Millstone bill's fate still unclear as session winds down

With just over two weeks left in the regular session, the fate of a bill that would give the Millstone Power Station the ability to sell its power directly to energy distributors through a state-run bid process remains uncertain.

Called one of the most significant bills of the current session, the measure is described by advocates as a means of stabilizing the nuclear power plant in a volatile energy market while also helping consumers.

Opponents, however, say it’s an unnecessary device to increase profits for Dominion Resources, owner of the Waterford plant.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, bill sponsor and co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said this week that the legislative attorneys are working on final language of the bill and hope to have it ready for a vote in the Senate soon. If approved, it would then head to the House of Representatives for a vote before the last day of the session on June 7.

“If this passes, we will have maintained our baseload power and kept 1,200 jobs and $108 million in salaries” that the plant provides, Formica said. “If this bill dies, it will be because of the financial interests lining up against it.”

He emphasized that the bill was written to establish a broad energy policy for the state that favors renewable energy, not just to benefit Millstone. If approved, it would put the state on a path toward deriving 40 percent of its power from renewable energy sources including large hydroelectric, wind, solar, fuel cells, anaerobic digesters and biomass by 2040.

To be accepted, the bill would have to meet the approval of state regulators and be considered beneficial to consumers.

Under the measure, Millstone would be allowed to sell up to 950 megawatts of the 2,100 megawatts it produces in a single five-year contract directly to Eversource and United Illuminating, the state’s main energy distributors.  Millstone is Connecticut’s largest electricity generator, producing about half the energy used in the state.

Currently, Dominion sells Millstone’s power through contracts with third-party hedge funds and Wall Street institutions. Cheap natural gas prices have increased volatility in the energy markets and cut into the plant’s profits, company officials and bill supporters say. They also point to closures of other nuclear plants around the country and subsidies provided by other states to keep nuclear plants open. The bill does not provide a state subsidy to Millstone, they emphasize, but would allow the plant to sell its power for a higher price than it is getting on the wholesale market but lower than the distributors are now paying.

Kevin Hennessy, Dominion’s state policy director for New England, said the company is simply seeking access to the same bid process now open to renewable energy producers. As the largest supplier of power that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, ensuring the plant’s survival is critical to meeting the state’s goals for reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change.

“It’s a very simple, straightforward concept,” he said. “We’d just like that opportunity that’s granted to everyone else but the coal, oil and natural gas generators.”

He is confident there is still strong bipartisan support for the bill, despite opposition from the groups representing owners of power plants that use fossil fuels.

Both Hennessy and Formica said the delay in the Comprehensive Energy Strategy being prepared by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is not impacting the bill’s chances. The strategy was due in October, but is now expected to be completed by early summer, said Tracy Babbidge, bureau chief for energy policy at DEEP.

The last strategy, completed in 2014, set the stage for natural gas expansion and increasing use of renewable energy in the state, Babbidge said. It also recognized Millstone as a “critical component” of the state’s energy mix, particularly because it is the largest producer of power free of carbon emissions.

“There are a series of questions being asked about the current status of Millstone, and whether there is a need to prevent the units from retiring,” she said.

DEEP, she said, is in discussions with lawmakers about final language of the bill, and believes it must include a means of doing a proper analysis of any bid submitted by Millstone.

“We want to ensure it’s in the best interests of ratepayers,” she said. “We recognize nuclear is important, and that there would be implications of its retirement.”

But in the absence of financial information about the plant, she said, assessing the need for the legislation is difficult. Dominion has thus far declined to open its books.

“We need to make sure we’re considering all the implications of a particular path,” Babbidge said.

Eversource, the state’s largest electricity distributor, has joined fossil fuel generators in opposing the bill. James Daly, vice president of energy supply for Eversource, said that if approved, the bill would raise electricity prices for consumers, not lower them as supporters contend.

“It would effectively be a tax on our customers,” he said.

The bill, he said, is unnecessary. Dominion already can sell its power directly to Eversource and other distributors in one-year contracts rather than selling it to middlemen. It doesn’t need a new mechanism to be able to do it through a state-run bid process, he said.

“The only reason for this legislation is to allow them to gain higher revenue so they can sell the power for higher prices,” he said.

The provision of the bill that would give state regulators oversight over the bid, Daly said, would not necessarily protect consumers from higher prices.

“What’s a good price?” he asked. “It’s a theoretical question.” The way the bill is currently written, Millstone “would be bidding against nobody.”

Millstone, he said, is an important resource for Connecticut and the region, but “if they need financial support, they should demonstrate a financial need, and they refuse to do that. If the power plant is shutting down, they should open their books, then the state can act.”

Formica said believes Eversource’s objections are unfounded. He noted that the company has proposed raising electricity rates in July “due to a lack of generating assets.”

“Imagine what their rates would be without Millstone,” he said.

State Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said she is confident the bill, SB 106, will continue to advance.

"As promised, SB 106 continues to evolve through the collaborative efforts of stakeholders including wind, solar, fuel cell and other renewable energy developers and also DEEP, the governor's office, environmental advocates and the Energy and Technology Committee team," she said in a text message. "I feel confident the final product will be the kind of rational and responsible energy policy we need to be pursuing."

j.benson@theday.com

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