Struggling families need expanded natural gas infrastructure

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Connecticut, like many other states across the region, faces a real energy challenge in the coming years — one with very few good solutions.

While the rest of the continental United States is enjoying the benefits of very low natural gas prices — and low electricity prices that are increasingly coupled to natural gas — New England is an outlier.

Pipeline capacity in New England is a major concern; the region’s infrastructure has not kept up with demand for natural gas. Despite not producing any itself, New England has rapidly increased its reliance on natural gas.

On a normal day, New England now gets about 50 percent of its power from natural gas and demand is expected to continue to grow, in step with renewable energy generation (to backstop those sources when they are unavailable), to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to replace coal, oil, and nuclear plants as they retire. During harsh winters, natural gas demand rises even further, and the pipeline network is further constrained, increasing the likelihood of unforeseen price spikes which can be devastating to families operating on tight budgets.

The electrical grid operator for New England predicts this coming winter will be the most stable for the energy market of any years to come, but this winter will be the last before the region loses large portions of its power plants. This past winter, New England avoided a repeat of the dire winter of 2013-14. But the region’s power-grid operators remain deeply concerned that a prolonged winter cold snap or gas supply interruption could create major electric reliability problems. Another Polar Vortex would force officials to rely on emergency measures, and would likely push income-constrained households to the breaking point.

One of the challenges for Connecticut is creating a more predictable future for our most vulnerable neighbors. Now more than ever, Connecticut must take concerted steps to create well-paying jobs for the future, invest in energy infrastructure to spur development and provide a social good.

Connecticut is known for its wealth and prosperity, but a significant portion of the state’s population continues to struggle financially. Roughly 38 percent of Connecticut households cannot afford basic needs such as housing, child care, food, health care and transportation. This includes both households living below the Federal Poverty Level and those living above that level but who still struggle to afford basic household necessities, a group called Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE).

According to a recent report by the United Way of Connecticut, roughly 27 percent of Connecticut’s 1.36 million households are currently classified as ALICE. Households in the ALICE group make enough money to stay above the poverty line, but not enough to save money or get ahead. A single mishap or accident can force these families into poverty overnight.

The cost of living in Connecticut is high, making it difficult for working people to afford basic needs. One major strain on household budgets is the necessary cost for utilities — Connecticut households pay significantly more for their heating and electricity (according to the Energy Information Administration, Connecticut electricity rates are nearly 50 percent higher than the rest of the country).

Expanding our existing gas pipeline infrastructure while utilizing existing utility corridors would help prevent electricity prices from rising and save customers money, creating thousands of jobs statewide, injecting millions of dollars into the state economy from taxes and wages, and spurring significant investments in the manufacturing, construction, and science sectors (which are labor intensive industries that historically yield high wages).

The high costs for electricity in Connecticut has huge implications for jobs, growth and economic competitiveness. This issue isn’t merely about study findings, it is about a solution that benefits real people with real lives. As we shine a light on those facing financial hardship, it’s important to respond to their needs and invest in solutions aimed at helping these families move toward financial security. What’s at stake is simple: the future of our state and well-being of our neighbors.

James Ieronimo is the Executive Director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.

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