CT Construction Digest Friday November 11, 2021
INDUSTRY ATTENDANCE NEEDED
PRESS CONFERENCE – TODAY
The NB I-95 Exit 33 on-ramp in Stratford is scheduled to open this Friday, November 19.
CTDOT has invited us to join them, FHWA administrators, and elected officials for a ribbon cutting ceremony to begin at 2:30.
Parking will be available along SB Ferry Blvd and under the bridge by the ramp – click button below for map and directions.
We hope that you and others from your organization can join us!
RIDGEFIELD — The first phase of a $4 million project to improve traffic flow on Main Street is expected to be completed by next week, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
During the town’s tri-board meeting Tuesday, Selectman Bob Hebert asked for an update on the project, which is aimed at realigning the road. Twenty percent of the work is being funded by the state, and 80 percent by the federal government.
Over the past couple of months, crews have been addressing working on underground utilities, Marconi said.
Eversource, along with a Westport-based contractor, worked at the intersection of Main and Prospect streets, near the entrance to the CVS parking lot. They installed a new transformer, underground vaults and wires and cables that extend into CVS and other properties. A new sidewalk was poured in front of The Toy Chest, Marconi added.
Frontier Communications and AT&T have adjusted the communication line on the corner of Governor and Main streets, since the road will be “dropped down” during the realignment, Marconi said. The road’s gas main also was lowered.
Utility work is expected to be completed by Nov. 24, just in time for Thanksgiving. Work is expected to resume after Christmas.
“After the holiday, we will see the gas company come back in the evening and make some new connections for laterals into all of the buildings where they put a new main in, and then transfer that over,” Marconi said. “Eversource will also be working to pull all of their new cable in the conduit that was laid, but all of that will be taking place after the first of the (new) year.”
During the second phase of the project, which is set to break ground in March, the state Department of Transportation will mill, pave and restripe Main Street between Governor and Prospect.
In addition to realigning the intersection near CVS, workers will add three dedicated turn lanes, install bumpouts and pedestrian push buttons at crosswalks and add new trees and plantings along the sidewalks. Ridgefield has retained registered landscape architect Jane Didona to work closely with state officials to ensure the landscaping is consistent with the rest of the town.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Charles Robbins is a liaison to Department of Transportation officials working on the Main Street realignment.
“There is a net loss of four parking places ... and the dedicated turning lanes will allow the flow of traffic to improve substantially,” he said in an earlier interview. Additionally, “all of the traffic lights will be sequenced — right now, they’re not.”
The construction will take six to seven months, bringing the overall project to completion by Thanksgiving 2022.
“We do not want that project to go into the holiday season next year,” Marconi said.
BRIDGEPORT — The state’s largest city is slowly luring tax generating development to the community as new apartments, retail space and commercial ventures are planned or already completed.
But some big-ticket projects remain stuck in “wish list” status, such as restoring the old Palace and Majestic Theaters downtown and building an East Side train station with housing and commercial components.
Thomas Gill, the city’s planning and economic development director, said he’s pleased with recent progress.
“There has been a combination of new development and rehab of existing, older buildings into multi-use projects,” Gill said. “We have seen local developers coming back in and have had other developers reach out.”
The highest profile effort is the long-planned reuse of Steelpointe along the city’s harbor. The property, once occupied by a steel plant, is poised for a new phase of housing, hotel construction and retail space, city officials say.
The Cherry Street Lofts project has created 157 units of affordable housing and 150 more units are in the works.
Crescent Crossings at the site of the former Father Panik Village is moving to add another 80 units of affordable housing and Windward Commons on the old Marina Village site is slated to add more buildings and housing.
“All and all I think we are seeing a good mix of housing, entertainment and commercial, and we are seeing some solid projects underway,” Gill said.
“A lot of things are jelling now and obviously the amphitheater has been a huge success and we came to agreement with the Islanders (minor league hockey team) and extended their 10-year contract,” Gill added.
Cherry Street Lofts
Now in its third phase, a once decaying row of former factories along Cherry Street and Howard Avenue in the West End is seeing new life. The venture includes the eventual reuse of the former Graphophone Company complex, a rehabilitation that represents a nearly $1 billion investment over six or seven years.
The developer, Gary Flocco, a managing partner with Corvus Capital Partners, has so far constructed 157 residential units for families earning between 50 percent and 70 percent of the area median income and opened a 725-student Great Oaks Charter School on Howard Avenue.
In all, the developer plans to build more than 1,800 units and 200,000 square feet of retail space.
The next phase includes a supermarket, additional retail space and more housing. Earlier this year, the state provided a $3.5 million for environmental cleanup in anticipation of the third phase, city officials said.
“This project is a key component of revitalizing the West End into a neighborhood that is vibrant, supports the growth of new business and jobs, and is a place where people want to live and work,” said Gov. Ned Lamont as state funding was announced a few months ago.
