Christine Stuart photo
(Updated 8:30 p.m.) The Senate gave its approval Wednesday to a bill that will codify how the state purchases renewable energy by maintaining a goal of buying 20 percent by 2020. But it wasn’t the goal of cleaner energy that had environmentalists concerned — it was the type of energy that would count toward that goal.

For the first time, large-scale Canadian hydropower would count toward the state’s renewable energy goal and was the focus of most of the debate on the bill.

Sen. Bob Duff, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said the revised version of the bill restricts hydropower to 1 percent a year and up to 5 percent by 2020. The original bill would have allowed up to 7.5 percent of the Renewable Portfolio Standard to include hydropower by 2025.

“We’re only using that if necessary,” Duff said. “If we don’t procure the right amount of clean energy through the procurement that the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will have, we may go out and procure some hydro that would then be considered part of the RPS standards as well.”

Duff said that currently 40 percent of the state’s Class I renewable energy comes from out-of-state suppliers, and 76 percent of Class I is biomass “that isn’t very clean right now.”

Rep. Lonnie Reed, Duff’s co-chair in the House who watched Wednesday’s debate, said the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards have been flawed for years. She said the state has relied upon “dirty, out-of-state” biomass and landfill gas to meet its renewable energy goals. She said that instead of dismantling the system, the bill preserves its integrity by fixing it.

Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said he thinks the new bill strikes the right balance by creating a trigger for hydropower if the state can’t get to its goal with traditional Class I renewables such as wind and solar.

But environmentalists like Chris Phelps, who have turned their attention to the House, said he strongly opposes the bill.

“The bill is a rollback of Connecticut’s renewable energy standard,” Phelps said. “Changing how it’s rolled back doesn’t make it better.”

But Duff believes the bill struck the right balance between promoting cleaner energy at a cheaper price.

“We want cleaner, greener energy, but we also want to make sure we’re sensitive to ratepayers as well,” Duff said.

He said there’s a three-step process before large-scale hydropower could be included in the renewable portfolio.

But Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said those triggers are “pretty fuzzy” and leave a lot of discretion up to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty.

The bill allows Esty to enter into a 15-year contract for Canadian hydropower outside the RPS process, Dolan said. The whole thing makes him wonder why hydropower “isn’t it beating everyone else in the market today” if it really is as cheap as the administration says it is.

He said there’s something wrong with a bill when environmentalists and the generators agree on how bad it is.

“We don’t agree on anything,” Dolan said.

Debate on the bill was postponed last week after Esty participated in a conference call with UBS investors and energy analysts. Some lawmakers felt he offered up information about the bill before the final draft had been released.

UBS investors have an interest in Northeast Utilities. According to analysts, NU would benefit from the construction of a transmission line from Canada. Analysts moved the utility from its “neutral” position to a “buy” position on April 17 before last week’s conference call, but some of that decision was based upon the likelihood of the legislation passing.

“We anticipate that in the near term Connecticut’s SB1138 has the potential to pass the House and Senate, revising the states’ RPS to allow a portion to be met with large-scale hydro,” the UBS investor research report reads. “This would in turn allow Hydro-Quebec (who is in turn having NU build the line on their behalf) to contract with the state and gain economic certainty around the line.”

The bill passed the Senate by a 26-6 vote after about two hours of debate.

Sens. John Kissel, Kevin Witkos, and Art Linares recused themselves before debate on the bill began. Sens. Kissel and Witkos work for Northeast Utilities, which could benefit if Hydro Quebec is able to build a transmission line from Canada through New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Linares works for a firm that specializes in the installation of solar panels. Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, was absent.