Lamont talks grid reliability, offshore wind with DEEP staff

Hartford — For Katie Dykes, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's new commissioner, the scariest briefing came right after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when she was deputy commissioner at the agency.

"If the wind direction shifted 15 minutes later than it did, a substation in Bridgeport would have been submerged and we would have had no power to the largest city in Connecticut for months," Dykes told Gov. Ned Lamont, who toured DEEP headquarters and met with department heads and staff Friday afternoon.

Lamont peppered DEEP's energy team — comprising experts and attorneys with DEEP and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority — with questions on upgrades and maintenance to the state's power grid, which faces aging infrastructure and threats from climate change, including sea level rise.

Kelly Porter, director of utility regulation for PURA, noted the grid's reliability had greatly improved over the last several years, with added vegetation management, system hardening and utilities "routinely upgrading."

"But as your system starts to age that's when it gets more costly," Porter added. "A lot of the distribution system was built out in 1960s and 70s when we had a lot of growth in Connecticut. We're starting to see that some of that is reaching the end of its life. That's one of the biggest drivers on electricity rates on bills: having to renew and refresh that distribution system."

After a brief discussion on the costs of underground wires, Lamont joked, "We're going to need wires to transmit electricity for the rest of our lifetimes? No Bluetooth?" Dykes responded that she hadn't seen a wireless electric distribution proposal from any utilities.

Part of a multi-agency review during his first weeks in office, Lamont said the tour gave him a fuller perspective of DEEP's duties, which range from land and permit issues, natural gas pipelines, wastewater management, forest protection, lifeguard recruitment and training, renewable energy procurement and helping to ensure the New England power grid remains reliable.

"I'm just going around learning what everybody does in the state ... so I can tell the story of what you do on behalf of the people," he told staffers. "Not enough people know what DEEP does and too many people take state government for granted."

Lamont posed a question to regulators following mentions of Millstone Power Station's previous hints of early retirement — a prospect experts at ISO New England in 2016 said would spark frequent and lengthy rolling blackouts.

"What's our backup?" Lamont said. "Let's say these guys say, 'Pay me a super premium or we're shutting down in three years?' And I say, 'Go ahead, make my day.'"

After a staffer quipped, "That actually already happened," Dykes noted DEEP and PURA were working together, and with ISO New England — the nonprofit grid operator and wholesale electricity market administrator — to ensure "we're getting good strong market design that supports our policy goals in the state."

In the state's zero-carbon electricity auction, DEEP selected a 10-year proposal from Millstone that amounts to about half the facility's 2,100-megawatt output, a move that Millstone owner Dominion Energy and lawmakers had desired for years.

Lamont and Dykes say they are enthusiastic about opportunities for renewable energy, however, including offshore wind and solar power.

Several states surrounding Connecticut are seeking large influxes of offshore wind within the next 15 years. Earlier this month Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York almost quadrupled a previous offshore wind procurement target: from 2,400 megawatts to 9,000 megawatts by 2035. And Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey are all pushing for more than 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind.

Whether Connecticut will seek a specific offshore wind target, as recommended by many clean energy advocates, remains to be seen. Asked about the possibility, Lamont noted the state was already slated to "purchase a fair amount" from Orsted US Offshore Wind with its Revolution Wind project south of Martha's Vineyard. Lamont has said he supports further investments that will help New London become a regional wind power hub. 

"We've got ambitious climate goals and we know offshore wind has a lot of benefits. It has a high capacity factor, it's running all the time and it performs in the winter, which is terrific," Dykes said. "We're in regular calls with those states to look at pooling our buying power. We're also looking at issuing an integrated resource plan which will really evaluate what our long-term goals should be."

b.kail@theday.com

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