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CT Construction Digest Tuesday May 23, 2023

South Norwalk streets should be raised by 3 feet due flooding and climate change, experts say

Katherine Lutge

NORWALK — Streets in South Norwalk must be raised by at least 3 feet to prepare for future storm surges in 2050, experts with the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation report. 

“Places that use to flood every 20 years are going to flood every five years,” said John Truscinski, director of resilience planning at CIRCA.  

During the Ad Hoc Sustainability and Resilience Committee of the Common Council on May 17, Truscinski outlined ways the city could address the flooding issues South Norwalk faces now and will likely face in the future. South Norwalk is one of seven coastal cities selected by CIRCA for climate mitigation planning. 

“We wanted to look at which of the roads are going to flood and how high would we need to elevate them to prevent them from flooding under these different scenarios,” Truscinski said.  

 In major storms like Hurricane Sandy, South Norwalk can see typically 4 1/2 to 5 feet of storm surge, which causes major flooding throughout South Norwalk. CIRCA projects that the Long Island Sound will rise 20 inches by 2050 due to climate change, which would worsen the issue. 

“We get those [storms] like every 20 to 25 years when we look back at the last 100 years, those are kind of the big floods,” Truscinski said. “But when we add sea level to Long Island Sound, it doesn’t take the big storms to produce that same water level. So that’s the problem, so those types of floods are going to happen more frequently.”  

Raising the street level

A majority of the streets in South Norwalk are about 7 feet above the sea level and high tide is about 3 1/2 feet. When flooding occurs, major transportation routes like Water Street and Woodward Avenue are submersed, leaving people stuck in their homes and blocking first responders from reaching those in need.  

CIRCA outline solutions the city can take to combat this issue, including raising the road by 3 feet so they are 10 feet about the sea level. Truscinski explained other coastal cities like Miami have begun doing this to prepare for the effects of climate change. 

“Which of these key transportation connections are likely to experience different types of flood impacts in the future and what are the potential options to adapt these corridors over time to make them more resilient to climate change? And so, that’s a big focus of what we’re doing,” Truscinski said. 

Officials did not detail the engineering and construction work that would be needed to elevate the roads. But raising the street is more complicated in dense areas like South Norwalk because all the driveways and roadway feeding onto the main road will need to connect to the new height. Truscinski said Day Street would likely be easier to raise than Water Street because there are fewer buildings and part of Day Street has already been raised. 

Other solutions

Truscinski said addressing Norwalk’s draining system issues and installing more green infrastructure should also be a priority for the city. 

“I think the main thing is that whatever exists, whatever goes there, whatever development happens there is going to have to be able to withstand that frequency of flooding and so that is something the city’s got to think through and figure out how to redesign, adapt those sites to accommodate that increase in the frequency,” Truscinski said.

One potential solution discussed in the meeting is to develop a resilience zoning overlay and create design guidelines for all new developments in South Norwalk. Norwalk is undergoing a rewrite of its entire zoning code for the first time in decades. 

Common Council members discussed the urgency of taking action to enact change.

“I guess for me it seems a little backwards,” said Common Council member Darlene Young. “We really need to be able to tell folks sooner rather than later to do this, right, because now South Norwalk is really on a roll with development, so my fear is that we’re going to have all this development done and then go back and say how do we fix it or how do we improve it.”

“It’s very worrisome,” said Common Council member Lisa Shanahan.

Shanahan said she would encourage the council members not in attendance to watch the presentation.

CIRCA is planning on holding public hearing in late June to obtain feedback from the community about how best to proceed. 

New $61.2 M elementary school in Madison, a step closer as it heads to PZC public hearing

Sarah Page Kyrcz

MADISON — The new elementary school, anticipated to open in 2025, is headed to a Planning & Zoning Commission public hearing Thursday, June 15.

The town seeks a special exception permit to construct the school and for site improvements.

The new $61 million, 87,000-square-foot school was approved by referendum Feb. 15, 2022 as part of an $89.2 million school renewal project.

The new school would replace J. Milton Jeffrey Elementary School, Ryerson Elementary School and the Town Campus Learning Center.

The district would be eligible for state reimbursement for up to up to 18.5 percent of the cost, school officials said early on in the process.

However, a town official warns that construction costs have gone up since the referendum.

“The challenge is, of course, that nobody could have predicted the escalation of costs that we’ve experienced,” said Selectman Bruce Wilson, Board of Selectman liaison to the New Elementary School Building Committee.

“I think that’s our next big challenge, is how do we respond to these escalations in costs?” Wilson said. “Do we value engineer the project down to meet a budget or do we somehow go out and find more funds to build the school they thought they were getting when they voted on it.”

There has been an increase in materials, supplies and “delays have led to increases just because the longer time goes by, more inflation happens,” Wilson said.

Wilson did not know how much the cost of the project had increased.

The building plan includes a new school on 14.2 acres near the Green Hill Road campus, which now includes the Walter C. Polson Upper Middle School, J. Milton Jeffrey Elementary School and Daniel Hand High School. 

Kindergarten through fifth grade students, in the southern half of town, will attend the new school.

