Connecticut promoted a natural gas plan that was supposed to save taxpayers money. Natural gas prices are now soaring, promising a costly winter

In August 2014, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, officials from the Fairfield County town of Wilton and representatives of Yankee Gas celebrated the start of a large-scale natural gas expansion project estimated to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Malloy’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy recommended changes in energy efficiency, electricity supply, industrial energy requirements, transportation and natural gas. He promoted his plan to spur economic development, business growth and reduced costs in response to persistent complaints from homeowners and businesses about high energy prices.

A key part of the governor’s plan was to convert heating in homes and businesses to natural gas from oil, a strategy that Wilton embraced. Malloy announced in 2012 an ambitious goal of connecting 300,000 households to natural gas by 2020.

State officials reported in 2018 that 39,104 residential customers converted to natural gas for heating and 12,021 commercial and industrial customers shifted to natural gas for generation or other processes between 2014 and 2016.

But now, soaring natural gas prices are eliminating the rationale to abandon oil.

High natural gas prices promise a costly winter

In Wilton, all four of the town’s schools were hooked up to natural gas by 2016.

Local officials are now bracing for a costly winter as natural gas prices soar. Wilton has budgeted more than $500,000 for heating, up from $440,000 last year and about $300,000 before that, said Chris Burney, director of public works and facilities.

“In the next month or so we’ll decide if we have to pull money out of other areas to supplement the heating bill,” he said.

Part of the higher cost is due to fresh-air systems that run 24/7 in response to COVID-19 safety mandates. But rising natural gas prices also are responsible for the financial pain.

“I’m watching the market like everyone else,” Burney said.

Critics of the Malloy administration’s energy policies say consumers who spent thousands of dollars to convert to natural gas have little to show for their investment now that gas prices are spiking. As prices fluctuate, with gas and oil taking turns as the more expensive heating fuel, family-owned oil dealerships say that was always their point: Markets, not government, dictate commodity prices.

Gas pipeline construction has ‘not materialized’

In a February 2018 report, state energy officials said gas main installation has “not materialized at the rate the local distribution companies projected.” Utilities are not overbuilding, but are installing mains to meet current and near future customer demand, DEEP said.

In addition, with expanded use of fuel cells and other on-site power such as solar panels, “much of the anticipated residential natural gas demand” is shifting to the commercial and industrial sectors, that show greater demand, the state said.

Connecticut Natural Gas, Southern Connecticut Gas and Yankee Gas have installed about 381 miles of gas lines from 2014 to 2019, with 2020 information not yet reviewed, according to the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. The Malloy administration said in 2013 its goal over 10 years was to build about 900 miles of gas mains, focusing on factories, hospitals, schools and other buildings with significant energy consumption.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said in December that ratepayers are on the hook for about $64 million in higher gas costs for the expansion program. Risks of the program are “demonstrably greater” for ratepayers than the utilities’ shareholders, regulators said.

Meanwhile, with natural gas prices continuing to rise, “it doesn’t make sense for customers to make the switch,” said Shannon Laun, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that a natural gas bench mark in June and July was at its highest level for the same months since 2014. In the first week of October, the spot price jumped 5.7%.

The reasons include sharply higher prices in Europe due to rising demand as COVID-19 restrictions ease and less natural gas storage in the U.S. than last year due to a drop in production during the pandemic.

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A push for electrification and weatherization

Amy McLean, Connecticut director of the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy group, said heat pump technology has expanded and improved over the past few years. Electrification and weatherization are common sense energy solutions and state policy should not give incentives to switch to gas, she said.

“At this point gas companies say natural gas is cleaner than oil,” McLean said. “It’s about the same or worse than oil because of leaks in pipelines.”

Read the full article in the Hartford Courant here

RGGI Centers Environmental Justice in 3rd Program Review

Environmental justice is taking center stage in the latest Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program review now underway.

Justice and equity considerations were among the topics that RGGI sought input on during a public engagement session for the program’s third review since its launch in 2009.

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While RGGI has delivered many benefits, such as clean air and energy savings, “the program falls short when it comes to ensuring that those benefits are equitably delivered,” Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director at Acadia Center, said during the session.

Read the full article in RTO Insider here

Massachusetts advocates say they’re being ignored in future-of-gas talks

As Massachusetts gas companies start legally mandated investigations into their role in a clean energy future, advocates are concerned that stakeholder voices calling for aggressive decarbonization, environmental justice, and a fair transition for fossil fuel workers are being shut out at a crucial moment in the process.

While the gas companies contend they are committed to soliciting and incorporating stakeholder feedback, advocates say the utilities are failing to fully engage with their concerns. At the same time, the state has rejected advocates’ requests for increased oversight from regulators.

“It’s important for our perspective to be at the center of this and right now it feels like we’re much more of an audience,” said Debbie New, a participant in the Gas Leaks Allies coalition. “When questions about labor, equity, health, or safety are asked, we are told they will consider them later, rather than making them integral to the process.”

In June 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey asked the state’s department of public utilities to open an investigation into the future of the natural gas industry as the state moves toward its goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The department launched the investigation in October of that year with the stated goal of developing “a regulatory and policy roadmap to guide the evolution of the gas distribution industry.”

The first step in Massachusetts’ process required the state’s gas distribution companies to hire consultants to analyze the costs, regulatory implications, and emissions reductions involved in several different decarbonization strategies the state could pursue. These studies, the order specified, should look at the so-called “pathways” laid out in the state’s 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, as well as any other scenarios deemed appropriate. They should also take into account the input of stakeholders, the state said.

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That timeline makes right now a very important moment for environmental and public health activists. The report that emerges from the current process will inform the rest of the discussions and decisions throughout the investigation. Therefore, advocates argue, it is essential that there is broad agreement as to the scenarios the consultants model, the data used, and the assumptions made.

“If we are relying on this study, let’s do our homework,” said Amy Boyd, director of policy for climate nonprofit the Acadia Center. “We need to ask the right questions in order to be able to trust the answers at the end of the process.”

Read the full article in Energy News Network here

Mass. is creating a Commission on Clean Heat, a major step toward achieving climate goals

With an ambitious climate goal already on the books, state officials took a big step toward making the dream of net-zero carbon emissions a reality on Monday with the announcement of a commission that will target a major emissions source: how we heat our buildings.

The Commission on Clean Heat — the first of its kind in the United States — will take on the climate-warming role that buildings play by setting caps for heating fuel emissions, as well as determining financing mechanisms that can help speed up the transition to clean energy.

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Nearly a third of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings; figuring out how to eliminate those emissions without placing an undue burden on home and business-owners, while addressing the state’s increasing reliance on natural gas as a heating fuel, represents a thorny challenge.

“We’re on track for natural gas emissions to represent 65 percent or so of all residential emissions by 2030, so I think it’s really important for the gas companies to be part of the solution,” said Matt Rusteika, who leads the buildings initiative at Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.

Earlier this year, the Baker administration signed legislation that calls for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990s levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050. The legislation also called for the formation of the commission, which will be chaired by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides.

“By working directly with stakeholders and soliciting a variety of perspectives, Massachusetts will be in a stronger position to develop innovative policies and solutions to cost-effectively reduce emissions from heating homes and buildings,” Theoharides said in a statement.

Alongside Theoharides, the commission will comprise up to 22 additional members from a diverse set of backgrounds — affordable housing, energy efficient building design, heating fuel distribution, real estate, and more — who will be recommended by the secretary and appointed by the governor. They will have until Nov. 30, 2022, to come up with a set of policy recommendations that will reduce the use of heating fuels and cut building sector emissions.

Across the country, a handful of states are addressing the challenge of decarbonizing buildings in different ways. New York State, for instance, is working on a Carbon Neutral Buildings Roadmap that will be finalized by the end of the year and will set short- and long-term goals to reduce emissions in the building sector. In Maine, the state is guided by a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps — which rely on electricity to heat and cool homes — by 2025.

“The advantage of an approach like that, and it’s something I hope to see in the Massachusetts process, is a real commitment to electrification as the only solution that’s going to really permanently displace emissions from buildings,” said Rusteika.

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here

Connecticut TCI Supporters Continue Push for Vote

Environmental groups are pressuring Connecticut lawmakers to revive a cap-and-trade proposal aimed at lowering emissions from the transportation sector during an upcoming special legislative session.

But with that session set to begin soon, it remains unclear if, or when, the proposal will come up for a vote.

Governor Ned Lamont (D) earlier this year pushed for the state to join the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P) by championing legislation, SB 884, but the proposal never reached the Senate floor.

The program targets a 30pc reduction in CO2 emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel use in the US northeast by 2032 from a 2002 base year.

“Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether or not this will be on the agenda for a special session in September,” Jordan Stutt, director of carbon programs at the Acadia Center energy think tank, said. “But we are continuing to urge policymakers to take action on this with urgency. This cannot wait.”

The push follows a recent report from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) that showed transportation emissions climbing and recommended that the state join TCI-P.

“There seems to be a lack of urgency to rein in transportation pollution and the longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will be to meaningfully address that problem,” Stutt said.

Environmental group Save the Sound is also trying to rally support for the program, although its leaders are not as optimistic about a vote in September.

