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CT senator 'no apologist for the utilities,' but says huge rate hikes aren't within their control

Electrical power lines as utility rate increases are announced
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
The sun moves behind power lines in Berlin, Conn.

As customers of Eversource and United Illuminating face an upcoming electric rate hike that could increase the average monthly residential bill by $80, the co-chair of Connecticut's legislative Energy and Technology Committee said he's willing to be hard on the two power companies.

But Sen. Norm Needleman (D-Essex) said that in this case, that type of aggressiveness is not warranted.

"I am no apologist for the utilities," Needleman said. "But today, this part of the bill that's going to double is not really something that's much within their control."

Needleman said lawmakers hope to lessen the pain on the wallets of Connecticut energy consumers. But he said New England states need to better cooperate to improve regional energy availability.

These interview highlights have been edited and condensed.

Norm Needleman: This situation is letting us know that the market design for how we do energy will follow the volatility of the market for energy in general. We're a victim of the [deregulation] policies that we've enacted over 25 years ago that may have saved the ratepayers a penny or two, but it put a lot more risk, in my opinion, on the ratepayers' shoulders.

John Henry Smith: Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham mentioned to me that one of the biggest reasons we're in the pickle that we are now is that we started using natural gas for our electric power — and for our home heating needs — when natural gas was cheap and plentiful. Now it's neither. What can be done to wean us off natural gas?

Norm Needleman: It was widely believed that natural gas is better for the environment than coal, it's better for the environment than oil. We began incentivizing the buildout of natural gas infrastructure, largely for home heating, business use, etc. At the same time that power plants started running on natural gas.

So we're at this point where this year is worse than normal years. I've been working with the administration to see what we can do to back up the Connecticut grid. But there's no one cause. We have to get to work and do what we can and mitigate the risk, both in terms of cost, but then in terms of reliability for the grid. And that's going to be front and center, as we go back to work on the Energy Committee come January.

John Henry Smith: The pain we're going to feel here in Connecticut is being felt in most of New England. What can states do together to help solve this issue?

Norm Needleman: I beseech the people of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, where we — with adequate transmission lines coming through their states — could access way more power generation from Hydro-Québec.

New Hampshire said no to expanding transmission lines through the forests coming down from Canada. Maine got a project underway that went to referendum after the project started. And the voters of Maine said no, we don't want those transmission lines. So we don't work together the way we should.

Note: Gregory B. Butler, who is an executive with Eversource Energy, is a member of Connecticut Public's Board of Trustees.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.
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