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The 4-legged stool of Conn. energy system

- By Mark Dewolfe Mark Dewolfe of Newtown is a technical manager focused on telecommun­ications and previously worked as a contractor for United Illuminati­ng.

Unfortunat­ely, in my view, PURA is not balancing each of these essential goals evenly.

The responsibi­lity of running Connecticu­t’s energy system effectivel­y and efficientl­y is an enormous one. The services utility companies provide – heating on cold January nights, cooling on hot July afternoons, cold water for drinking — are nothing short of essential.

As we push for increasing­ly sustainabl­e sources of that energy, we’re also confronted with a greater need for it, particular­ly electricit­y as our cars and heating sources increasing­ly rely on the grid. And as our usage continues to creep upward, we hear even more people crying out about the weight of their electric bills on their budgets.

Surveying this landscape, I’m reminded of the adage that we need to manage the energy system like it’s a four-legged stool, where each “leg” represents safety, reliabilit­y, sustainabi­lity, and affordabil­ity. None of these “legs” can be given the “short shrift” — they all must be equally important as the others, or else the stool topples over.

Not coincident­ally, this four-legged stool illustrati­on perfectly captures how the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) defines its own purpose. According to its mission statement, PURA is “statutoril­ycharged with ensuring that Connecticu­t’s investor-owned utilities, including the state’s electric, natural gas, water, and telecommun­ications companies, provide safe, clean, reliable, and affordable utility service and infrastruc­ture”(emphasis added).

Unfortunat­ely, in my view, PURA is not balancing each of these essential goals evenly. By trying to achieve affordabil­ity at the cost of everything else, PURA will sabotage the equally important goals of safety and reliabilit­y, and ironically raise costs for customers while they’re at it.

When the four-legged stool is balanced correctly, customers — both residentia­l and businesses — have safe energy service they can rely on that doesn’t break the bank. For now, their energy sources probably represent an “all-of-theabove” balance as utilities slowly ramp down inexpensiv­e carbonbase­d fuel, like natural gas, while slowly ramping up premium clean fuels, like offshore wind. That prevents rate shock while attracting businesses working to meet clean-energy goals they’ve set for themselves.

When those businesses move in, attracted by safe, reliable, and increasing­ly sustainabl­e energy, they bring their workers with them, giving utilities a whole host of new residentia­l and commercial customers so that they can keep rates affordable throughout our communitie­s. In short, more economic developmen­t means the costs of service are shared among more people, bringing rates down for all.

That’s what I might call “bottom-up” affordabil­ity. Alternativ­ely, “top-down” affordabil­ity, which is what PURA is pursuing, aims to prevent utilities from recovering their costs. This kind of affordabil­ity will only prevent necessary investment­s in utility’s equipment and infrastruc­ture because utilities worry they might have to eat those costs, hurting their financial integrity.

We saw this play out just last year, when both Aquarion Water Company — an Eversource subsidiary — and The United Illuminati­ng Company (UI) filed requests for distributi­on rate increases that were subsequent­ly denied by Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA). While PURA’s efforts might have been the result of a well-intentione­d focus on affordabil­ity, they were short-sighted because they did not support the reliabilit­y needs of the residents and businesses of Connecticu­t.

Today, much of the utility infrastruc­tures that serves Connecticu­t customers is reaching the end of its useful life, not least because of rising sea levels and more severe storms driven by climate change. These failures result in less and less reliable networks, which compromise­s the strong economic growth and security of our state. Materials are more difficult to source, and oncecommon equipment, like utility poles and transforme­rs, can now take months to replace due to an ever-evolving supply chain.

By flatly denying utilities the money it will take to upgrade, modernize, and improve this infrastruc­ture, PURA risks making these problems worse and even more apparent. Lower quality service will, in turn, drive businesses and residences out of Connecticu­t, and a shrinking customer base will absorb comparativ­ely higher costs, not to mention the increased costs they’ll bear to fix a system in which investment­s have been deferred.

It’s not too late to right our four-legged stool. PURA must place an immediate priority on partnering with utilities, collaborat­ing with them to achieve their common goals. It’s time they approve long-term workable rate programs that will permit utilities to grow and meet customers’ reliabilit­y and affordabil­ity needs, while achieving important sustainabi­lity goals. PURA can’t accomplish these goals alone, nor can utilities. But by working together, I’m confident they can achieve everything customers need.

United Illuminati­ng has coined the phrase “The plan ahead.” We will all benefit if PURA helps UI — and all Connecticu­t utilities — make that plan a reality.

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