Connecticut Has Big Plans For Tackling Climate Change. Now It Has To Make Them Happen.
As part of his commitment to address climate change, Gov. Ned Lamont will file legislation this week to expand the role of the Connecticut Green Bank to include financing for climate resilience and adaptation projects. It is the main component of a climate change bill that expands a few financing options for undertaking climate resilience work without stressing the state’s overall budget.
The bill allows the Green Bank, which funds clean energy, to also fund green infrastructure – everything from salt marsh restoration to road elevations to better drainage systems, meaning just about anything on new or existing manmade or natural systems that would help them withstand climate change impacts.
To do that, the bill also increases the Bank’s bonding capability, which would provide the seed money for the infrastructure funding. The existing Green Bank clean energy model uses seed funding derived primarily from charges on utility bills. That money would be prohibited for infrastructure use. But the overall models would be similar, using seed money as leverage and investment to create more capital.
Since its creation in 2011 the Green Bank, which is quasi-public, has used this model to create more than eight times as much money for every dollar invested. Its success has prompted years of questions about why the Connecticut Bank – a worldwide model – hasn’t been allowed to replicate its own model for other purposes in its home state before now.
The proposed Green Bank expansion also offers the first sense of how the state will move forward with nearly 1,000 pages of ideas for tackling climate change. They are housed in two recently released state reports compiled over the last year or so. One is a draft of the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP), which is required every two years to plot out the state’s energy goals and strategies. The other is a report from the Governor’s Council on Climate Change (GC3). The Council is vastly expanded from its earlier incarnation originated by Gov. Dannel Malloy to now cover climate change mitigation – curbing climate change itself — and adaptation and resilience solutions.
While the GC3 report in particular is receiving praise for its breadth, there is also concern that its sprawling array of options offers no blueprint for what the state should do next. And there is concern that even with the more than 230 people who participated in preparing the report, some key voices were left out.
All of which raises the question: Now what?
“We are actively working on that,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The GC3 report – Taking Action on Climate Change and Building a More Resilient Connecticut for All – is considered the first step in pinpointing near-term actions.
“We are going through all of the recommendations in the phase 1 report so we can identify as quickly as possible our top priorities – the best options in working with the governor’s team – that we can recommend for implementing,” Dykes said.
Immediate action on funding would appear to be at least part of the strategy – and indeed among the more than one dozen working groups and subgroups that were part of the GC3 process, one was expressly designated “financing and funding for adaptation and resilience.” One of its recommendations was to create an environmental infrastructure bank.
In all there were 61 numbered recommendations – almost all with multiple components – for near-term consideration. They include all sorts of nature-based solutions, especially along shorelines subject to sea level rise. Other recommendations include: using insurance as a tool to minimize climate risk; creating a climate science training strategy; 36 proposals from the public health and safety group, ranging from better allergen monitoring to development of food security systems; and, as always, recommendations to decarbonize buildings and expand electric vehicle infrastructure.
In short – anything and everything. But no plan.
Community engagement vital
Most climate change resilience efforts tend to be undertaken at local levels, tailored to municipalities’ specific needs. Shoreline communities may focus more on sea level rise, though each town will likely have unique problems. Inland climate change may manifest itself in farms facing prolonged drought or increased pest populations. Towns all around the state might have roads that can’t handle extensive heat, low-income populations in need of access to air conditioning, and so on.
The working groups covered many more areas than the GC3 has previously. They included equity and environmental justice, working and natural lands, infrastructure and land use, and public health and safety, among others.
But a number of people who have been working on specific local climate change initiatives, for lack of a cohesive state effort, expressed some surprise that their expertise wasn’t tapped more extensively in the state’s GC3 process and that more of them weren’t included.
While New Haven was well-represented among the working groups and Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury had small presences, only a couple of small communities were involved.
