It hasn’t emerged as a major issue in the pending state legislative session, but a speech this month from Katie Dykes, the state’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection, could be a precursor to a major change on how the state procures its power supply.
As in many states, Connecticut talks a good game when it comes to climate change, and has enacted policies that aim to limit emissions while preparing resilience plans for coastal communities that are likely to be the hardest hit by rising global temperatures. But the state also continues to follow old policies that exacerbate the problem, whether by encouraging suburban sprawl by focusing transit plans on highways or by continuing to build power plants that rely on fossil fuels.
This is a pressing issue. A recently opened power plant in Oxford can generate up to 800 megawatts of electricity, but it relies on burning natural gas. Another gas plant underway in Bridgeport will be smaller but also work against the state’s long-term goals of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. And an approved but as-yet-unbuilt natural gas plant in Killingly has drawn protests from around the state, with opponents saying the project is outdated and unnecessary.
Dykes appears to agree, which is striking given that DEEP, under previous leadership, approved the plant.
Natural gas has been held up by many officials as a necessary improvement from dirtier coal and oil, but while the emissions from newer plants are not as severe as the older facilities they are replacing, the overall impact of natural gas is far from benign. From the hydraulic fracturing that frees it from under the ground to inevitable leakage along the way, natural gas may on balance be just as harmful in the long term as coal and oil. Any real move forward on limiting emissions must reckon with the harms of natural gas power plants.
Dykes said a big part of the problem lies with ISO New England, which oversees the regional power grid and holds auctions for new power generation. The facilities still need to be approved by local and state governments.
ISO, for its part, says it’s only a small part of the process, adding in a statement in response to Dykes that “securing an obligation in our market does not mean that a resource will be built.” Dykes said Connecticut may look to leave the regional cooperative, but it’s unclear how such a step would take place.
Regardless, it’s important that Connecticut officials are asking these questions. The state has made a major move in the direction of emissions-free energy generation by approving a project to build in Bridgeport wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean to be transmitted via cable to Connecticut. More projects like this are necessary to fill the gaps left by retiring fossil-fuel plants.
What the state can’t do is replace problematic old generators with new facilities that present just as many problems. It needs to cancel the Killingly project and ensure that alternatives to natural gas are prioritized going forward. Whether or not that means leaving ISO, Connecticut is right to ask hard questions about the future of its energy production.