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Climate change and steep energy goals: CT's DEEP commissioner steps up to the challenge

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Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, at Stratton Brook State Park in Simsbury.

Her job is daunting in the best of times, which these are not. Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), has ambitious goals to chase down, armed with tight budgets and a shrinking staff.

Her burgeoning portfolio for the state includes:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent in nine years
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050
  • Cut emissions from electric power to zero by 2040
  • Reduce carbon pollution from transportation sources by 26 percent by 2032
  • Conserve 10 percent of Connecticut as open space by 2023 (spoiler alert: not going to make it)

Gone are the halcyon days when DEEP had only clean air and clean water on its plate, with a side order of outdoor recreation — hunting, fishing, boating, parks, etc. Energy was added to the mix in 2011 when the DEP became the DEEP — with energy getting top billing over environmental protection.

The job is much bigger now, according to Dykes, who has led the department for two years and has worked there in various capacities since 2012. “Climate change is having an impact on every single one of our programs at DEEP,” she says. “Whether it’s our forestry program where we face more invasive pests or it’s maintaining dams or other infrastructure that is under increasing stress from things like more intense rainstorms.”

Dykes, who is married and the mother of three young children, sees the next decade as an existential challenge for her generation and generations to come. She doesn’t mince words: “Oh, yes, it’s alarming, the greenhouse gas emissions that are already in the atmosphere, from those alone we will see dramatic changes to our environment by 2050. We have very limited time in this decade to turn off the tap and really ramp down on emissions. It is critical that we do that so we can prevent the changes in our climate from becoming even worse after 2050, truly making our planet unlivable.”

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The phase one report from the Governor’s Council on Climate Change released in January stated that by 2050 the mean sea level of Long Island Sound could rise 20 inches and temperatures could increase by five degrees above the baseline average from 1970 to 1999.

A year from now Dykes will be battling climate change while she and her department totter atop a precipice, what is being called a “staffing cliff,” when 35 to 40 percent of current DEEP employees will be eligible to retire — and contract incentives kick in that make a mass departure likely. The exodus of veteran staffers has already begun.

“It’s like a fallen tree just up the road,” says Curt Johnson, president of the nonprofit Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound. “Are you prepared for that, Katie Dykes? I don’t think she is. If you don’t take care of the basics of clean air and water, and if we do have 40 percent retirement in those areas without trying to replace them now, we’re going to be in serious shape.”

Dykes says that she has been able to restore key positions that had become vacant. But staffing has always been a struggle for DEEP. In the decade from 2011 to today, the number of non-energy employees in the department went from 936 to 785, a decline of 16 percent. On the energy side, 124 were employed as of this spring, 70 in the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. “We’re trying to do more with less” could be the department’s motto.

“Commissioner Dykes has a really difficult job with inadequate resources and is doing the best anyone can under those circumstances,” says Eric Hammerling, executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut Forest & Park Association. “She has a lot of things on her plate and she seems to relish that. I have to say I appreciate her energy, intelligence and enthusiasm that she brings to the job.”

Dykes does indeed exude enthusiasm for DEEP initiatives that are demonstrably going well. Under her tenure, the state has refrained from its habitual raiding of departmental funds earmarked for programs such as clean energy initiatives and the timely Passport to the Parks: In 2017 then-Gov. Dannel Malloy approved the diversion of $73.5 million from the former into the general fund; and the Passport fund had seen $5 million siphoned off two years running prior to Dykes’ tenure as commissioner. 

The pandemic has fostered a new appreciation for the great outdoors, and the Passport fund — generating more than $15 million a year from a $5 annual fee on non-commercial vehicle registrations — has enabled DEEP to keep state parks and forests open and in passable condition, which wasn’t always the case in previous years. The program allows Connecticut residents to park for free at Hammonasset and other popular parks. 

“I can’t imagine how we would have gotten through the pandemic without this program in place,” Dykes says. “We have seen a 50 percent increase in trail usage, for example. The Passport to the Parks program is essential for us to continue to provide the experiences that people love.” Even with restricted parking capacity because of COVID-19, Hammonasset experienced a 20 percent increase in visitation last year, according to Dykes, adding that hunting and fishing licenses shot up 17 percent in 2020 as well. Overall, DEEP estimates that state park attendance increased from 10 million to 11 million annual visitors between 2019 and 2020.