That was not lost on Juliana Barrett, an extension educator at UConn who has worked with municipalities for years and helped develop courses that train undergraduate students in climate change adaptation by sending them out to work with municipal officials. She was on a couple of the GC3 working groups for the report. She said that engaging municipalities as allies – as is stated in a small portion of the report – was “going to be key.”
“We need to improve the engagement of the communities with this plan. How’s that going to happen?” she asked rhetorically.
Financing, she said, is also vital. “We’re not going to get to 80, 90 percent of the things without that.”
She also pointed to Sustainable CT, launched in 2018 through the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University, as an example of how communities could be harnessed to do climate work. One hundred and seventeen municipalities are now active in Sustainable CT, seeking to meet benchmarks – basically for little more reward than bragging rights.
“For what? People do all this work to get a plaque,” Barrett said. “These things are happening. The state should take note.”
George Kral may be exhibit A for how difficult climate resilience work is when towns find themselves having to go it alone. As town planner in Guilford, in 2013 in the wake of storms Irene and Sandy he signed onto an ambitious shoreline resilience plan that would prevent low-lying areas from being repeatedly pummeled by flooding and sea level rise from climate change.
Pushback was fierce and the town didn’t get very far. One critical project – dealing with the part of Route 146 between Guilford and Branford that floods constantly — is just beginning to be studied.
Now he is the only municipal official on the permanent GC3, as well as one of very few who participated in the working groups. As much work as he’s attempted in Guilford, he found the state work unfamiliar and daunting.
“My first reaction – this isn’t really something I even understood,” he said. “It’s very different from what local governments have to do.”
He said he tried to boil everything down to what it would mean at the local level. He says climate resilience in a town like Guilford has to be micro. “What the effect is on one neighborhood may not be the same a block away.”
Rhode Island may offer Connecticut a few lessons. Its climate change adaptation and resilience program – Resilient Rhody – was put in place four years ago, paired with the state’s infrastructure bank, which was reworked to respond better to the new program.
Shaun O’Rourke, managing director of programs and business development at the bank, said working with municipalities to come up with projects that provided economies of scale and helped communities learn from one another was critical.
“It needs to be more customer-centric than programmatic,” he said. “Municipalities don’t have the capacity to know what they ought to do.”
Dykes said she doesn’t believe municipalities were left out of the GC3 process. “Our efforts to implement the phase 1 recommendations will be very much centered on direct community engagement.”
Rebecca French is the director of the office of climate planning at DEEP. Many cited her as a dynamic force in shaping the report. Prior to arriving at DEEP, she also had extensive experience working at the local level on climate change projects. She said part of the state’s goal is to get out in front of climate resilience. “We’ve largely funded resilience through disaster,” she said.
She, Dykes and many others made the happy observation that the Biden administration’s already robust commitment to fight climate change would likely increase the potential for substantial federal funding in ways that did not exist during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Such funds often require state matches and end up in municipal hands, however, so it will be important to have all parties poised to go. And that means providing municipalities with the expertise they more than likely don’t have for overseeing climate change resilience and adaptation work.
But Bryan Garcia, president of the Connecticut Green Bank, said funding isn’t the only priority.
“Money doesn’t have to be the first stop – nor should it be,” he said of the GC3 report priorities. “Behavior should be the first stop.”
Moving forward, equity and environmental justice will have to be part of that behavior, Garcia added.
The time for ‘suggestions’ has passed
Brenda Watson has been saying that for a long time. She is executive director of Operation Fuel, so she sees the existing injustice in real time. She’s also on the boards of the Green Bank and Energy Efficiency Board, an appointed member of the GC3, and has participated in the working groups.
She says the state typically works in silos and observed that, in some respects, the GC3 working groups operated that way too. Aside from the governor’s commitment to make equity an across-the-board consideration in governing, she pointed to the Equity and Environmental Justice working group’s proposal to “develop, launch, maintain, and use a statewide environmental mapping tool that provides a visual representation of the spatial distribution of environmental and climate health vulnerabilities across Connecticut,” as a critical piece.
