Connecticut’s timid approach to clean energy penalizes consumers, costs state jobs

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A shared solar array in Massachusetts.

Connecticut has been on the forefront of clean energy development, creating the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund in 2000 with more than $150 million in renewable energy investments and educational programs.

Around the same time, Massachusetts launched a similar program. Today, Massachusetts has ten times the amount of solar installed. Could this be because Massachusetts is good at rolling out innovative programs, while Connecticut has an obsession with pilot programs?

Consider the opportunity for “community shared renewables,” an approach to clean energy that lets households and small businesses pool their resources to build and operate a renewable energy facility (such as a solar power plant), co-op style, at the best location they can find. By most estimates, 75 – 80 percent of households can’t install solar panels because they have shade trees, poor orientation, old roofs or credit problems. With shared renewables, everyone can benefit.

This legislative season, the Energy and Technology Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly received not one but two bills concerning shared renewables. One called for a full-scale program. The other, supported by the state’s major electric utilities, called for a three-year pilot consisting of two projects capped at 6 megawatts. In spite of a high-quality study by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering supporting full roll-out, the committee endorsed the pilot.

Since shared clean energy programs and policies have been developed in over a dozen states, it is difficult to understand exactly what we need to pilot.

Worse, this approach would cause community solar projects developed after the pilot to miss out on key federal incentives such as the 30 percent federal income tax credit for solar power, which are critical to their financial competitiveness. This credit, combined with the business model of shared renewables, can produce solar power at a price that is 50 percent less than retail electricity rates in Connecticut.

But the tax credit is set to disappear at the end of 2016. State incentives are going down as well.

Besides expanding access to renewables, these shared systems are more attractive for developers and investors. A full rollout of a shared clean energy program would lower electricity costs for residents, create jobs, and bring more private investments to Connecticut, as they have in other states that have taken leadership.

In Minnesota, launching a full scale commercial program has unlocked 400 megawatts of solar in the first round alone – an expected investment of almost $1 billion in 2015.

In Massachusetts, which passed legislation allowing community solar in 2008, the program is also helping to reduce energy costs for low-income tenants and saving tax-payers $60 million over 20 years. For example, a 40 megawatt system developed by SunEdison on a Massachusetts low-income housing development is lowering the energy bills of the tenants, reducing their dependence on the state.

SunEdison’s Director of New England Sales observes, “This is a ‘set it and forget it’ deal, allowing the Housing Authorities to save up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in electricity.” SunEdison plans to expand this model to include the more than 100 other housing authorities in Massachusetts.

If community solar were fully rolled-out in Connecticut, the state could reap similar economic benefits, helping to reduce the state’s looming budget deficit.

While investors are putting over $40 billion to work into clean energy every year, Connecticut’s “big brother” approach continues to fail to receive its fair share of jobs and economic development.

Connecticut needs to learn from its mistakes and stop this policy of continuous pilot programs. Because of this approach, Connecticut has missed out on the clean energy revolution. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time for Connecticut’s lawmakers to prove they are not insane.

Bernard Zahren is Manager of Clean Feet Investors I, LLC and Chair of the Avon, CT Clean Energy Commission.  Jigar Shah, his partner at Clean Feet, was founder and CEO of SunEdison (the largest solar services company in the world) and Founding CEO of The Carbon War Room.

 

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