Opinion: CT takes a big step toward a cleaner energy future

The Rocky River hydroelectric power-plant, owned by FirstLight, in New Milford.

The Rocky River hydroelectric power-plant, owned by FirstLight, in New Milford.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

As the United States emerges from the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are increasingly turning our attention to what the future will look like. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that it will be a future dominated by the effects of global climate change, as we take stock that 2020 was the hottest year on record for our planet — and that all of the past seven years have been the hottest seven years in history.

Already the West Coast is dealing with some of the most extreme temperatures and drought in its history, and it’s only June. We don’t have the luxury of time, and we need to take immediate steps to put ourselves on a better track and stave off the worst impacts of a changing climate.

The good news is that closer to home, Connecticut’s Legislature and state leadership have recently come together to embrace new, tangible steps to increase the state’s reliance on clean energy and reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions from the electric generating sector. Recently, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law SB 952, which will add a significant amount of new energy storage to the electric grid across the state to effectively turbocharge Connecticut’s efforts to become cleaner and greener.

Energy storage is a potential game-changer

Energy storage garners less widespread public attention than renewable energy, but it’s a critical component of any plan to increase renewable energy while maintaining a flexible, efficient and reliable electric grid. By storing renewable energy such as hydroelectricity, solar energy or (in the near future) offshore wind, storage projects make the most of these resources by capturing excess clean energy when it’s available, and then giving it back when the needs are greatest.

It provides needed flexibility to grid operators as our energy mix changes in the years ahead, and storage projects can also serve backup energy needs when the grid is unavailable, increasing resilience for impacted customers. Storage is the glue that will hold the energy system together as we ramp up renewables in the years ahead.

Connecticut’s groundbreaking new law targets to deploy 1,000 megawatts of new energy storage in the state by 2030, with interim targets along the way to ensure the state doesn’t fall off the pace. Gov. Lamont has set a goal of making Connecticut’s power resources 100 percent carbon-free by 2040, which is among the most ambitious targets in the country. By embracing energy storage as a key weapon in the fight against climate change, Connecticut is blazing a trail for others, while simultaneously putting in place the common-sense solutions that will keep our grid affordable and reliable as we transition to clean energy.

Maximizing the potential of clean energy

As the largest clean energy producer in New England today, with experience operating both large-scale renewable energy and storage assets, we know firsthand how important and transformational this law will likely be. Our assets in Connecticut already supply more than 70 percent of the overall hydroelectric generation in the state, and our projects provide local communities with high-paying local jobs and contribute millions to the state’s economy annually in property taxes and local vendor contracts.

But under this new law, we will be able to do even more. By pairing new battery storage with hydroelectric generation, we will be able to maximize the clean energy output of these facilities without expanding their physical footprint in the water. This increases our chances to keep these facilities running economically in a challenging market and supports our ability to provide ongoing local economic contributions.

Similarly, we see opportunities to replace aging fossil-fired “peaking” units that are only called to generate when the system is extremely strained, with clean emissions-free batteries that serve the same role without the pollution. There is significant potential for replacing dirty sources with clean peakers in Connecticut, which is something many companies will now evaluate because of this new law. And because these projects are often disproportionately sited in environmental justice communities, the replacement of conventional peakers with batteries serves to improve more equitable environmental outcomes for the state’s most vulnerable residents.

By any measure, these are simply good outcomes for our communities while shoring up our efforts to meet the massive climate change challenge that looms ahead. Residents across the state should be proud of the role that the state and they are playing in global clean energy leadership while also knowing that these investments will set the state up for a more affordable, reliable and equitable energy system in the future. It’s a big milestone to celebrate in this summer of transitioning from today’s challenges to tomorrow’s solutions.

Alicia Barton is the CEO of FirstLight Power, and previously served as CEO of NYSERDA and of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center