Formica: State Must Move Faster on Energy Cost-Cutting Measures

December 18, 2017

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Connecticut lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with state government’s sluggish efforts to cut its $40 million-a-year energy bill at a time when agency budgets and social programs are being slashed to cope with deficits.

“It’s a ridiculous waste of money,” Rep. Lonnie Reed, co-chair of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, said of the state’s failure to move quickly to take advantage of solar power and other technologies to cut its energy bills. “That’s such an easy savings,” the Branford Democrat said.

Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, the energy panel’s Republican co-chair, agrees. “We have to do it certainly much faster than we are,” he said.

Energy officials in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration say a long-running, but still incomplete campaign to coordinate and computerize state energy accounts has delayed decisions on where and how to use solar power and other major energy savings measures.

We have to do it certainly much faster than we are.

Sen. Paul Formica, co-chair of Energy and Technology Committee.

Administration officials insist that, despite those problems, they have done a lot of conservation work, saving the state some $3.8 million a year in energy costs. State experts say there are also several big energy projects in the works for different state agencies.

But the ongoing state budget crisis has put a temporary halt to one of those major conservation plans at the state Department of Correction.

Mackey Dykes, a vice president of the Connecticut Green Bank, said his quasi-public agency was planning to put up the financing for the corrections plan. The Green Bank expected to use state bonding to pay for the project, “but that required budget approval… and it didn’t go through,” Dykes said.

State officials repeatedly blamed staff and budget cutbacks in recent years for slowing progress on their energy conservation plans.

Energy officials continue to struggle to figure out how all of its 5,976 energy and utility accounts match up with exactly which of its approximately 3,800 state buildings and facilities. Two years ago, state energy officials said the three-year effort was nearly done and was expected to be completed in 2016.

Diane Duva, director of the state’s Office of Energy Demand, said last week that the inventory has collected service addresses and meter numbers for all of those energy bills. She said that, “in many cases,” the state has matched those accounts to specific buildings and facilities. Her office is now “working with various departments at multiple agencies” to correlate specific energy accounts and meter numbers with “the actual building or group of buildings served.”

Just two state employees in her office are working on the state energy inventory now, according to Duva, half the number who were assigned to that project in 2015.

Nearly 20 percent of the state’s utility bills are still being processed on paper — including all of the state’s more than 500 accounts with United Illuminating.

The few state solar power arrays that have been put up at some state park buildings and bus facilities are producing only about 20,000 kilowatts of electricity a year, according to Duva. That’s less than 1 percent of the 26.5 million kilowatts being generated by solar installations at Massachusetts state facilities and agencies, according to energy officials in that state.

Connecticut transportation officials say there are no immediate plans to copy Massachusetts, which has put up numerous large solar arrays along the Massachusetts Turnpike and other highways to reduce that state’s energy bills. Duva said Massachusetts has set aside money to be used to get such solar projects started, a funding mechanism that Connecticut lacks.

“We’ve been pondering solar installations for some amount of time now, frankly, going back a few years,” DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said in an email. He said the “most viable and easily achieved option” now under consideration would be to put up solar panels on some highway noise walls along sections of I-84 in West Hartford or I-95 in Branford and New Haven.

“We do not have a specific time frame for a launch,” Nursick said.

University of Connecticut officials say they have managed to cut their energy consumption by about 10 percent in the past decade. UConn’s energy system, which is separate from the rest of state government, is now paying about $30 million a year for energy at all campuses around the state. (The UConn Health Center has its own separate energy program.)

UConn has several solar rooftop arrays installed at its Storrs campus and its energy conservation efforts have reduced carbon pollution emissions at its facilities by 18 percent since 2007, according to Rich Miller, the school’s director of environmental policy.

State government’s push to reduce its energy consumption was triggered in 2012 when the General Assembly approved a program called “Lead By Example,” intending it to be a model for businesses and other institutions to follow.

Earlier this year, a report by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection cited 134 small-scale conservation and 72 medium-scale projects that have been done at state facilities under that campaign.

But Reed, other lawmakers and energy activists say the glacial pace of state government efforts has been a major disappointment, particularly the slow-motion inventory matching energy bills with individual buildings and offices.

“That seems to be a big hold up,” Reed said. “It’s a frustration of mine. We could be savings millions of dollars in energy costs.”

William Dornbos, Connecticut director for the energy activist group Acadia Center, said his organization lobbied the 2017 General Assembly to “give the program a new push. … But we just couldn’t get any traction.”

Dornbos said most lawmakers appeared to be so wrapped up in trying to find quick solutions to the state budget crisis that they didn’t seem interested in an energy cost-cutting program that wouldn’t “provide immediate big savings.”

The trouble with such conservation and alternative energy concepts is that “it could take a couple of years or maybe longer … to experience budget savings,” Dornbos said. “But you’ve got to pull the trigger on a full-fledged, ramped up program or we’ll never get those savings,” Dornbos added.

Reed said finding a way in 2018 to get the state’s energy cost-cutting campaign moving faster “is one of the top items for me” in the coming General Assembly session.

Formica said he doesn’t believe new funding or added staff should be needed to get cracking on additional energy cost savings. He wants to “take a very close look” at how the program is being run by the state.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said the original goals of that energy cost-cutting program were, “For whatever reason … never pursued with real vigor.”

“There don’t seem to be any good excuses for not keeping the pedal to the metal,” Steinberg said.