By Luther Turmelle, Staff Reporter

Tracey Burrill is going into her sixth year as owner of the Funky Monkey restaurant in Cheshire, a job she said would be easier if political leaders at the state and national levels would pay more attention to energy issues.

“The cost of electricity in Connecticut is really high,” Burrill said. “People expect our place to be air-conditioned and we have so much equipment that we use. With the cost of electricity, it’s really hard to keep going.”

Burrill said she is also concerned about how frequently power outages occur in the state.

“I’ve had two major claims on (food) spoilage in the past year,” she said. “It’s quite disruptive to our business.”

Much of the focus of the 5th District congressional race has been focused on the economy and scandals involving the campaigns of several of the candidates. That has left voters like Burrill in a difficult position when it comes to assessing where the candidates stand on energy issues.

“I have to tell you, I really don’t hear that much about it,” she said.

Candidates in the Republican and Democratic primaries being held Tuesday were asked for their positions on the issues that people like Burrill care about.

BERNIER: IMPROVE THE GRID

Republican Justin Bernierof Plainville said Connecticut’s energy costs could be lowered if the state was more focused on expanding the state’s energy infrastructure: electric transmission lines, natural gas pipelines and power plants.

Justin Bernier (Register Citizen Photo/Rick Thomason)

“For the last 30 years, the state hasn’t done enough to promote infrastructure improvement,” Bernier said. “We need a comprehensive plan to improve the grid and to increase our generation capacity.”

But because of Connecticut’s business climate, Bernier said he has serious doubts about energy-related companies’ willingness to invest here.

ESTY: INCREASE FUEL EFFICIENCY

Elizabeth Esty speaks at a 5th District congressional debate in Torrington. (Register Citizen photo/Rick Thomason)

Democrat Elizabeth Esty, who lives in Cheshire, agrees that a comprehensive energy strategy is a high priority at a national level. Esty, who served on the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee during her one term as a state representative, said she would want to serve on Congress’ Energy and Commerce Committee if she wins her party’s primary and is elected to serve the 5th District in November.

“The fact is, Congress has been kicking the can down the road for a long time,” she said. “We can’t wait any longer. We need policies that support efficiency, both to move us towards energy independence and to help bring down costs for struggling families.”

Esty said lawmakers in Washington need to push for higher production of fuel-efficient vehicles “to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce gas prices.”

“And we must protect and increase our investments in research and development in the renewable-energy and clean-technology industries,” she said. “This is going to be essential for us, not only to lower energy costs and create jobs, but also to ensure that America continues to be an economic leader in the 21st century — benefiting from developing processes and products that we can license and sell to the world.”

GREENBERG: DRILL TO INDEPENDENCE

Republican Mark Greenberg supports a more market-focused approach to driving down energy costs. Greenberg, a Litchfield resident, said U.S. energy policy “should rely on market forces and private research-and-development capabilities.”

Mark Greenberg (Register Citizen Photo/Rick Thomason)

“To reduce electrical costs in our state and nation, we must lower energy-related taxes and we must achieve energy independence as quickly as possible,” he said. “Connecticut has the highest energy-related taxes in the country, created by over-taxation and our continued reliance on foreign oil.”

To expedite America’s energy independence, Greenberg favors expanding the nation’s domestic sources.

“If we drill or expand drilling in three domestic areas — the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana, as well as off the East Coast of our country — the United States could be energy independent in 15 years,” he said.

DONOVAN: FOCUS ON CLEAN ENERGY

Chris Donovan speaks at a 5th District congressional debate in Torrington. (Register Citizen photo/Rick Thomason)

While Greenberg and several other Republicans favor largely market-driven approaches to energy costs, Democrat Chris Donovan of Meriden believes the federal government should be playing a more active role in working toward a solution.

“By prioritizing investments in clean-energy research, development and infrastructure on a national level, we can send a clear message to the markets that we’re serious about renewable energy and the accompanying green jobs, triggering the large-scale private investments that are key to a working green economy,” Donovan said. “By working to implement a system that penalizes the very worst polluters, we’ll put in place a strong incentive to reduce carbon emissions while creating a revenue stream for new investments in clean-energy infrastructure, the national electric grid and in energy-efficiency programs.”

ROBERTI: RETIRE OLD PLANTS

Democrat Dan Robertisaid not enough attention is being paid to the impact that Connecticut’s aging power plants are doing to the state’s economy and its environment.

Dan Roberti speaks at a 5th District congressional debate in Torrington. (Register Citizen photo/Rick Thomason)

“Air pollution created by emissions from coal-powered generation is still a concern in the state,” Roberti, who lives in Kent, said. “In Congress, I will promote clean-energy options, which are positive for the environment and also have the potential to create jobs.”

Geothermal, wind and solar energies are also cost-effective and clean alternatives to fossil fuels, he said.

Two of the candidates in the Republican primary — Andrew Roraback and Lisa Wilson-Foley — spoke in lesser detail when asked about what they would do to lower the costs of energy if elected to Congress.

