To tackle Connecticut’s deficit, scale up solar

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A shared solar field in Rehoboth, Mass. Investment in the concept is heavy in that state.

As they tackle the budget deficit, Connecticut legislators have been understandably focusing on cuts in spending.  But we are missing an opportunity for major cost reductions under our noses: buying power needed for state facilities, and others they serve, using solar power, which would come at lower cost than conventional electricity.

This could be started right away by issuing a request for proposals for power purchase agreements for all suitably sited state facilities.  But the way to achieve the full promise of solar savings, in the timeliest way, is to scale up Shared Clean Energy Facilities (SCEFs).  This approach sets up large, well-situated solar facilities that generate clean, secure electricity for groups of customers — ­ for example, the residents of a housing authority, the members of a nonprofit organization. These programs are already in place in over 15 states.  Connecticut has companies capable of doing the work.

One proposed cut would take $20 million from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI),  multi-state market-based mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions by directing dollars from polluting industries into clean energy incentives. RGGI is a significant funder of  energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in Connecticut, leveraging as much as three dollars for every dollar invested while creating Connecticut jobs.  Instead of raiding RGGI, which would hurt Connecticut’s green economy, ramping up energy savings through an aggressive solar scale-up would strengthen this important sector which now employs nearly 2,000 people.

There is clear precedent for energy-based deficit solutions.  In 1990, Connecticut had a whopping budget deficit. The state responded creatively to limit raising taxes, by changing all light bulbs in state buildings from conventional bulbs to the then-new compact fluorescents using one-quarter of the energy. It was able to save $4 million (possibly as much as $12 million) in the first year and was projected by Northeast Utilities to save $130 million dollars by year 2000. This would equal approximately $236 million in today’s dollars.

But it is NOT just state buildings that can play a role in deficit reduction by buying this lower cost power. The state provides aid to innumerable entities including towns, libraries, group homes, half-way houses, museums, schools, nursing homes, railroads … and the list goes on ad infinitum. All of them use electricity. Lowering their energy cost with SCEF power could bring about significant savings, reducing the need for state aid without affecting operations.

Shared solar is already making this economic difference in Massachusetts, another state serviced by Eversource. It allows low-income housing tenants to save $60 million over 20 years by use of SCEFs with the bill credits going to the 16 housing authorities which reduce that state’s funding for energy. With twice Connecticut’s population, Massachusetts has five times the solar electricity thanks to these ambitious strategies.

Cutting RGGI funds would worsen this gap. 

Connecticut is at the threshold of creating a program to allow for shared solar power by laying out the rules for metering, billing and the like.  A pilot program was authorized by the legislature last year, but with a cap in size. Since then, the utilities and regulatory agencies have been working methodically to iron out questions and draft an initial request for proposals.

Nothing could be more timely than a decision by the General Assembly to remove that size cap and authorize a full-scale program for Shared Clean Energy.  Political will is the only missing ingredient in this powerful deficit-reduction strategy.

Joel N. Gordes is President, Center for Energy Security Solutions. Melissa Everett is the Energy Program Manager for Clean Water Action.

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