Mayor Joe Ganim added, “It is satisfying to see the continued benefits of this project grow and accrue over time. We are cleaning up in the West End and improving our I-95 skylines as visitors enter the city.”
The process of preparing the 245,000-square-foot block that once housed Graphophone and other manufacturers for future redevelopment is underway. The developers envision creating a mixed use facility.
“There is more housing, retail and so forth,” Gill said. “(The developer) recently acquired the Hubbell property on State Street and has a mission and a goal to extend that towards Fairfield Avenue.”
Father Panik Village site
This infamous location of a former crime-ridden, old-style housing project is now an example of modern efforts to convert legacy properties into enclaves that offer some private ownership condos and affordable housing.
The developer, JHM Financial Group, has already built Crescent Crossings, a 177-unit complex that features private ownership and other units tied to low to moderate income restrictions.
Gill said the developer is planning another 80 units and a funding application has been filed with the state.
“They are similar kind of units. The critical aspect is private ownership,” Gill noted.
By selling some units for private ownership, projects like Crescent Crossings seek to generate the stability that comes with pride of ownership and less tenant turnover. The concept has resulted in well-kept and neighborhoods, although the number of new units is far less than the amount that used to be there.
The former Marina Village site near Park Avenue was also a densely packed, crime-ridden housing project. Those old units were torn down a few years ago.
In 2020, JHM Financial, in partnership with Park City Communities, began construction of Windward Commons, a 54-unit mixed income housing complex at the corner of Park and Railroad Avenues, worth $27 million. The four-story complex includes space for a 7,000-square-foot Southwest Community Health Center.
“Their goal is to keep moving,” Gill said. “Ultimately, they are looking at six to 10 buildings there, using the same concept they used at Crescent Crossing to make it attractive and to maintain it.”
Those phases are slated to be built along Johnson Street and will include townhouse-style housing.
The jewel of the city’s redevelopment plan, and occasional location for a casino proposal that ultimately fails, is underway — albeit slowly.
First proposed decades ago, the plan calls for creating a community of shops, waterfront housing, retail stores, marina slips, hotel rooms and a wrap-around boardwalk. The parcel is positioned off Stratford Avenue along city’s harbor, offering views of Long Island Sound and the city’s skyline.
So far, the non-water side of Stratford Avenue has a Bass Pro Shop and other retail stores and restaurants. A marina, boat slips and a restaurant have been built on the Steelpointe peninsula.
Developer Robert Christoph and his RCI Group recently sold a $50 million bond for future phases that attracted 32 investors, including big names such as Goldman Saks and JP Morgan and Chase, Gill said.
“They are going to reinvest into the project,” Gil said. “Their intent is to build 300 housing units with retail and support units, with a health club and other types of retail space, that would be attractive to renters, and parking.”
Gill said a groundbreaking for the apartments is scheduled for April 2022.
“They are looking at a hotel and breaking ground on that in the Spring of 2022,” Gill said. “Pricing it out now and I’m not sure what total investment will be. It will be up there.”
Remington Arms property
The once sprawling East Side campus that produced munitions for the legendary firearms maker is targeted for demolition. It’s now owned by the Dupont Corporation.
The city is spending $2.8 million stabilize the historic shot tower, where lead was dropped from calculated heights to create ammunition. The plan is to create a museum at the site as a tribute to a bygone era of manufacturing.
Eventually, the city would like to see the remaining buildings torn down to make way for future redevelopment.
“We stabilized the shot tower, which we will want to have restored, and we re-fenced around the property and cleaned up the blight,” Gill said.
“With that stabilized, we will look to move on to next stage which is to prepare for demolition of the brick buildings with burned out backs,” he added.
“The goal is to get all the buildings down,” Gill explained, adding that will trigger an obligation by Dupont to remediate the ground, a crucial step for future redevelopment.
“They don’t have to until the buildings are down,” Gill said. “There are six or seven buildings in all. We don’t have a developer now. Once it’s cleaned, or as it’s being cleaned, we would put a (Request for Proposals) out.”
Barnum Train Station
The plan to create a train station and associated development on the East Side between Seaview Avenue and Pembroke Station is essentially dead in the water. The state a few years ago promised funding and then reneged, leaving the $300 million proposal in limbo.
Gill said the city received a $10 million federal grant to help build the train station and the state was to match that grant.
“A whole district was planned in addition to the train station,” Gill said, referring to housing and retail space. “But state couldn’t do it. We believe it’s still a viable project.”
General Electric site
The once sprawling and bustling GE plant off Boston Avenue was removed in 2012. At its height, as many has 20,000 workers were employed on the property, which featured a bowling alley, pool hall and other recreation outlets.
The city built a new $107 million Harding High School on a portion of the site, wrapping up work in 2018. The project was delayed for years by industrial contaminants that had to be removed or sealed in the ground.
