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Environmentalists worry promoting natural gas will overshadow efficiency, renewable energy efforts

 Luther Turmelle | The New Haven Register  (New Haven, Conn.)

What started out as a statewide initiative to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy now has been expanded to include a statewide push to sign up new natural gas customers as part of a 10-year expansion of the distribution network by the utilities.

Energize Connecticut now is actively promoting efforts by the state’s natural gas utilities to add new customers. A ceremony late last month in West Haven organized by officials with the promotional initiative left some environmentalists in that city troubled because it focused largely on natural gas, leaving the original energy efficiency and renewable energy mission of Energize Connecticut as almost an afterthought.

Dennis Schain, a spokesman with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, acknowledged there has been a shift in the focus of Energize Connecticut to include the natural gas expansion effort. But he said state officials don’t see the inclusion of natural gas in Energize Connecticut’s promotional efforts as something completely divergent from the initiative’s original mission.

“We understand concerns about expanding the use of natural gas in our state,” Schain said. “But we view natural gas as a realistic bridge to a clean and renewable energy future, as it burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels and costs much less than heating oil. Energize Connecticut is committed to making certain those choosing a new natural gas option first take advantage of efficiency programs so that they can heat their homes and power their businesses with the least possible amount of fuel.”

Among those who have taken notice of the inclusion of natural gas in Energize Connecticut is William Dornbos, Connecticut director of Environment Northeast.

Dornbos said that with lawmakers’ passage of Connecticut’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy in 2013, “it was natural consequence that this would happen to some degree.” Expansion of the state’s natural gas distribution network was a major component of that strategy, he said.

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“But it does raise the question of how the state will balance the promotion of the different energy resources,” Dornbos said.

The state’s natural gas utilities actually are connected indirectly to Energize Connecticut’s activities.

The initiative is the work of a partnership between the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and the state’s electric and gas utilities. Funding from Energize Connecticut comes from a charge on customers’ energy bills.

Nobody in the state’s environmental community is accusing Connecticut Natural Gas, Southern Connecticut Gas or Yankee Gas of trying to exert improper influence on Energize Connecticut. But Joel Gordes, a West Hartford-based energy industry consultant, said environmentalists in the state are wary of natural gas being included in the Energize Connecticut promotional initiative.

“The environmental community sees natural gas as something that runs counter to energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Gordes said. “They are worried that there could be a huge amount of mission creep, where resources that been devoted to energy efficiency and renewable energy will end up being diverted to promoting natural gas.”

Call Luther Turmelle at 203-789-5706.