HARTFORD, CT — Lobbyists packed a hearing room on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building to watch Tuesday as the Energy and Technology Committee voted 17-7 on a bill that will impact the state’s energy markets.
The bill, which has been evolving since it was introduced about a week ago, will give Dominion Energy, which owns the Millstone Nuclear Facility in Waterford, an opportunity to directly bid on five-year energy contracts.
The bill passed with broad bipartisan support, but some members expressed concern about moving forward with this type of legislation before the state completes a Comprehensive Energy Strategy.
“It’s very complicated stuff. It’s very emotional stuff,” Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, said.
She said nuclear is an old technology and most of these plants were built in the 1970s and are very expensive to operate. She said there’s a trend nationally of nuclear plants closing because they are no longer profitable.
“Nuclear is being challenged all over the country, especially here in the northeast,” said Dan Weekley, vice president of corporate affairs for Dominion Energy, following the vote.
He said “the folks who continue to say Millstone will operate indefinitely, that’s just not accurate. We are looking to sustain Millstone as long as possible.”
But he declined to elaborate on any definitive schedule to close the plant. He said Dominion evaluates each of its resources separately and was unable to give any assurances about the future of the facility.
Reed said Millstone generates 2,100 megawatts of electricity, which is about 60 percent of Connecticut’s turnout. Without it, prices would increase, she said.
Nuclear also helps the state with its emissions.
“Love it or hate it, it’s zero carbon,” Reed said.
Weekley argues that the legislation is not about benefiting Millstone, but rather it’s benefitting the ratepayers. He said unequivocally that the legislation will lower the rates.
“Cutting out that middleman will force rates lower,” Weekley said.
But a group of environmentalists and the AARP disagree.
They say creating this separate lane for nuclear to compete against power generated by biomass and trash-to-energy plants will increase prices because the entire lane will be on a different path.
John Erlingheuser, state advocacy director for AARP Connecticut, said allowing Dominion to compete against those fuels means they will win that bid “every day of the week and only undercutting them slightly and raising their overall costs.”
Reed said renewable energy, like wind and solar, can’t replace nuclear because they don’t have the capacity. In the same piece of legislation, renewable energies such as wind and solar will be able to bid on longer term 20-year contracts.
Reed said they are trying to take a holistic approach to Connecticut’s energy market.
Energy and Technology Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he doesn’t “love this bill,” but he ended up voting in favor of it.
He said he doesn’t understand why Dominion Energy wouldn’t want a guarantee that they would win the bid, if they were able to bid.
“Why wouldn’t a business want a guarantee?” Winfield said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
He said during the public hearing he heard that coal, oil, and nuclear are shutting down because they are not sustainable in the current market. If that’s the case, he’s hard pressed to understand why they wouldn’t be asking for a state subsidy.
Last year, a similar bill got raised at the last-minute in the Senate and passed in that chamber before dying in the House.
Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said this legislation is in the best interest of the ratepayers and regulators like the Office of Consumer Counsel and Attorney General are there to make sure that happens.
Environmentalists and the AARP have said that if Dominion is going to ask lawmakers to create this process for them, then the company needs to open up its books.
Weekley said state regulators will have the ability to determine whether these bids are in the best interests of the ratepayers and if it’s not, then they won’t approve it.
Asked if Dominion would share its financial information with regulators, Weekley said “no.”
Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said unlike other nuclear plants that have closed, Millstone is still in good shape. He said if they did nothing to help Millstone this year, it would still be around for a discussion next year.
Freshman lawmaker, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said the Comprehensive Energy Strategy was due last October.
“Instead of waiting for that eventual report, we sit here today looking at this language,” Fishbein said. “This is an important bill. It sets our policy for the next 20 years or so.”
He said he’s uncomfortable voting in favor of the bill.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said he too would like to have the Comprehensive Energy Strategy in hand, but trusts the chairs of the committee to continue to negotiate this legislation going forward.