Gill said GE owns the remaining property, which must also be cleared of contaminants. He conceded there has been little progress redeveloping the remaining acreage.
“We have had discussions about development there and any time we have a client we refer it to them,” Gill said. “[GE] is in control of the property and I believe they are interested. If we have somebody, we pass it off to GE.”
The wooded, 420-acre property partially located in Stratford is owned by a subsidiary of the Dupont Corporation, which continues to clean up gunpowder and other chemicals left behind from decades of munition testing. A small pond, called Lake Success, is littered with rejected bullets.
The city has entertained various plans for eventually creating an office park or light industrial center on the property. Conservationists call the land Bridgeport’s “lungs” and want to see the trees and wildlife remain open space.
“This has been going through remediation by Dupont or a subsidiary to clean and remediate that property,” Gill said. “They are not at a stage where they can talk about anything.”
Gill added, “There is a lot of push and tugging on that. Some want to see development, and some want to keep it as open space. It’s privately owned, and they are working the property.”
The Jayson-Newfield building, located at Main and Golden Hill Streets, marks an ongoing success.
Developer Mark Read has built 107 affordable housing units within the complex — two adjacent buildings were combined — and renovated first floor commercial space. A new pharmacy is scheduled to move in, Gill said.
Richard Ruggiero and his brother, Chris, opened Berlinetta Brewing Company at 90 Golden Hill St., offering another component for redeveloping the neighborhood.
A plan was floated to build a tulip museum in a building near the former Corbit’s Studio, which was torn down years ago and is now green space. That project never moved forward and the developer, Chris Schipper, co-owner of Colorblends, a wholesale flower bulbs business on the city’s East Side, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Palace and Majestic Theaters
Restoration of the once grand downtown theaters on Main Street — they thrived during the era of Al Capone — has been touted by Bridgeport mayors for more than 30 years.
But little progress has been made restoring the theaters and recreating an associated hotel. Similar historic theaters, in Waterbury and Torrington, for example, have been returned to use.
Gill said the latest developer selected by the city, Exact Capital, failed to obtain financing and last year the city terminated the relationship.
“We will analyze the strategy and put out another RFP,” Gill said. “There might be more interest because of work going on North Main Street. Funding is critical but you need the right partners who can operate it after it is restored.”
Remington Shaver site
Located in the South End, near the University of Bridgeport and the former Conty’s restaurant, the waterfront property is slated to become luxury housing, complete with a marina and boat slips.
The first phase involves 150 units, with the units eventually growing to 1,200 condos, 75,000 square feet of retail space and a 200-slip marina. The venture is estimated to cost between $300 and $500 million.
But the project is stalled over uncertainty created by a $50 million federal coastal resiliency grant designed to prevent future flooding in the area.
“We are fully in favor and believe stuff should be built there,” said Russ Bernard, a partner with developer Westport Property Management.
“We are waiting for clarification to see what’s going on with the flood mitigation project,” Bernard said.
Some of the berms central to the flood project, which also involves installing several large pumping stations, would cross the Remington Shaver site but exactly where is not clear. Time is also running out; the federal grant expires in September 2023.
Gill conceded the flood project is impacting the project.
“Unfortunately, that has been delayed,” Gill said. “It’s HUD funding and they are strict on competition. They are going full steam ahead to get this going. September 2023 is the completion date. They are still trying, and are at 60 percent design.”
Once the site of a Black Rock multiplex movie theater, the property is being converted into 300 units of market rate housing off Canfield Avenue, a $75 million project.
The twin five and six story buildings are being constructed on both sides of the street. One building is up and crews are completing outside improvements while the other building consists of steel and framing at this point.
“This will be quite attractive market rate apartments,” Gill said. “The attraction is proximity to Fairfield train station.”
Construction is expected to be completed in December 2021 and the first units ready in late 2022.
WEST HAVEN — The brewery won round one, but the luxury hotel is not down for the count.
The targeted site is the vacant, blighted Savin Rock Conference Center and the city is in the procress of learning more about development proposals. The proposed brewery would invest $20 million to $25 million; the hotel would involve an investment of $30 to $35 million, representatives of the unrelated plans told city officials.
The question of what will be approved for the prime shoreline site is open again because, after talks with a developer for the closed conference center fell through, city officials opened up a second request for proposals for potential uses of the property.
The intention, according to the request, is for a proposal to “rehabilitate, enter into a lease or ground lease, and operate the property at 6 Rock Street” to “provide a sustainable business operation.”
The city received three proposals — including one to use it as the new brewery site of New England Brewing Co. , manufacturer of the Sea Hag IPA, as a flexible banquet site, or for a luxury hotel that would be either a Marriott Autograph or Hilton Curio.