“I think they were trying to keep things focused so they did not open a can of worms with having a bunch of competing proposals in this session,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney for the group. “That being said, I think the possibility is still open in terms of coming back for a subsequent session before the regular February session.”

Representative Joe Gresko (D) last week said he hopes to have TCI “under consideration at a future special session, possibly in November,” but said that the proposal would not be taken up at the September session. Senate Transportation Committee co-chair Will Haskell said he “continues to support a cap-and-invest program that will reduce carbon emissions and improve greener transportation infrastructure.”

But opponents like Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly are pushing back, calling TCI a “gas tax.” Kelly has urged Lamont to focus on maximizing investment in the state via federal dollars rather than to try to push this legislation.

Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lamont at the end of 2020 signed an initial agreement with Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, that called for the four jurisdictions to launch the program as early as 2023, with next year to serve as an emissions reporting period.

But the deal requires at least three states to complete the necessarily legislation or regulation to formally launch the program, which does not seem likely given roadblocks in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The program was developed through the TCI, a collaboration of 13 states and the District of Columbia. The TCI-P was tentatively set to launch next year and begin compliance in 2023 with a CO2 budget of about 42.1mn metric tonnes.

This piece was authored by Julia Martinez and published in the Argus Media newsletter

Connecticut falls behind state’s GHG goals: ‘We told you so,’ says Acadia Center

Connecticut’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rose 2.7% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), meaning the state is not on track to meet emissions reduction targets lawmakers set in 2008. Rising transportation emissions are the largest factor, according to the agency.

Connecticut’s Global Warming Solutions Act requires the state to reduce economywide GHG emissions 80% below 2001 levels by 2050, with an interim target of 45% below 2001 levels by 2030. The electric sector has made significant progress toward the goal, but overall “there is urgent work to be done,” DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said in a statement.

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The rise in Connecticut’s 2018 GHG inventory did not surprise the nonprofit Acadia Center, which has been sounding the alarm for years.

“We told you so,” Jordan Stutt, Acadia’s carbon programs director, said in an email.  

The group says energy efficiency is the cheapest way to reduce building emissions, but with “low-hanging” upgrades like LED lighting now complete, the state will need to invest in building retrofits with a particular focus on low- and moderate-income residents.

Acadia also wants to see Connecticut lawmakers — who will meet in an upcoming special session to consider extending the governor’s pandemic-related emergency powers — to pass legislation enabling the state’s participation in the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P) to reduce vehicle emissions.

 

Read the full article in Utility Dive here

United States Baulks at the Political Cost of a Carbon Price

The Green New Deal was introduced with great fanfare on Capitol Hill by lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey and hailed as the United States’ flagship package to combat climate change in 2019. Notably, for such a package, it did not contain any carbon pricing mechanism. Then, Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan launched in May 2021—fundamentally the administration’s central climate change mitigation policy package—also did not include carbon pricing.

The US is becoming an outlier on the international stage. According to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a US environmental non-profit organisation, about half of the nations signed up to the Paris Agreement plan to—or already do—use market-based approaches to help achieve emissions reduction. Globally, 22% of the world’s emissions are already covered by carbon pricing, notes Jessica Green at the University of Toronto and a critic of carbon pricing.

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In the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) region—one of the US’s few state-level programmes that spans eleven northeast states—power sector emissions have fallen more quickly on average than the rest of the country while the region’s economies have thrived, notes Jordan Stutt at the Acadia Centre, a clean energy, research and advocacy group in Maine. Without RGGI, emissions would have been 24% higher from 2009 to 2015, a Duke University study found.

Read the full article in Foresight- Climate and Energy here

Is a ban on new natural gas hookups on the table for Aquidneck Island?

PROVIDENCE — If there’s a frontline in the battle over natural gas in Rhode Island, it has to be Aquidneck Island.
It’s where thousands of people in Middletown and Newport lost heat 2½ years ago when an extraordinary set of mishaps resulted in an interruption to their gas supply on some of the coldest days of winter.
It’s where National Grid is working on a long-term plan to shore up service and, in the meantime, wants to continue to operate a temporary plant that can tap into liquefied stores of natural gas when necessary.
And it’s also where a pair of leading environmental groups has formally petitioned state regulators to enact a moratorium on new gas connections to help curtail use of a fossil fuel that is a key driver of climate change.
The request from the Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center is the latest twist in an ongoing debate about the future of gas on the island, which literally sits at one of the endpoints of the pipeline network that sends the fuel around New England, making it especially vulnerable to disruptions to delivery.

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Even though the siting board didn’t immediately give his group what it wants, Hank Webster, Rhode Island director of Acadia, expressed satisfaction that a moratorium is still on the table.

