HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Four years ago, just 2,019 Connecticut homes relied on solar energy. Today, the number of homeowners across the state with panels on their rooftops totals nearly 22,000.
Such progress is being attributed to the Connecticut Green Bank, a first-in-the-nation, quasi-public entity that will turn 5-years-old Monday. Created by the General Assembly, the bank is charged with developing programs to finance and support investment in green energy for residential, municipal, small business and large commercial projects.
The group's officials are planning to remind state lawmakers of their success, concerned the legislature might be tempted again to use ratepayer funds, the bank relies on, to help balance Connecticut's books. In the new fiscal year that begins July 1, the state's main spending account is projected to be approximately $1.3 billion in deficit. Lawmakers return to the state Capitol in January.
"We're talking to the legislature about how those resources are important in order to drive this type of investment into the economy," said Bryan Garcia, president and CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank, who estimates the agency has facilitated more than $1 billion in total investment, 85 percent of it private funding, in clean energy projects over the past five years.
Connecticut Green Bank relies on funding from various sources, including a surcharge on residential and commercial electric bills that's deposited into a state account. In recent years, the General Assembly has either swept or proposed sweeping such accounts to help cover state budget deficits, even though the money isn't state revenue.
While supportive legislators and advocates have managed to fight off or reduce some of the proposed transfer of funds, Chris Phelps, state director of Environment Connecticut, said he worries the legislature may eye the money again.
"It is a concern because it has come up as an idea in years past, as a kind of easy mark for people trying to divert money to plug budget holes," he said, adding how the worst thing for the bank's clean energy and efficiency programs is to have "the rug pulled out from under them in pursuit of plugging short-term budget holes."
Democratic State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., co-chairman of the legislature's Environment Committee, said it's difficult to predict what will happen with the budget next year, but he hopes his colleagues recognize the benefit in protecting Connecticut Green Bank's funding stream.
"I would hope that it would be looked at not sort of as a line item, but as an investment in our future, which it is," Kennedy said.
While the Connecticut Green Bank leverages funds to encourage different kinds of clean energy, as well as energy efficiency measures, the entity is credited in particular with boosting solar energy across the state. Those nearly 22,000 households with solar panels produce about 150 megawatts of energy, the halfway point to the bank's goal of producing 300 megawatts by 2022. At the same time, Garcia said, the solar industry has grown in the state while installation costs have become more affordable with the new competition and new low-interest loans offered by local community banks and credit unions.
According to a report from Environment America, Connecticut ranked 10th in the nation in 2015 for solar capacity installed per capita. Meanwhile, the Solar Foundation estimates there were 1,951 solar-related jobs in the state in 2015, compared to an estimated 100 or so jobs a decade ago.
"The Green Bank, from our perspective, it's played a central role in the just huge growth of solar in Connecticut over the last five, six years," Phelps said. "Up until then, Connecticut was really lagging behind every state in the country when it came to growth in the solar industry. That's no longer the case. They played a pretty central role in making that happen."