The purchasing committee announced on Nov. 1 that it had selected the brewery proposal to recommend to the City Council for approval. This week, council members heard presentations from New England Brewing Co. and a representative of the hotel project. A third proposal, for the flexible banquet space, was not representated before the council for the presentations.
The now Woodbridge-based New England Brewing Co. Company made waves this month when they announced their intention to make West Haven its new home, passing over New Haven after nearly a year of planning a move to River Street in the Elm City.
Douglas Gray of Eclipse Development told the City Council that the brewery discovered the West Haven site just several weeks too late, but they remained in touch with mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito and learned that the site was once again available after the initial proposal fell through.
“We jumped on it and said it’s a fantastic opportunity,” he said.
Gray said the brewery is prepared to invest $20 million to $25 million to relocate, including constructing a 52,000-square-foot brewery on the site. It would include a taproom, which would increase tax revenue for the city because of the building’s increased footprint.
“It’s a great location for us with the seaside, but also the draw here — contrary to some of your other things on the beach — we’re a year-round draw,” he said.
The brewery’s director of business development, Marty Juliano, grew up in West Haven, he told the council, and he believes the business can bring considerable economic development to his hometown. Sea Hag, he said, is the top-selling IPA in Connecticut, outselling all other local brands in the state combined. He said the brewery’s production has grown by 55 percent and its revenue has grown 150 percent to $5.5 million annually.
Juliano said the prospect of beer tourism would bring engagement to the shoreline, with beer tourists staying overnight and helping themselves to local restaurants and entertainment.
He said the design concept would heavily incorporate the Savin Rock Museum.
“You would have to walk through it and see all the museum pieces and everything on display as you enter from the front door and walk through prob 1,000-plus feet to get into the taproom space,” he said.
Juliano said the brewery has also toyed with the idea of selling museum merchandise in its gift shop, which would generate revenue that could be paid out to the city as part of a partnership.
He also preemptively assuaged council members who may be concerned about negative impacts on local businesses that the brewery is “not a late-night drinking establishment.”
He said the brewery closes at 9 p.m. five days a week and at 10 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays. The brewery also is not a restaurant, he said, although it would work with local restaurants on food delivery partnerships to brewery patrons.
“We do a lot to try to work with local restaurants and bring them in. We’re not a business that wants to hurt local business,” he said.
On top of 32 jobs associated with the brewery, Juliano said the brewery expects to hire for about 75 more jobs if they relocate to West Haven, for both full-time and part-time roles.
In answer to Councilman Gary Donovan, D-At Large, question on annual traffic the brewery projects, Juliano said Stony Creek Brewery in Branford reports 350,000 annual visitors, but with the West Haven’s location relative to the highway and with New England Brewing’s brand name, he suggested the site could bring 500,000 visitors per year.
He said the capacity for events would be about 400 seated people and 500 in standing room events.
Councilman Barry Lee Cohen, R-10, asked whether breweries are a trend, citing reports that small and medium-sized breweries saw a decline of about 8 percent in revenue in the last year. Juliano said that decline is modest compared to declines seen by large-scale breweries, and the Sea Hag brand has remained strong in Connecticut.
Gray said that building the brewery, once all the proper permits have been received, would take about 4 1/2months, pending any supply chain delays.
Jeffrey Gordon of Codespoti and Associates presented the luxury hotel concept on behalf of South Dakota-based SBM Hospitality Holdings LLC.
Gordon said the Kelsey Hotel would involve an investment of $30 to $35 million from the developers to purchase the property and develop a 135-room hotel that would bring in a proposed $700,000 to $800,000 per year in property taxes.
The proposed project would have an indoor pool, fitness room, rooftop pool and a banquet facility that could hold 350 people.
Council chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, said as a lifelong resident he has seen high-end hotels enter the city and get purchased by increasingly cheaper hotel brands.
Quagliani said he has worries that, after constructing a hotel on the waterfront, in several years the developer may pull out.
“Is there any assurance that wouldn’t happen here?” he said.
Gordon said the location is key.
“There are very, very few waterfront locations available in the area,” he said. “It’s not going to be branded down.”
Quagliani also said he has concerns that a multi-story building would not fit with the landscape of the area. He said he felt the waterfront was not the right location for the project and a hotel concept may be better suited to the area of the train station.
Councilman Peter Massaro, D-2, said he had concerns about what might happen if the project goes “belly-up.”
“We’re going to end up with a Debonair again,” he said, referencing the shorefront hotel that was blighted and vacant for nearly a decade before very recently being purchased by a developer.
Massaro also asked Gordon whether the proposal would include purchasing the site; Gordon said it would, because of the estimated $35 million investment from the developer.
Massaro said the proposal might be more attractive if it were involve leasing the property from the city; Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan then stood beside Gordon at the microphone to advise against negotiating in public.