But she doesn’t want to hear any more mere suggestions for climate change and environmental justice. “I think mandates are a requirement at this point,” she said. “Allowing for these 169 invisible boundaries and home rule – sometimes they work in contrast with the state’s climate change rules.
“Mandates need to be requirements at this point,” she repeated.
That would mean prioritizing climate resilience work in the at-risk communities that tend to catch the worst of climate change impacts. It could mean efficient air conditioning for low-income homes or better flood remediation for low-income, flood-prone areas, or air monitoring and cleanup in those areas near industrial facilities were the poor are more likely to live.
People think environmental justice is a whole separate thing. “It’s not,” she said. “When we make an intersection safe for someone who is disabled, we’ve made it safer for everybody else. Let’s make this intersection safe for everybody.”
Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at Save the Sound, who also served on a GC3 working group, said climate change as a factor should also be applied across the whole of government, much the way President Biden has pledged to apply it, along with environmental justice, at the federal level.
“It’s one very important, very simple, but fundamental element that was unfortunately missing from this short-term GC3 report but was contained in the report of the mitigation working group. It’s really to ensure that the state’s decision-making is aligned with meeting our greenhouse gas reduction requirements. That’s essentially establishing accountability and enforceability.”
He called for more robust goals for replacing the state’s motor vehicle fleet with electric vehicles. And he said the issue of the Killingly natural gas power plant slated to be built should have been addressed.
“What we cannot afford to be doing is making decisions that actually represent backsliding from our climate goals,” he said. “All of the branches of government need to be pulling in same direction.”
‘You’ve got to do it all’
As for the IRP – a far more dense and technical report — Commissioner Dykes has been on something of a PR blitz touting that the state has already contracted zero emissions energy for 65% of its energy resources – though a huge portion of that is the Millstone nuclear power plant and offshore wind. Millstone is contracted for power for another 10 years, but the future is murky after that. And offshore wind is still several years away because the Trump administration slow-walked the many offshore wind projects envisioned off the East Coast.
Dykes says the state is on track to reach a 91% zero carbon grid by 2025, 15 years ahead of the governor’s executive order to reach 100% zero carbon by 2040.
A second governor’s bill geared toward climate change mitigation would put that executive order into statute and expand DEEP’s procurement power for technologies that keep the power on when solar or wind can’t produce it. In the past, that’s been fossil fuel plants that can run at any time. It’s not clear what might replace them, though storage and what’s known as demand response – the ability to dispatch power only when it’s needed – would likely be some options.
Out-of-state sources like onshore wind from Maine and hydro-power from Canada have fallen through in the past due to transmission difficulties. Maine and New Hampshire have balked at transmission lines running through their states, scuttling power sources Connecticut had counted on.
And there is concern that even though the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is partway through its proposals to modernize the grid, the regional grid run by ISO New England is still an old grid model. The state’s new energy plans would just layer new systems on an old structure in many cases.
To change that, a lot of the IRP is devoted to the need to reform ISO-NE so that renewable and clean energy sources will be more cost effective – something they aren’t now. It has been one of Dykes’ missions for years – now joined by other New England states. And it raises another question of whether ISO reform needs to happen first – a slow process – before the clean energy projects and procurements make economic sense.
“You got to do it all,” Dykes said. “We don’t have to reform the ISO-NE in order to invest in more renewable resources and get them built. We’ve been successfully doing that since 2013.”
But as she has said repeatedly, the ISO market system makes it hard to consider those resources and it makes them more expensive than they need to be for ratepayers.
“States can continue to contract for those resources outside the ISO New England market if necessary to meet their carbon goals. The problem is, how are we going to keep the lights on, and at what cost, when those renewable resources aren’t operating?”
It’s not a matter of ratepayers potentially getting stuck with higher rates waiting for ISO to be reformed. Ratepayers are already getting stuck, she said.
“It is beyond time for this issue to be addressed.”