Increasing open space for the public is a long-established state goal, with DEEP tasked with preserving a total of 10 percent of Connecticut land by 2023, while conservation partners such as land trusts would conserve another 11 percent. As of December, DEEP was 82 percent of the way there, with 57,665 acres to go. Will Healey, a DEEP spokesman, concedes the current pace of acquisition “may not be sufficient … but [the goal] may be attainable within a longer time frame.”

One of the main reasons that achieving the open space goal is lagging is funding. The current DEEP budget of $192.2 million is higher than it has been in recent years, largely because the state has not siphoned off tens of millions of dollars from key departmental accounts. The actual contribution from the Connecticut General Fund to the annual budget has declined $18.5 million in the past decade, while the department’s costs and responsibilities have increased. Federal contributions account for fully 25 to 30 percent of the annual DEEP budget.

Like so many other people, the commissioner and her family have indulged in “outdoor therapy” this past year. During a weekday phone interview late this past winter, her children could be heard in the background — until they decided to go outside and build a snowman. Her family created a pollinator garden last spring in their West Hartford backyard, and they have been keeping an eye on the local birdlife. Getting into fishing is on their to-do list — and Dykes points out that DEEP can help with that through its popular learn-to-fish program, or CARE (Connecticut Aquatic Resources Education).

For all that, the woman who is in charge of Connecticut’s environment is not exactly a “good old country girl” by nature. The suburban homeowner was born in Toledo, Ohio, grew up in Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, and matriculated in New Haven at Yale University and Yale Law School.

And Dykes’ resume is decidedly more energy than environment. She was DEEP’s deputy commissioner of energy from 2012 to 2017, when she was named chair of Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA). Prior to 2012, she worked in the Obama administration as deputy general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality and as a legal adviser to the General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy.

On the energy front, Dykes and DEEP have drawn fire for not opposing new fossil fuel facilities like the 650-megawatt, natural gas-fired plant being proposed in Killingly. “We can’t be building clean energy and dirty energy at the same time,” says Samantha Dynowski, director of Sierra Club Connecticut. “Our state is a net energy exporter right now, and it’s abundantly clear if we’re going to have 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, which is Gov. [Ned] Lamont’s goal, that the only way to do that is to start retiring gas power plants, not adding more onto the system.”

Amy McLean, Connecticut director of the environmental nonprofit Acadia Center, agrees: “We do not need to be investing in more gas infrastructure now, at a time when we are doing all these great things in Connecticut, like going forward with the Transportation Climate Initiative and expanding next-generation energy efficiency and working on improving our building codes.” The Transportation Climate Initiative is a multi-state pact to reduce auto emissions, which account for 38 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas production.

Dykes responded to the criticism by saying that the Killingly plant would be contributing to the larger regional electric grid, not simply to Connecticut’s, and that “our goal is to advance policies that are bigger than just one plant.” She and others argue that efficient gas plants are still necessary in the near future to maintain the reliability of the grid due to the inherently intermittent nature of solar and wind power generation. The possible retirement in 2029 of the Millstone nuclear plant, which produces more than 40 percent of the state’s electricity, would put a big dent in the state’s generation capacity. 

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Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, at Stratton Brook State Park in Simsbury.

Dykes insists that the state is on track to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals — with about 65 percent of Connecticut’s current energy consumption already contracted to zero-emission renewable energy and zero-carbon nuclear sources, a percentage that will increase to 91 percent in 2025 when offshore wind turbines and large-scale solar projects come online.

The contribution of solar power to Connecticut’s green future also has been controversial, with utilities like Eversource opposing net metering, which currently allows homeowners with solar panels to send excess kilowatts back into the grid and get compensated at the retail rate. Solar power advocates like Michael Trahan of Solar Connecticut, an industry association, have fought successfully in Hartford to keep net metering in place, at least for the time being, arguing that it incentivizes new decentralized green power. The solar industry accounts for more than 2,200 jobs in Connecticut, and some 50,000 installations to date, generating 2.14 percent of the state’s electricity, he says.