Mayor Nancy Rossi shared two reasons why she thought the hotel concept “would be a huge mistake for the city of West Haven.” The height, she said, would block out a view of the water from the road, and also selling the property would reduce the city’s leverage if ever the area was vacated by the developer.
“What if it doesn’t work out and we sold it. Now we have no ownership rights,” she said. “We’re very fortunate in West Haven, we have a beautiful piece of property.”
Quagliani set the date for a public hearing on the proposals for Nov. 22.
Some careful readers of The Day, like me, were surprised to come upon a short announcement earlier this month about repair work commencing on joints on the decking of the northbound side of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.
Weren't we supposed to have seen a total replacement of the bridge decking begin by now? Why just a small repair project when they are planning to replace the whole thing? Is one of the signature projects of Connecticut infrastructure work on hold in this, the year of massive infrastructure funding?
After all, a $300 million rebuild of the northbound Gold Star, which was supposed to start in the spring of 2020, was the poster child of Gov. Ned Lamont's unsuccessful push for tolls.
In an elaborate February 2019 news conference under the Gold Star, with lawmakers flanking the governor, Lamont lamented the "structurally deficient" condition of the bridge.
"We need to keep these investments moving forward," Lamont said, gesturing in front of the cameras at the massive, deteriorating bridge overhead.
Indeed, the bridge is no longer able to carry the heaviest rated loads that need permits, and construction materials for projects at Electric Boat routinely are being diverted to the Mohegan Pequot Bridge further north on the river.
It took me a couple of weeks of posing questions to the state Department of Transportation about the 18-month delay in work on the northbound lanes of the Gold Star, until I finally got some answers from Bartholomew Sweeney, division chief of the department's bridge section.
It is an enormous project of daunting complexity, Sweeney explained, which has been broken into a series of phases.
The first of those phases has gone out to bid and an award of around $51 million is expected to be made soon, for steel work under the main deck structure. That work is expected to last three years and, since it us under the highway surface, it is not expected to have much impact on traffic.
The second phase, also structural steel work, I-beams and girders, might overlap with the end of phase one, but the current schedule calls for an award, estimated to be about $100 million, to be made by the beginning of 2025. It is also a three-year project that should have limited impact on traffic.
The phase after the structural steel work is done is the replacement of the highway deck, which will have enormous impact on traffic.
That phase, the furthest out, is the most subject to change, but the current estimate is for it to cost about $147 million, take two to three years to complete and not start until 2028.
That's nine years of construction, with most of the worst disruption in the final three years.
"We are going to try to compress those dates as we develop the process," Sweeney said.
They money for the Gold Star is essentially already in budget planning, and the new federal infrastructure funding that recently passed Congress is not going to be used for it.
But to put it in some perspective, the new federal money expected in Connecticut will be $3.5 billion for highways and $561 million over five years for bridge replacement and repair, not even twice what will be spent on the Gold Star.
The Gold Star, about a mile long, is what Sweeney calls "the biggest structure in our inventory."
The delays in the start of the final reconstruction project, he says, were because of the complexity of the project and the need to build a 3-D model to map the work.
Work on the first northbound phase is now scheduled to start in the spring.
It is going to take so long to finish, they are working on repairs to keep what will ultimately be replaced safe in the meantime.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
BOSTON (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday to mark the groundbreaking of the Vineyard Wind 1 project, the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the United States.
The project is the first of many that will contribute to President Joe Biden’s goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 and to Massachusetts’ goal of 5.6 gigawatts by 2030, Haaland said at the event in the town of Barnstable on Cape Cod.
The first steps of construction will include laying down two transmission cables that will connect Vineyard Wind 1 to the mainland.
The farm will generate 800 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to power more than 400,000 homes. It will be built by union labor and create hundreds of jobs, Haaland said.
“Vineyard Wind 1 represents a historic milestone for advancing our nation’s clean energy production," Haaland said. “This project and others across the country will create robust and sustainable economies that lift up communities and support good-paying jobs, while also ensuring future generations have a livable planet.”
In July, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the project to construct 62 wind turbines about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and 35 miles from mainland Massachusetts.
The commercial fishing industry has pushed back against the wind farm.
In September, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance — a coalition of commercial fishing groups — filed a legal challenge to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s approval of the Vineyard Wind 1 project with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
The approval of the wind farm "adds unacceptable risk to this sustainable industry without any effort to minimize unreasonable interference with traditional and well-managed seafood production and navigation,” the group said at the time.
The group said the current design of the wind farm project endangers the fishing industry by placing turbines too close together for vessels to safely navigate during rough seas, and does not address impacts to fish populations.
Another Vineyard Wind project — Vineyard Wind South — is also under development.
Offshore wind development is still in its infancy in the U.S., which is home to two small projects off Rhode Island and Virginia.
