Lawmakers aren’t ready to jump in just yet and mediate the dispute between heating oil dealers and utilities over the price of natural gas and oil, but they say the current dialogue on energy will play a central role in next year’s legislative session.
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said there’s a bipartisan interest in how the state brings down the cost of energy because it’s not only environmental issue, but an economic issue.
Williams said the price of electricity has gone up in Connecticut since deregulation and right now whatever the legislature can do to bring the price down and increase the diversity of energy sources would be helpful.
“These weather emergencies aren’t going away,” Williams, who is fond of the microgrid concept, said Tuesday.
A microgrid, whether it’s powered by a fuel cell or a natural gas source, could help keep the power to a town center or business district during power outages to ensure residents have access to essential services.
“I would like to see microgrids expanded leading us away from transmission system to greater energy security,” he said.
Chris Herb of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association, which represents 600 heating oil businesses, said lawmakers are watching the public hearing process on the Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s energy plan very closely.
The heating oil dealers Herb represents believe the plan relies too heavily on expansion of natural gas in the state at the expense of heating oil.
The plan released in October by Malloy calls for 900 miles of new natural gas lines to be built in the state, but is silent on exactly who would pay for it.
“The marketplace determines winners and losers and the public will be best served by minimal government intrusion,“ John Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Fuel Service in South Windsor, said Tuesday during a public hearing on the plan.
If the state moves forward with plans to expand natural gas lines in the state “Connecticut taxpayers should not be asked to fund the cost,” Mitchell said.
Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the state is not paying for the expansion of natural gas mains.
If a business park or large anchor customer wants to switch to natural gas, the state through the Department of Economic and Community Development will pick up some of the cost, but the scenario would work much like it already does today, Schain said.
Utility ratepayers will pick up the cost of connecting the natural gas line to their home, but because the cost of connecting to natural gas and converting furnaces will be spread out over a period of 15 years the cost to the consumer will be lower, he said.
The plan assumes “there will continue to be a significant cost spread between the price of gas and oil,” Schain said.
Mark LeBel, an energy fellow at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, told DEEP officials Tuesday that the price difference between oil and natural gas is not the headline.
“We think the real headline, and we have numbers to support this, is that energy efficiency should be the real answer,“ LeBel said.
He said energy efficiency creates local jobs in retrofitting homes and installing upgrades to heating systems. It also boosts the economy because it lowers bills and gives consumers more money to spend.
While the plan includes a component of energy efficiency, it’s been lost in the dialogue about which will be cheaper in the future oil or natural gas.
But to LeBel it doesn’t matter whether it’s oil or natural gas, if the furnace burning the fuel isn’t efficient and there’s insulation hanging from the ceiling then it really doesn’t matter why type of energy someone is using.
“Investment in energy efficiency and renewables shield consumers from unexpected changes in fuel markets and we shouldn’t underinvest just because natural gas prices are appealing at the moment,“ LeBel said back in October when the plan was released.
The last public hearing on the plan will be held Monday, Nov. 26 at Torrington City Hall.
Speaker-elect Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the comprehensive energy plan is “somewhat new territory” for the state.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 calling for the administration to draft a plan.
“Not everything in it will need to be legislated, but we’ll tackle the proposals as they come,” Sharkey said Tuesday.
He said lawmakers are watching the public hearing process and will use its own to further develop legislative proposals.
But who will head up that effort in the legislature? There’s possibly two vacancies at the moment on the committee expected to spearhead of those efforts.
The House co-chair of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee didn’t win her re-election bid, and the Senate co-chairman may be looking to move to the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee leaving a void at the helm of the committee directly responsible for seeing through any energy legislation.
Sharkey and Williams said they would be releasing their committee assignments sometime before the Christmas holiday.