Let’s build Connecticut’s clean energy future – today

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On a long-ago day hike up to the Appalachian Trail in northwestern Connecticut, we made the lunchtime discovery that my son’s small backpack was heavier than expected.  An inquiry revealed fist-sized rocks that he had picked up at the trailhead that morning.  We persuaded him to leave the heavy burdens beside the trail before climbing to the top of Bear Mountain.

As Connecticut embarks on a challenging journey to achieve our state’s climate goals, we need to be careful not to fill our packs with “pollution-heavy” infrastructure that we will have to discard in the near future – no matter how shiny and colorful those stones may look today.  We should instead invest our limited resources in infrastructure that will help us achieve our long-term goals while creating local jobs in every community across the state.

The Governor’s Council on Climate Change has been charged with charting a path to achieve the state’s mandated goal of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 2001 levels by the year 2050.  While the path itself has yet to be determined, the Governor’s Council has surveyed the landscape and made some clear assessments about the direction we need to go and what provisions will be needed to reach our destination.

At its June meeting, the Governor’s Council engaged in a lengthy discussion about the future role of natural gas in the region’s electricity generation mix.  The Council members agreed that it will be impossible to reach our goal without a significant reduction in our current level of reliance on natural gas as a fuel source.

The proportion of our electricity that comes from plants burning natural gas has more than tripled since 2000, with natural gas now accounting for about half of the region’s electricity supply.  Driven largely by low prices for fracked shale gas, that growth has displaced older coal- and oil-fired plants, which now supply little more than 5 percent of the region’s electricity.  This shift has reduced in-state GHG emissions and led to improvements in local air quality in urban areas where older plants have been shut down or used less frequently.

Connecticut has also encouraged residential and commercial customers to upgrade their old oil-burning furnaces and boilers to more efficient natural gas equipment.

The simultaneous expansion of natural gas in both the space heating and power generation sectors has caused at least two undesirable outcomes: 1) demand has occasionally outstripped supply on the coldest winter days, resulting in short-term price spikes for electricity, and 2) the state’s annual GHG emissions attributed to natural gas capacity now exceed the total economy-wide emissions allowable under the 2050 goal.

The winter price spikes have prompted state officials and energy companies to actively promote the construction of new gas pipeline capacity as the way to relieve the winter peak demand problem.  In the coming weeks the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will be evaluating submitted proposals for new natural gas infrastructure.

In promoting new pipeline capacity, these state officials seem determined to ignore the fact now recognized by the Governor’s Council: if we build it, we will have to abandon it.

Connecticut’s electric ratepayers are being asked to pay for expensive gas pipelines with the promise of short-term price relief when we know that within a decade or so we will have to replace those pipelines with investments in renewables and greater energy efficiency.  And homeowners and business-owners who convert to natural gas heating today will soon have to convert again to advanced renewable thermal technologies.

If ratepayers have to pay for new infrastructure, why can’t we invest directly in clean energy technologies now?  Why not relieve the peak demand problem by covering the roofs of every state and municipal building (including schools and community colleges) with solar panels?    Why not shade the cars in every public parking lot with solar panels?  Let’s upgrade every public building with deep energy efficiency retrofits and advanced lighting systems using super efficient, networked LEDs.  And replace all those ancient boilers with district heating and cooling systems, heat pumps or combined heat and power supplied by fuel cells.

How many local construction workers, electricians and pipefitters could we put to work in communities all across this state?  How much could we cut state and municipal utility bills, reaping energy savings that can be passed on to all taxpayers?

If we want to reach our climate goals, we must stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.  Today’s shiny pipeline will become tomorrow’s unwanted burden to be discarded beside the trail that leads to Connecticut’s clean energy future.

John Humphries, who serves on the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, is the organizer for the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, which last year co-published a report “Connecticut’s Clean Energy Future,” outlining a climate protection strategy that would increase net employment while lowering consumer costs for energy and transportation. 

What do you think?

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