You can pretty much count on it – energy is going to cost more this winter. A lot more.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration – keeper of all energy data – has warned about it nearly every day for weeks: “EIA forecasts higher U.S. heating bills this winter;” “EIA forecasts U.S. winter natural gas bills will be 30% higher than last winter;” “U.S. consumers expected to spend more for heating oil this upcoming winter.” And that’s just a few of its headlines.
Natural gas is at prices not seen since the winter of 2007-2008. Oil, which hit rock-bottom prices at the height of pandemic shut-downs, was at its highest since 2014 by early November and seemed aimed at the $100/barrel level again. The reasons are varied and include pandemic resets, international cartel pricing and low U.S. stockpiles due to natural gas exports, among others.
A spokesman for the independent system operator of New England’s electric grid said ISO-NE is still finalizing its winter outlook but added: “We do expect that prices will increase this winter relative to recent years, given what we’re seeing globally in terms of fuel prices. The extent of these increases is hard to predict and will depend on a number of factors, including consumer demand and weather.”
Connecticut consumers will feel these prices directly. Unlike the rates the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority must approve for delivery and transmission by the utilities, these are actual fuel costs that the utilities simply pass along on behalf of the supplier. That includes natural gas, oil and residential propane used for heat. Electricity that runs off any of them will also cost more. And so will gasoline for the car.
“We’ve been briefing to the governor, we’ve been coordinating with other agencies, and also with other states, to make sure that we’re identifying every strategy that we have available to us to help support families who are going to be impacted by these global price swings for energy commodities,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We’re taking it very seriously.”
And the state has indeed unveiled a host of options for getting help with utility bills this winter – especially for low income residents.
But some of this was avoidable. That reality is highlighting what many feel is the inadequacy of nearly 10 years of programs that should have helped residents – especially low-income ones – insulate themselves literally and figuratively from spikes in energy costs.
Changes are in the works – but they won’t be in time for this winter.
Readdressing an old policy
Fingers are pointing to policy set in 2012 when Connecticut’s first Comprehensive Energy Strategy was unveiled. Its backbone was to expand the use of natural gas – then historically cheap and plentiful due to fracking. From climate change and emissions perspectives, it was also cleaner than oil – then the heating fuel of choice and also widely used in power plants in the region.
Brenda Watson, now the executive director of Operation Fuel, which helps low-income people pay energy bills, recalled multiple weather emergencies at the time that caused them to go through $1 million of fuel assistance in six weeks.
“We were sitting around the table – how can we help people?” she said. “We weren’t against [the idea of opting for gas expansion]. We weren’t attuned to the environmental impact at the time. Now I know better.”
The CES had also called for using weatherization, energy efficiency, equipment upgrades and renewable energy. All could have helped lower energy costs and all have fallen short of expectations for lower-income people.
There are several reasons: Nearly one-third of those eligible for weatherization can’t get it. Solar installations that would have helped low-income people, including renters, get away from fossil fuel use almost entirely barely exist. And programs to help people get more efficient energy equipment continue to focus on those run by natural gas.
The 2012 plan had also called for converting nearly 330,000 homes to natural gas in 10 years. Ironically, it too has fallen short. As of mid-2021, there were just about 92,500.
“We’re coming up on a quiet 10th birthday,” said Dykes, who was hired as deputy energy commissioner in time to put the finishing touches on that first CES. She noted there was a lot of interest at the time, given the difference in price between oil and natural gas.
But there were a lot of people who thought it was a bad idea – including an unlikely alliance of the state’s environmental community and the fuel oil industry.
Environmental folks argued that gas was still a fossil fuel. They were skeptical of the state’s contention that it would be a bridge fuel between oil and carbon free sources. They worried that the state would stick with its sizable investment in gas infrastructure for a generation or more, leaving Connecticut moored to climate change-contributing pollutants.
The oil folks saw their livelihoods on the line, predicated on a price differential they felt was temporary at best.
“Probably the only thing that can be said in the energy business is that nothing lasts for very long,” Gene Guilford, the head of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (now the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association), said to The Mirror at the time. “Oil has been less expensive than natural gas for 18 of the last 20 years. What’s going to happen over the next 20? If someone purports to know, ask him for the lottery numbers, too.”
Charles Rothenberger, now a climate and energy attorney with Save the Sound, raised similar concerns about the gas component. “Five years ago, was anybody predicting natural gas prices are as low as they are?” he asked rhetorically at the time. “It’s very difficult to predict where natural gas prices will be in five years, never mind 30 years.”
The current situation, he said, was predictable. “Record low prices – the only place to go is up,” he said recently. “I don’t think that required much of a crystal ball.”
The challenge of getting homes weatherized
Energy efficiency has long been the mantra as the first step in keeping energy costs down. Home weatherization – plugging the leaks, holes and getting insulation into the state’s notoriously old housing stock – has been a goal for years. But there’s a catch.
