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Connecticut regulators have finalized new rules paving the way for a major expansion of battery storage and electric vehicle charging, part of a broader effort to modernize the state’s electric grid.
Since the wide-ranging “grid mod” proceedings began in fall 2019, all but one of the 11 subject-area tracks in the docket have either concluded or made significant progress, according to Marissa P. Gillett. Gillett set the process in motion when she took over as chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
While “anyone who knows me knows that I wish I’d been done with this six months after I started,” Gillett said she is nonetheless proud that the agency managed to “largely stay the course” despite a pandemic, the fallout from Tropical Storm Isaias, rate cases and considerable staff turnover.
The ultimate goal of the proceeding is to make the electric grid more efficient, resilient, equitable, and supportive of clean energy. Over the past two years, the authority has held multiple technical meetings and listening sessions in each of the subject areas, and solicited comments from interested stakeholders before issuing the final initiatives.
EV charging and ‘equitable distribution’
The charging infrastructure program was guided by the state’s commitment to a 10-state memorandum of understanding, signed in 2013, to collectively deploy 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025. Connecticut’s target is 125,000-150,000 electric vehicles by that time, a major jump from the current 17,000.
The plan provides incentives for installing charging stations, and sets specific deployment targets for residential single-family and multifamily charging stations, workplace charging stations, and fast-charging stations. Setting those targets should help “drive toward a more equitable distribution,” Gillett said. “It’s reserving funding for the different sectors.”
The plan also includes a lease option, whereby multifamily dwelling owners may opt to pay a monthly fee to the utilities to supply charging stations. Gillett said that option could help boost deployment in affordable housing developments.
Homeowners installing a charger will receive rebates of up to $500. Multifamily and commercial building owners will be rebated up to half of the charging station cost, and the utilities will cover the cost of any infrastructure investments required between the distribution system and the charger.
The maximum incentive per site is $20,000, although sites in underserved communities will be eligible for up to $40,000. (Those maximums rise to $150,000 and $250,0000 for fast-charging stations.) The program will be funded through electric rates, but will be reviewed every three years to determine whether ratepayers are receiving the expected benefits.
Paul Vosper, chief executive officer of JuiceBar, a charging technology manufacturer based in Norwalk, said he thinks the $20,000 cap is too low because installation costs run as high as $5,000 per charger. A commercial site owner installing three or more chargers would easily exceed the cap, he said.
While the program will help Connecticut begin to catch up with surrounding states, as measured by chargers per capita, Vosper said what would really drive deployment is if lawmakers approve the Transportation Climate Initiative. That multi-state program, supported by Gov. Ned Lamont, failed to win lawmakers’ support this past session after gas station owners and Republican lawmakers blasted it as a gas tax.
The regional cap-and-invest program is designed to reduce vehicle emissions by requiring wholesale fuel suppliers to purchase allowances for the pollution created by their products. States could use the proceeds to make infrastructure investments to further clean up the air, including installing charging infrastructure.
“We have to take action now — we’ve got about 10 years to sort this out,” Vosper said. “This is a very smart way to invest today in our infrastructure and address climate change at the same time.”
The electric storage plan follows the legislature’s passage this year of a law establishing a statewide goal of deploying 1,000 megawatts of energy storage by 2030. Connecticut is the eighth state to set such a target.
The nine-year program includes a set of upfront incentives that will reduce ratepayer costs to purchase and install storage systems, which are typically paired with solar. Customers will receive additional performance incentives if they agree to allow the utilities to draw on their storage systems during critical demand periods.
Residential customers will be eligible for upfront incentives up to a maximum of $7,500, with the highest incentives reserved for low- to moderate-income customers. Those customers include households with incomes below 60% of the area median, as well as those in environmental justice communities and distressed municipalities.
Commercial and industrial customers will be eligible for incentives covering up to a maximum of 50% of the project cost.
Exploring ‘possibilities for innovation’
In addition to those plans, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority also recently issued a draft proposal for how to drive the adoption of “non-wires alternatives” to traditional transmission and distribution methods. Instead of simply expanding substations and replacing transformers, the proposal envisions a method for exploring ways to upgrade less expensively by using such technologies as battery storage, demand response, and microgrids.
The authority calls for a program overseen by an independent consultant, who will review all proposed distribution system upgrades over $500,000 and, working with various stakeholders, determine if lower-cost or more resilient alternatives are feasible. The consultant would also review proposals for alternatives submitted by the distribution companies — Eversource and United Illuminating — as well as third-party competitors.
The proposal requires Eversource and United Illuminating to provide potential bidders with access to their distribution system data, which the authority said is necessary to make the planning process “much more open and transparent.”
Eversource had argued that the process should be run by the utilities, since they already have the expertise. Eversource spokesperson Mitch Gross said that the company agrees with the objective of transparency, but thinks that bringing in a third-party administrator is unnecessary and will add duplicative costs.
“Transitioning to a modern, clean and resilient electric distribution system, while meeting the mandate to provide safe and reliable service, cannot occur by outsourcing planning and engineering, and leaving the utility as a bystander in the process — an option of last resort,” Gross said.
But Oliver Tully, a policy strategist at the Acadia Center, said having a neutral facilitator for soliciting projects, reviewing proposals and making recommendations to regulators will help eliminate potential conflicts of interest.
“I could see a situation where there would be a conflict on projects where the utilities would make a return as opposed to ones where they might not earn as much money,” he said. He noted that Maine also has a third-party coordinator for their non-wires alternatives program.
Tully praised the proposal for placing a priority on transparency and open access to energy system data.
“They recognize the importance of not having restrictions in terms of potential ownership models for the non-wires alternatives,” he said. “That opens up more possibilities for innovation.”