WILSON-FOLEY: INCREASE PRODUCTION

Lisa Wilson-Foley (Register Citizen Photo/Rick Thomason)

“One of the methods to reduce costs is to have a viable national energy policy,” Lisa Wilson-Foley, a Simsbury resident, said. “Reducing the reliance of foreign oil through more domestic exploration and production of oil, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power would make more energy available to be transmitted at less cost to Connecticut businesses and residences.”

RORABACK: FOCUS ON NATURAL GAS

Andrew Roraback, of Goshen, said the best and quickest way to help bring down the price of energy in Connecticut is to “find ways to improve the availability and distribution of natural gas … so as to permit cleaner and less expensive generation of electricity.”

Andrew Roraback (Register Citizen Photo/Rick Thomason)

FUEL CELLS: A GROWING INDUSTRY

But many in Connecticut believe the way to stimulate the state’s economy and promote cleaner energy at the same time is to focus on expanding the cluster of companies in the state that are in the fuel cell business. Companies like FuelCell Energy have operations in Danbury and Torrington. And while Proton OnSite is based just outside the district, the Wallingford company has shown enough promise to attract a $1 million grant recently from the U.S. Energy Department.

“Connecticut is poised to be a leader in fuel cell and electrolysis technologies; the 5th District already has plants in towns like Danbury and New Britain,” Roberti said. “Fuel cell power plants can be twice as efficient as conventional fossil fuel plants. This industry provides good-paying jobs in a cutting-edge field that is expected to grow as energy demands increase.”

The state’s fuel cell sector supports more than 2,400 jobs in Connecticut and $340 million in gross state product, according to Roberti.

Esty said that while representing the 103rd House District, she called for a focus on renewable and green-energy jobs. The endorsement of her candidacy by the two co-chairmen of the legislature’s Environment Committee is further evidence that she supports renewable energy, according to Esty.

“I also fought for legislation that would make efficiency technology more affordable for homeowners and businesses and provide consumer protections for electric ratepayers to bring down utility rates and help Connecticut businesses create jobs,” she said.

Like Roberti, Esty believes that America’s dependence on fossil fuels has serious negative consequences for Connecticut, both in terms of the state’s health and its economy.

“But while we face significant challenges, we also have an enormous opportunity to put our state at the forefront of developing new energy sources and increasing efficiency,” she said.

Esty said that when she toured FuelCell Energy’s factory in Torrington she was told the company had recently hired its 500th employee. The company was also recently awarded a $3.8 million contract to research a propulsion system for the U.S. Navy.

Donovan said that with movement on the federal and state levels to prioritize investments in renewable energies, Connecticut needs a strong advocate in Congress.

“I will … fight to expand Connecticut’s cluster of clean-energy companies and ensure that our companies have access to the investment funds that they need to grow,” he said, naming U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1, as one “who has been a strong leader on helping to support the fuel cell industry.”

Two of the four Republicans in the primary — Bernier and Wilson-Foley — had little to say when asked to comment on Connecticut’s fuel cell industry. Roraback said the FuelCell Energy contract “highlights the importance of developing new alternative energy technology as it plays into Connecticut’s economy.

“Connecticut is also home to growing solar and wind-technology companies, whose future growth is limitless,” he said. “These industries are promising ventures for our state and our country.”

Greenberg said the state and federal governments “should encourage the development of all alternative, renewable energy sources, including solar, geothermal, wind and fuel cells,” especially since Connecticut’s fleet of power plants is aging.

“More than one-third of Connecticut’s power-generation capacity was built between 1954 and 1973,” he said. “Those power plants have received upgrades over the years, but upgraded plants are not as efficient as new generating sources.

“Modern plants are more than 50 percent more efficient than the power plants of the last generation and they use half the amount of fuel to generate electricity.”

REPUBLICANS: CUT TAXES, COSTS

But much of the focus of Bernier, Wilson-Foley and Greenberg is on reducing taxes and other industry-related costs that they say are holding back energy companies’ investments in Connecticut.

Bernier, for example, focused on his opposition to cap-and-trade policies at the state and federal levels.

Cap-and-trade programs are popular among some as a way to reduce air pollution in a nation or region while still allowing regulated companies some flexibility to meet the pollution standards. Under such a system, companies are issued credits based on their size and industry.

If a company’s air pollution emissions come in below its allotted limit, it receives extra credits, which it may sell or trade with other companies. Connecticut is a member of a regional cap-and-trade group with other Northeastern states.

Bernier views cap-and-trade programs “as an energy tax that has nothing to do with cleaning up emissions.

“This is the kind of agreement New Jersey opted out of because it was killing that state’s economy,” he said. “When you increase energy costs in a certain area of the country, you are only driving businesses away to other areas.”

Greenberg favors reducing taxes that he says contribute to the state’s high cost of electricity.

“Energy taxes, including the gas tax, should be lowered and the gross receipts tax should be repealed permanently,” Greenberg said.

Wilson-Foley said state and federal financial investment in specific energy companies or industries “shows the public sector is more of a problem than a solution.”

“More importantly, heavy government involvement keeps other entrepreneurs from participating in many new exciting technologies,” she said.

Email Luther Turmelle at lturmelle@nhregister.com. Follow our 5th District coverage on Twitter @5thDistrictCT or Facebook @CT5thDistrict.