Trahan adds that “distributed energy generation” on rooftops lessens Connecticut’s reliance on large single power sources, whether fossil fuel plants or offshore wind farms. “You can get your power two ways,” he says. “You can generate it 50 miles away, and pay to transmit it, or you generate it 50 feet from where you are. And this administration is relying more and more on power generated 50 miles away. The lowest-cost power is that which is generated on site, where it is used.” He adds, “Many years ago, Connecticut’s government put all of its eggs in one basket by enabling the Eversource monopoly. Look at where that got us.”

On overall green energy strategy, Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Johnson gives Dykes a B+ for reducing carbon emissions: “She’s done really great work on the transition to a green economy, particularly offshore wind; that procurement is really exciting. And also we have started to get community solar going by allowing people who can’t put solar on their roofs to buy into community-based solar generation.”

Last year, at DEEP’s direction, Eversource and United Illuminating, the state’s two main electric utilities, entered into agreements to purchase wind power from Park City Wind, the largest purchase of renewable energy in state history. When combined with a previous purchase, the state now has nearly a fifth of its future electric load under contract with wind-generated power. And in a boost for locally generated solar power, the limit on homeowner generation capacity was raised to allow for the powering now, or in the future, of two electric vehicles. That begins on Jan. 1, 2022. Under the current program, customers must size their solar systems to roughly fit their existing annual electric needs, a measure to prevent surplus installations aimed at generating a profit.

Johnson adds, “Katie also deserves a lot of credit for championing the Transportation Climate Initiative, which will produce more than $80 million a year for transportation improvements.” In December, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia agreed to work together to require fuel suppliers to purchase “pollution allowances” that will fund upgrades to and expansion of mass transit, create rebates for electric and low-emission vehicles, and develop charging-station infrastructure, among other “green investments.” If approved this year by the state General Assembly, the program would raise gasoline prices about five cents a gallon in the coming years.

However successful Connecticut is in reducing its carbon footprint in the decades ahead, it also must adapt to the changes already occurring because of past and continuing greenhouse gas emissions — such as sea level rise, coastal flooding and storm surges, higher temperatures that augment air pollution, and more intense rainstorms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has established a program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities to support adaptation efforts to the new normal.

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Earlier this year, Connecticut DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes showed renewed optimism on the climate change front.

But states must spend money and have programs in place to receive federal largess to help stabilize retreating shorelines and disappearing marshes. Johnson is concerned that Connecticut isn’t prepared. “I am worried that I don’t see a mechanism in place to attract and take advantage of this huge federal opportunity that requires state matching funds,” he says. “If you or I could spend 25 cents and get 75 cents back we would do it all day long.”

Most of the criticism of Dykes is focused on specific issues or programs. Many observers give her high marks for her overall performance. “I think the department is doing a great job under very adverse conditions,” says Patrick Comins, executive director of Connecticut Audubon Society. Dr. Frogard Ryan, Connecticut director of The Nature Conservancy, agrees. “I think she is doing fabulously and I give her an A+,” she says. “Katie brings the right combination of expert understanding of the issues that the state and the world are facing, coupled with eloquence and empathy and a willingness to work with many different people.”

Connecticut, of course, is not alone in safeguarding its environment and tilting at greenhouse gases. On Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, Dykes tweeted at the new occupant of the White House: “Thank you @POTUS for bringing our federal government back to the fight against climate change on Day 1! Thrilled to have a partner in Washington once again, to help us secure a better future & livable planet for our kids and grandkids.”

To those who question the need to act now or to act aggressively to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, Dykes replies: “You know, some legislators ask me, ‘Why now? We’re in a pandemic, there’s an economic downturn, is this really the time?’ People have been asking that type of question for two or three decades, but frankly if we don’t take urgent action to reduce emissions in this decade, the results will be catastrophic for us, for our children and for our grandchildren.”

This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.