Connecticut Faces Big Shifts on Energy, Recycling
by Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register
If Robert Klee is daunted by the challenge that lies ahead as the state’s next Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner, he doesn’t show it.
The agency’s former chief of staff under then-Commissioner Dan Esty, Klee views his pending ascendancy to DEEP’s top job as an opportunity to remake Connecticut at a historic juncture. During an 90-minute interview last week at his office, Klee said the state is on the verge of seismic shifts in terms of energy, solid waste and recycling as well as reuse of brownfield properties across the state.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” said Klee, who lives in New Haven’s Westville section. “Most of my background and training up until this point has been an interesting combination of science and law and policy . I think leading this agency with its sort of diverse issues and its wide scope I get to call on all of the learning I’ve had over the last 20 or so years.”
Klee’s nomination must be first be approved by the General Assembly’s Committee on Executive and Legislative Nominations, said Dennis Schain, a DEEP spokesman. It will then go before the full state Senate, Schain said.
Klee nomination could begin being heard as early as mid-week or sometime next week, according to legislative sources.
State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he has already met individually with Klee. Fasano said he expects that Klee will continue the reforms that were started under Esty.
“A lot of my constituents have told me they believe the DEEP has had a lack of sympathy or empathy for the problems they face,” Fasano said. “My hope is that as DEEP commissioner, he (Klee) will continue to move ahead with streamlining DEEP so that it deals quickly with matters that are really more administrative issues and devotes more time to those issues that really affect our environment.”
Klee said that next year, he hopes to lead an effort to overhaul how DEEP handles brownfield properties, which are former industrial or commercial sites left idle or under-used because of environmental contamination.
“Next year, we hope to combine a legislative package with a package of changes to our policies that will allow for quicker and more sensible entrances and exits” in terms of state agency involvement, Klee said. “It’s a challenging and complex area and that’s why we’re not trying to get it done this year.”
Schain said the overhaul of how the state deals with brownfield properties also could involve some changes in policies and programs at Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development. And to that end, DECD has already hired an environmental coordinator to interact with DEEP and help get the contaminated properties back in use once they are cleaned up.
In the neraer term, though, Klee’s focus will be getting started on improving the state’s recycling rate. Earlier this month, Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed legislation that would shift Connecticut’s focus from burning the state’s solid waste to recycling larger amounts of what is now being thrown out as trash.
Malloy wants to double, over the next 10 years, the state’s current recycling rate of 30 percent. The push to get the state to a 60 percent recycling rate represents a 4 percent increase in what is currently the stated goal for Connecticut.
“We have the potential to unlock some real value in recycling more of our waste stream,” Klee said. “It will allow Connecticut cities and towns to spend less incinerating their trash, which will make more money available for other things like fixing roads and improving schools.”
Klee acknowledged that over time, the shift in focus may result in the state having fewer trash-to-energy plants than the six that exist now.
“Connecticut has a history of leading the way in dealing with solid waste,” Klee said. “We were one of the first states to begin making the transition from landfilling our garbage to what was then a new technology, waste-to-energy plants. Now, with the decrease in prices that these plants are getting paid for the electricity they’re producing, we’re making the transition to newer technologies.”
To ease that transition, Klee said the Malloy administration is going to propose a program that would allow municipalities to buy their electricity directly from the owners of the trash-to-energy plants.
Klee said the goal of the plan that Malloy is proposing is not to prop up the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the quasi-public agency that provides garbage disposal and recycling services for 75 communities statewide. The goal in doing this, he said, would be to reduce the amount of money that communities pay for electricity while at the same time giving the plant operators a steady source of income.
Klee said new technologies will aid in increasing Connecticut’s recycling rate.
High speed optical scanners and mechanical picking devices will make it less labor intensive to extract different types of recyclables out of the mix that is brought in through single stream recycling used in many communities. And Klee hopes to see an expansion in the amount of organic waste that is recycled using anaerobic digesters.
Anaerobic digestion is a series of processes through which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. Organic waste is anything that comes from plants or animals and is biodegradeable.
Klee envisions an increase in the number of commercial anaerobic digesters being built around the state, with many being built on brownfield sites.
The state already has a law in place, according to Schain, that requires recycling of organics from any entity that produces two tons or more per week to recycle the material as facilities with enough capacity become available.
In addition to focusing on changes to the way Connecticut deals with solid waste and recyclables, Klee will also be responsible for overseeing how the state’s comprehensive energy plan and efforts to promote electric vehicle use in the state evolve overtime.
A key component of the state energy plan is an expansion of both the natural gas transmission and distribution networks. The state has little control over the expansion of the natural transmission pipelines that run through the state, since regulatory oversight of those types of projects is handled at the federal level.
But the state does have control over how the state’s three natural gas utilities — Southern Connecticut Gas, Connecticut Natural Gas and Yankee Gas — implement their 900-mile expansion of distribution lines to 280,000 customers over the next 10 years.
On the electric vehicle front, DEEP earlier this month announced a joint effort with the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association to promote the sales of the vehicles. While Klee acknowledged that the price that automakers charge for electric vehicles and hybrids may be too high for some consumers, he said the cost of operating them is cheaper than cars and trucks that run on gasoline.
While it is likely that much of Klee’s time will be spent with the more complex energy and environmental issues, Klee has made it clear that if he is confirmed as DEEP commissioner, he will not forget to devote time and money to one of the agency’s key constituencies, the people who visit Connecticut’s state parks and beaches every year.
At one of his first public appearances after being named as Malloy’s choice to be the new DEEP commissioner, Klee took part in Connecticut’s eighth annual winter festival at Burr Pond State Park in Torrington.
Klee spent part of Thursday posing for a photo with Andrea Repko of Norwalk. Repko’s photo is of her holding a northern pike, which she caught and released in the Housatonic River in September, and it is being used as the cover of the 2014 Connecticut Angler’s Guide.
The former DEEP chief of staff looks a tad out of place in a blue blazer, standing next to Repko, who is dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans and is holding a photo of her 16-pound, 38-inch long catch.
“As a parent myself, I know how critical it is that when a family goes to one of our parks and goes to use the bathroom or wants to change into their bathing suit at a state beach that the facilities are working and are clean,” Klee said. “It the main interaction that many of our citizens have with the department.”
As another example of the effort to make DEEP consumer-friendly, the agency will more actively promote the application it has for smartphones.
Launched last May, the app includes a global positioning satellite to help hikers track trail data, as well as measuring how far they have walked and at what pace.
Call Luther Turmelle at 203-789-5706. Have questions, feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AskTheRegister.com.