To use some of the funds available for weatherization, owners must have an energy audit first – known as a Home Energy Solutions or HES audit. If that audit finds things like asbestos, mold, old knob-and-tube wiring or some other health or safety barrier, as they are known, they have to be fixed first.
For many lower income residents in Connecticut, that’s been a show-stopper.
People doing HES audits and especially those doing the audits for “income-eligible” households – HES-IE – have said for years what DEEP owned up to in its Equitable Energy Efficiency Phase 1 Goals and Actions report this summer:
“Between 2017-2019, 9% of HES participants and 23 percent of HES-IE participants had a health and safety hazard, such as mold, asbestos, pests, or structural issues that prevented weatherization. Low- and moderate-income communities are disproportionately barred from accessing weatherization programs, as health and safety hazards tend to be more prevalent in low-income housing.”
Advocates were documenting this weatherization gap long before 2017. They argue that many, if not most, of those with barriers have been unable to do remediation because of its cost or because they just couldn’t figure out how to go about it.
In rental buildings, where it’s a landlord’s responsibility, many won’t even allow HES audits, fearing that code violations may be found. There is also the fear that if health and safety problems are found, they’ll be too expensive to fix and tenants may take action against them.
And health and safety problems can be very expensive to fix. Leticia Colon de Mejias, whose company Energy Efficiencies Solutions is among only about a dozen that will do HES-IE audits, said there are often multiple hazards in low income housing that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
“You have to address the barrier and the source,” she said. “So for example, if it’s mold in an attic, we have to be sure — where’s the mold coming from? Because if we take the mold out, but we haven’t resolved, say, the leaky roof or the non-vented fan in the bathroom that’s getting into the attic causing the mold, then we are just going to have mold again.”
Many say that the biggest problem has been that the various services related to fixing problems like these are strewn across several state agencies with no umbrella or clearing house.
“It’s time consuming,” Watson said. “People struggling don’t have time.”
She said back in 2012 there was no focus on energy affordability or barriers in homes. Nor was there a holistic approach that included consideration of impacts on health and other vulnerabilities.
“When you have the fundamentals of value systems rooted in harm reduction and you’re centering your most vulnerable customers, figuring out how to serve them first, you get a program that works for everybody,” she said. “Those who are struggling are closest to the problem, so they’re closest to the solution.”
Energy and low-income community advocates say Connecticut, compared with its neighboring states, has lagged dramatically in accessing available funds for remediation so weatherization can be done. And they say the state has been particularly disorganized with programs disjointed and disconnected – silos is the word used frequently – in its approach to dealing with the barrier problem. That makes repairs that much harder for the people who need the most help – generally those with lower incomes.
Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven has been doing gut rehabilitations of dilapidated houses locally for 42 years. The work typically goes beyond code and includes energy efficiency measures. The homes are then sold to first-time homebuyers, said Kathy Fay, the organization’s director of community sustainability.
She said people were getting energy audits but not doing anything if there were barriers to weatherization. So 18 months ago, her department broke off to form a new operation – “I Heart My Home CT.” It essentially operates as a traffic cop to connect people with the resources to fix their problems, without having to work through the bureaucratic thicket on their own.
“Sometimes a resident might feel some discomfort or shame to have this bad thing – a health and safety barrier,” Fay said. “And they could feel an inability to move forward.”
Energy and environmental justice advocates most often point to the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program – LIHEAP – federal money that’s generally used to help pay heating bills as at least a partial remedy for health and safety barrier remediation. Up to 15% of it can be used for weatherization and about half of that can go to health and safety barrier remediation – both of which could have helped lower the bills that need to be paid.
While most of its neighbors have used the full 15% for weatherization, Connecticut is the laggard in the Northeast, using only 2%. So a problem that could have been worked on for nearly 10 years, and that might have prevented the energy sticker shock that is likely this winter, wasn’t.
“Of course it was preventable,” said Colon de Mejias.
Help is on the way, but not in time for this winter. Several new endeavors designed to deal with barrier remediation, weatherization and funding are coalescing right now. One is the Energy Efficiency Retrofit Grant Program For Affordable Housing – Public Act 21-48 – passed in the session earlier this year. It requires DEEP to establish a program to do exactly what its name says. Moreover, it has a coordination requirement designed to at least minimize the decentralized and uncoordinated systems that now exist across multiple departments.
DEEP is starting to look for people to run the program including someone specifically to administer the health and safety barrier remediation portion, according to Deputy Commissioner Vicki Hackett. While she says the program is operating, the hiring process is behind schedule, and to make matters worse, DEEP’s energy bureau chief, Michael Li, left in September, two years after coming to DEEP. He’s among many employees DEEP has lost recently, mostly due to retirements.