“A moratorium, paired with targeted efficiency and electrification improvements, will deliver consumer benefits directly into people’s homes and businesses,” he said in an email. “Sinking tens of millions of ratepayer dollars into new long-lived gas infrastructure just doesn’t make sense, given the need for [Rhode Island] to cut greenhouse gas pollution as fast as we can.” 

Read the full article in the Providence Daily Journal here

As Maine reinvents its electricity grid, it will need greater public engagement, utility oversight and data-sharing

The U.S. electricity grid is a dinosaur, a huge, unwieldy relic of the past. Built with an expected lifespan of 50 years, much of its infrastructure is now more than 60 years old. Its outmoded design reflects an era when power flowed only one way — from generators to consumers.

Now the grid must become more of a beehive with energy entering and exiting in countless directions, given distributed energy resources like wind and solar generation. Like a hive, it needs substantial storage capacity. And it must handle increased demand: The New England regional grid is expected to see a doubling or tripling of electricity use by 2050 as heating and transportation shift from fossil fuel reliance.

Maine is just starting to confront the magnitude of this power sector overhaul. Last fall and winter, a diverse group representing environmental, consumer and industry interests, utilities and state agencies — the Maine Utility/Regulatory Reform and Decarbonization Initiative (MURRDI) — met repeatedly to discuss how to navigate this grid transformation, eventually releasing consensus recommendations. A few are already taking form, thanks to laws passed in the recent legislative session.

A more flexible grid

The grid of the future must be nimble, partly due to the intermittent nature of renewable power. Another factor driving load flexibility is that electricity consumers can now be active producers (in the case of rooftop solar) and can adjust their electricity use in response to price signals (such as time-of-use rates).

Electricity consumers who shift their use to lower demand times can — in industry lingo — “shave the peak.” Load flexibility offers numerous benefits, Kay Aikin, co-founder of Dynamic Grid in Portland, said at a June E2 Tech Forum: It reduces infrastructure needs and costs (including energy storage capacity), and helps cut carbon emissions.

As part of a newly passed law to advance energy storage, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has opened a docket to look into rate design issues at Maine’s two dominant utilities, CMP and Versant, exploring how time-of-use rates could offer sufficient incentive to shift consumer behavior.

The PUC also has opened a docket to investigate the design and operation of electricity distribution, trying to determine how the system can accommodate substantially more power. The commission has hired consultants and expects their reports by early next year, according to Susan Faloon, a PUC spokesperson, and then “the commission will conduct a full investigation.”

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Whether these two efforts coordinate remains to be seen, but according to MURRDI participant Jeff Marks, Maine director for the nonprofit Acadia Center, “they need to get started quickly and they need to work together.” 

There’s widespread acknowledgment, he added, that “if we’re going to get to the scale of decarbonization we need to, we’re going to have to do planning in a completely different way than we do now.” A growing number of people, Marks included, are convinced that means separating grid planning functions from utility ownership. Who takes over that planning role is “still an open question,” he added, but “there’s going to have to be a discussion about utility structure going forward.”

Read the full article in the PenBay Pilot here

Massachusetts should be converting 100,000 homes a year to electric heat. The actual number: 461

When Massachusetts officials look into the not-so-distant future of 2030, they see 1 million homes across the state comfortably heated and cooled by sleek, efficient heat pumps, their old oil- and gas-burning systems — and the climate-warming emissions they spewed — relegated to the scrap heap.

But they are woefully behind pace to reach that lofty goal, and the more time that passes without an urgent response, the further out of reach it gets.

According to the state’s own plan, Massachusetts should be converting 100,000 homes a year from fossil fuels to electricity for heating and cooling. The reality is much different: Just 461 homes made the switch last year, according to data reviewed by the Globe.

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Of the 461 full-electric conversions in 2020, fewer than half were facilitated by Mass Save. The rest came from programs sponsored by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Department of Energy Resources. Both departments have offered programs that help homeowners purchase heat pumps. Though there may have been some additional electric conversions that year, experts in the field said that number is likely to be small.

Critics who have been watching the slow progress in Massachusetts are coming to the conclusion that, in its current form, the Mass Save program, which for 20 years has been effective at increasing energy efficiency, may no longer be the best vehicle now that the program’s directive is shifting to helping fight the climate crisis.

“It’s difficult to build new imperatives onto old programs,” said Matt Rusteika, who leads the buildings initiative at Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.

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Ben Butterworth, a Melrose homeowner and the senior manager for Climate and Energy Analysis at Acadia Center, said that out the five contractors he spoke with, only one was comfortable fully converting his oil-burning heating system to heat pumps. Because he works in the field and is well versed in the technology, he knew to look around for a more amenable contractor to help him make the switch. But others might be more likely to take the first contractor’s advice and keep a fossil fuel system for backup.

Read the full article in the Boston Globe here