HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — New rules for renewable energy use in Connecticut passed their first big test Wednesday when the state Senate approved legislation proposed by the governor to boost hydropower from Canada.
The 26-6 vote was a defeat for environmentalists who fought Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration, demanding a greater reliance on smaller-scale wind and solar energy.
"We should be able to get more renewable energy and get it at a cheaper rate," Sen. Bob Duff, co-chairman of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, said at the start of the Senate debate.
Connecticut's renewable energy portfolio, established in 1998, was intended to finance new and clean renewable power by guaranteeing markets. The portfolio standards require electric suppliers to use a certain percentage of renewable energy as part of the electricity they sell.
Defining which forms of renewable energy — and how much of each — have been the focus of a fight between environmentalists and the Malloy administration. State Energy Commissioner Daniel Esty has said the renewable energy portfolio fails to support the cleanest possible renewable power. It relies too much on biomass plants in Maine and New Hampshire and landfill gas projects, primarily in New York, he said.
The legislation increases to 30 megawatts from five megawatts a hydropower project's capacity to be eligible for the state's renewable energy portfolio. It also tightens emission standards for power from biomass facilities, which Esty says is among the "least clean" forms of renewable energy.
Environmentalists want the state's renewable energy rules to promote wind and solar generated by small producers rather than large hydropower projects in Canada that are already commercially successful. The purpose of state renewable energy rules "is to get stuff built," said Seth Kaplan, vice president for policy and climate advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group.
"It's not intended to be just a wealth transfer to Quebec for facilities they have built or will build anyway," he said.
Roger Smith, Connecticut co-director of Clean Water Action, said the legislation is a "missed opportunity."
"They've chosen to narrowly focus on Canadian hydropower," he said. "Is that our clean energy policy? To me, it's baffling."
Malloy downplayed the increased reliance on hydropower in the legislation.
"North America is about to be energy-independent; that's the reality," he told reporters Monday. "Some of that's gas, some of it's oil, some of it's hydro, some of it's other alternatives."
The governor said he doesn't care if Canada is the source of energy "as long as it's substantially cleaner, cheaper, more reliable."
Northeast Utilities, parent company of the state's largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power, backs the legislation.
"We appreciate the bill's perspective that hydropower is a renewable resource, as the source of its generation — water — is abundant and will continue to be available," Jay Fletcher, director of regulatory policy for Northeast Utilities Service Company, told lawmakers in testimony.
Northeast Utilities and Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec are spearheading a $1.2 billion transmission project to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada to the New England power grid. Northeast Utilities says the project will help address New England's "acute need" to diversify its electric energy supply, which is based on more than 50 percent natural gas.
Republican Sen. Joe Markley, who voted against the legislation, said he's skeptical much can be done to restrain energy prices that are soaring with worldwide demand.
"We have to confront the fact that energy is going to get more and more expensive no matter what we do," he said. "I don't think that there's any way for us to escape that."
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report. Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SteveSinger10 .