Connecticut’s solar power industry wants a court to block the General Assembly from “confiscating” money earmarked for Green energy projects and instead using it to balance the state budget.
Mike Trahan, executive director of SolarConnecticut, said lawmakers improperly diverted $175 million from clean energy and solar ventures to the General Fund. The funds come from a surcharge that electric and natural gas customers pay each month.
“Consumers were promised the surcharge they pay would be returned in the form of lower energy bills and this budget breaks that promise,” Trahan said.
“This surcharge account belongs to people that pay utility bills,” Trahan said. “It has nothing to do with financing state government operations. [We] are pursuing legal action to block state lawmakers from confiscating a surcharge on utility bills and using those funds to balance the state budget.”
The “sweep” of funds had been opposed for months by environmentalists and other activists, which argued the money helps the state meet climate change goals, lower overall energy costs and develop cutting edge renewable energy sources.
The money also supports a growing energy efficiency industry, which now employs more than 34,000 workers in Connecticut. More than 100,000 homes and businesses have taken advantage of programs offered by the utility consumer accounts, industry experts said.
Vivian Perez, owner of HE-Energy Solutions in Stratford, said the surcharge on electric bills keeps thousands of contractors and energy and solar conversion workers employed across the state.
“We created a workforce,” Perez said. “We educate [workers] and give them a very specialized skill set. Many of these cuts will force us to lay off workforce.”
The money to pay for big and small renewable energy and efficiency projects resides in three state programs created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy: the Connecticut Green Bank, the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
To help close multibillion deficits in the state’s two-year, $41 billion budget approved this week, lawmakers diverted money from dozens of accounts and departments to the General Fund.
The Energy Efficiency Fund was cut by $127 million over the next two years; the Green Bank lost $28 million in funding; and the RGGI was reduced by $20 million.
All three programs receive direct and indirect money from the small surcharge included on electric and natural gas bills. In 2016, the surcharge pumped $215 million into the Energy Efficiency Fund, which is typically used by homeowners and small businesses to lower the cost of energy upgrades and solar conversions.
The Green Bank issues loans for a variety of projects, ranging from heating and cooling system conversions to building solar arrays and fuel cell plants that produce electricity. The RGGI is nine state pollution cap trade program designed to reduce the region’s carbon emissions.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he supports the Green funds and is “sympathetic” to complaints the money should not be diverted.
“I’m not a fan of raiding those funds,” Duff said. “But maybe their mission should be to educate legislators and others about the importance of these funds instead of filing a lawsuit.”
Jennifer Arasimowicz, vice president for Fuel Cell Energy in Danbury, said the Green Bank has helped finance dozens of renewable energy projects across the state and has created thousands of jobs — including the landmark five mega-watt fuel cell power plant in Bridgeport.
“The Green Bank facilities the entry of private financing,” Arasimowicz said. “The loan [for the Bridgeport plant] facilitated construction of the project, which then [generated] taxes to the state equivalent to the amount of the loan. The Connecticut Green Bank paved the way for multiple mega-watt field parks in the U.S.”
Tim Fabuien, chairman of the Home Performance Alliance of Connecticut, said diverting the fund to pay for other needs is short sighted.
“Raiding utility customers’ energy accounts — whether it’s $100 million, $20 million, or $2 million — will mean hundreds or even thousands of job losses and higher energy costs for families and businesses,” Fabuien said.
Trahan said he is recruiting contractors and others who work or benefit in the industry to join the lawsuit and share legal expenses.
“Legislators know all about this,” Trahan. “They know the impact this will have. They just don’t care.”
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said the governor plans to carefully review the budget adopted this week before deciding whether to sign or veto it.
Although Donnelly did not respond to a request for comment on a potential legal challenge over the Green cuts, Malloy earlier in the week sent signals to lawmakers that there is a limit to how much they can take from the fund.
“I remain committed to our ratepayers and to protecting these funds that reduce energy costs while reducing our dependency on fossil fuels,” Malloy said.