Residents of Texas are still reeling after two winter storms and freezing temperatures swept through the state. These storms have resulted in at least 82 deaths and about $195 billion in property damage, in addition to widespread power outages, food and water shortages, and eye-popping electric bills for some consumers.
While ice and snow are commonplace in New England, could a weather event or other disaster cause extended statewide blackouts and a similar type of energy crisis here? The simple answer is no. And there are a few reasons for that.
First off, Texas sacrificed reliability for cheaper costs as it designed and regulated its electrical grid. Anyone who has paid an electric bill in Connecticut knows that Connecticut’s regulators believe in investing in reliability. And our solar fields and wind turbines are winterized, unlike those in the Lone Star State. Another piece of the puzzle is that Connecticut is part of the broader ISO-NE regional transmission organization, which brings with it rigorous standards to participate in the market, unlike Texas.
By now you may have heard about some Texans being charged exorbitant amounts for electricity, with some residential bills jumping to $640 per day, and businesses seeing monthly prices jump to 100 times their ordinary costs. Such broad fluctuations won’t happen here. Connecticut regulates its third-party suppliers more stringently, so customers are not as exposed to the vagaries of the wholesale power market.
You get what you pay for
Connecticut has the highest total energy prices in the Lower 48 followed by Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Rates are always going to be higher in New England because we’re at the back end of energy supplies.
We’re never going to be cheaper like Kentucky, Louisiana or Wyoming because we won’t burn coal or oil. But why is Connecticut more expensive than our neighbors Massachusetts and Rhode Island? Well, Connecticut throws a ton of money into energy efficiency. So while our energy costs are the second highest in the nation, our total consumption due to those efficiency efforts is 36th in the country. Energy consumed per capita in Connecticut is even lower at 45th. This means that although our energy costs are high, our miserly use of our resources keeps our bills lower. We are 31st in overall expenditures, and right in the middle (25th) in expenditures per person.
Our state has been pushing energy efficiency measures for some time. As a result, we have more efficient HVAC systems, cheaper lighting projects, and a compact fluorescent bulb costs about a quarter of the price in Connecticut compared to some other states. That’s also why Eversource and United Illuminating customers can currently get an energy audit of their homes, a roughly $1,000 value, at no cost.
The portion of Connecticut’s electricity that is generated from fossil fuels has been falling for years as Connecticut moves toward its zero-carbon electricity goal. For such a small, densely populated state, we have a decent amount of solar energy, and will soon be home to the largest solar farm in New England. We also have large scale wind projects on the way. The next step is for us to get serious about energy storage. The technology exists to store solar-generated power for cloudy days or wind-generated power on calm days. All it takes is batteries — giant batteries the size of tractor trailers.
There are proposals for these energy-storage projects that are in the beginning stages, but tariffs, demand charges and fees from utilities make them difficult to finance. The alternative is to have our fossil fuel power plants run in a “peaker” mode to respond to our real-time energy demands regardless of weather conditions.
Our residents love to complain about energy costs in the state, but it’s not as bad as most think it is. We have a bright energy future in Connecticut. While we sometimes experience outages during storms, we’ll never see an outage as widespread as the one in Texas, nor the $16 billion in customer overcharges to resolve. And if we continue our focus on renewables and energy storage, maybe we can even drive down costs.
Lee D. Hoffman is an environmental and energy attorney with the law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC.