who was involved with the drafting of the bill, said the bill will save the state 5 percent or $55 million a year.
“When we’re dealing with energy, we’re dealing with a lot of money,“ Witkos said.
He said consumers will be able to access those savings in three ways. Through a direct credit to a homeowner to install a solar panel on their home, payment on the production of electricity returned to the grid, and, finally, through a lease program.
Witkos said he had the solar panels installed through the lease program at his home. The panel was installed in December and its saved them hundreds of dollars every month. With two teenagers, his average electric bill was more than $300 a month, but last month his electric bill was just $23.
“I’m not only savings for myself but I’m saving [for] each and every one of you on your electric bill,” Witkos said. That’s important during the summer months when Connecticut’s demand for energy exceeds its generation capacity.
In addition to changing how electricity is purchased for the state, the bill expands permissible Clean Energy Fund projects to include electric and natural gas vehicle infrastructure, electricity storage and efficiency financing, establishes a residential solar photovoltaic program, explores repowering of older, dirty electric generators, and expands accountability for all clean energy programs.
The AARP, which supported the legislation, was excited about the additional consumer protections it adds for alternative retail suppliers.
John Erhlingheuser, associate state director of AARP, said it contains consumer protections that will help older residents make more informed decisions about their electric supplier. He said they also support the creation of a low-income rate for those with less ability to pay.
The bill also was praised by the environmental community and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“This bill represents a strategic new approach to our state’s energy policy that will reduce future energy costs and decrease our dependence on fossil fuels,“ Malloy said in a statement after passage in the Senate.
“The fact that this bill enjoyed bipartisan, unanimous support speaks to the will of our legislators to address the detrimental impact high energy costs have had on families, business and industry, and our overall economy,“ Malloy added.
“Our inability to handle this issue in the past has not been partisan differences necessarily,” Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said of the overall legislation.
But the debate didn’t answer all of his questions. He said it’s still not obvious why Connecticut has one of the highest electricity rates in the United States, “but I hope this will be step toward getting those bills down,” McKinney said.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said energy policy is almost like a second language. He applauded his colleagues for tackling it aptly.