The legislature also approved two $7 million pots of money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provides federal money to states to help in pandemic recovery. Connecticut received about $6 billion total.
One $7 million chunk will go to address health and safety barriers to weatherization over three years. It will be paired with a one-year allocation of $2 million in LIHEAP funds. The other $7 million will go to affordable housing energy retrofits, which can be anything from upgrading electrical systems, more efficient energy options and even solar installations.
The LIHEAP funds, while the more reliable funding source of the two, is still just a fraction of what the state could be spending from the LIHEAP pool. In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the state got $82 million for LIHEAP each year. In 2021 it was $83 million, and for the current 2022 fiscal year, it is $135 million. Two million is less than 1.5% of that.
It’s not that these programs didn’t exist up until now; it’s more that they’ve been uncoordinated with far less funding available, which made it difficult if not impossible for many lower-income people to navigate.
It took the pandemic to shake loose some of this funding and recognition of what needed to be prioritized, said Amy McLean, Connecticut director for Acadia Center. “The pandemic exposed the inequities that exist for the most vulnerable residents in Connecticut and the inability of the departments to work together to comprehensively solve housing issues that will benefit residents and reduce the health impacts,” she said. “No one could ignore it.”
Theoretically, the new program will knit together all the scattered pieces related to getting weatherization and barrier remediation done and paid for.
“Now is the time to really start putting those programs together and making sure that we’re taking an approach that’s more holistic,” Hackett said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
But the ramp-up may hit a roadblock, Colon de Mejias said: “There’s no one to do the work.”
There was a huge backlog for audits even before the pandemic and companies lost employees, some of whom have chosen not to return. And who knows how many of those backlogged homes will need health and safety remediation before they can get the weatherization that might have saved them money this winter?
“I have 200 people waiting in the queue,” Colon de Mejias said.
Solar and multi-family units
The surest-fire way to limit exposure to fossil fuel price spikes like the ones gathering now is to use energy systems that don’t use any fossil fuels. The most obvious and ubiquitous in the U.S. today is rooftop solar – something Connecticut embraced strongly in 2012 when the then year-old Green Bank began a new robust program.
Since then, the residential solar program has totaled more than 46,250 installations — 4,202 installations are in low-income residences, 6,336 in moderate-income ones, and 35,713 in all higher income brackets.
The Green Bank’s president, Bryan Garcia, had pushed to get low-income households involved, but the program was only for homeowners classified as owner-occupied 1-4 unit households. Only a tiny number of low income people fell into that category. As small as the numbers were, it turned out that Black and Hispanic owner, along with those in a group that listed no majority race, were getting solar electric systems in percentages greater than their overall percentage of households, while whites were below their share of the potential market.
Multi-family housing larger than four units has been forced to compete in a commercial solar program, where more often than not they were at a disadvantage against other better-financed operations. That is changing. A last-minute addition to the same law setting up the new energy efficiency retrofit program allows multi-family units to participate in residential solar programs.
But it’s of no use for this winter.
“Things need policy. You can’t just hope things get done. These are hard markets, and when you have hard markets, private investment shies away,” Garcia said. “The policy is now there, so now we need to make it happen.”
But there was another way to get solar to lower-income homes and renters – community solar, also known as shared solar. It’s a way to virtually buy into a solar project that’s elsewhere. It’s perfect for renters, lower-income people and anyone who can’t put solar on their own roof for any number of reasons.
Connecticut’s adoption and roll-out of community solar has been tortured. While many other states, including neighbors Massachusetts and New York, jumped into the concept, Connecticut chose to invent its own process rather than adopt existing ones.
Years later, the state still only has a pilot project, and only one participating project – in Bloomfield – is up and running. Two others, in Shelton and Thompson, have had to extend deadlines. Effectively that means there are caps on shared solar participation. Caps remain in place on a similar program for municipalities as well as on residential and commercial solar. Demand continues to outstrip availability, and those left out will be stuck with higher costs this winter.
“We’ve been timid, and now, here we are,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the trade group Solar Connecticut, who said the state really hasn’t created any additional solar jobs in three years. “Had we not had the Green Bank, good God — where would we have been at the residential level?”
Had we gone bigger, he said, “certainly more people that pay electric bills would not be paying as much today.”
Among other concerns that will keep the state tethered to the ups and downs of fossil fuel prices are longstanding subsidies to replace natural gas equipment such as boilers with newer, more efficient versions. Some clean energy advocates would like to see those subsidies ended and the focus shifted more robustly to electric equipment such as heat pumps.
The Energy Efficiency Board recently voted to keep the natural gas subsidies in place, though the final word will come from Commissioner Dykes – who ironically helped design the policy that started the subsidies in the first place.
Asked whether now – 10 years out – she had any regrets about that, her response showed a bit of exasperation.
“We’re working really hard on a lot of fronts,” she said. “I’m really proud of our record.”