The building will have three primary entrance areas, including a main entry for visitors and parent drop off/pick up and separate entryways for K-5 and pre-K students, with separate bus loops.  

Design plans include four preschool classrooms, five kindergarten classrooms, nine first- and second-grade classrooms and a total of 11 for grades three, four and five for a projected total of 640 students.

All classrooms are designed with room darkening shades, soundproofing, air conditioning, a temperature sensor and carbon dioxide sensor and wireless/internet access for up to 30 mobile devices. 

The school is designed “with a compact, efficient footprint to leverage the natural topography of the site and create opportunities for outdoor learning,” according to Tecton Architects, which is designing the school.

“Renewable energy will be considered that may include Geo-thermal wells, Photovoltaics and other renewable energy sources that could achieve a Net Zero Energy Building,” according to Board of Education specifications.


Other amenities include a visual arts room with a kiln, drying racks and eyewash station; general and instrumental music room in proximity to gymnasium and stage, with an acoustical divider built between stage and gymnasium, located near the bus entrance for easy drop off/pick up of instruments; and a physical education space that includes a 6,000-square-foot gymnasium.

Also included are a Library Media Center with a tiered story corner, areas for independent study and whole class instruction and a Maker Space area and a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics (STEAM) Lab close to the general education classrooms and library media center.

“I think, ultimately, it will be a fabulous school,” said Wilson. 

He added that the town “needs to be careful that we don’t short so much out of it to meet a budget.”

“We voted on a project as presented and then we voted to finance that project to the tune of $89 million, that was the total amount,” he said.

The $89 million includes the $61 million new school, plus renovations and improvements for the conversion of Brown Intermediate School into a kindergarten- through fifth- grade school and improvements and upgrades to Polson Middle School. 

“So, it wasn’t just a budget to build a school, it was a budget to build a particular school,” he said about the allocated $61.2 million. “So, any significant changes to that school or its budget have to pass through another approval.”

Wilson said the Board of Selectman are seeking advice on whether that approval comes from the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance or the taxpayers.

Wilson recalled the building of the new Daniel Hand High School, which welcomed students in 2003.

“I think everybody remembers the high school where it was proposed and rejected by voters and then scaled back and proposed again,” he said. “I think a lot of people look at the high school and say, ‘Boy, if we could do that one over again maybe we would have stuck by some of the original plans and built the school the way we originally intended it.’”

The Dr. Robert H. Brown Middle School, at a cost of some $6.2 million, will be renovated to accommodate the rest of the town’s kindergarten through fifth grade students.

Both elementary schools are slated to be open in 2025. Plans are to demolish Ryerson and the Town Campus Learning Center. These plans are part of the Board of Education’s 10 Year $100 million Capital Maintenance Plan, adopted on June 19, 2018.

Is state’s largest offshore wind project headed for the shoals?

Jan Ellen Spiegel

Connecticut could be in danger of losing its biggest offshore wind project — the more than 800-megawatt plan known as Park City Wind.

Its developer, Avangrid — parent of United Illuminating and the American arm of the massive, multi-national Spanish energy company Iberdrola — is trying to rewrite, renegotiate, rebid or otherwise alter its offshore wind contract with Connecticut, according to industry sources. Avangrid has cited inflation and high interest rates, along with their causes — COVID, supply chain problems and the Russian invasion of Ukraine — as the factors necessitating more revenue to ensure financing to build Park City.

It’s a development that has the potential to send Connecticut back almost to the starting gate on offshore wind — the energy source the state has, for several years now, viewed as the near-panacea that will deliver it from its fossil fuel past to its climate-change-mitigating future, including reaching its mandate for a zero-carbon grid by 2040.

“This situation is certainly unfortunate, and we wish that we weren’t here,” said Susannah Hatch of the contract upheaval. She is director of clean energy policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts and also regional lead for the New England for Offshore Wind coalition, which the league started. “However, this is something that is a larger, much larger problem than any one project with inflation.”

Offshore wind has become a global market, she said. “The industry is definitely feeling pretty pinched right now.”

Indeed, Park City, which is located in Bridgeport, is not the only project whose developers are looking for some level of a do-over. Avangrid is embroiled in a similar battle with Massachusetts over Commonwealth Wind — the adjacent development on the same federal lease parcel as Park City. SouthCoast Wind, also a Massachusetts project, may be on rocky footing, though its officials are saying very little publicly. And developers for New York and New Jersey projects are also looking for leeway in contracts.

Avangrid and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which was responsible for negotiating the contract that was unveiled in December 2019, have refused to answer questions about the status of the project. Neither would agree to interviews and, when presented with a list of questions, provided a short emailed statement instead.

“The Park City Wind project was selected by Connecticut through a competitive bidding process, resulting in a contract between Avangrid and the EDCs [electric distribution company, meaning the state’s utilities]. DEEP expects Avangrid to fulfill its obligation to build Park City Wind, and honor its commitment to Connecticut ratepayers to deliver the offshore wind it promised,” said a statement attributed to DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes.

Avangrid was equally circumspect.

“Avangrid is working with all stakeholders to find solutions to the global price increases outside of its control and deliver these important projects to Massachusetts and Connecticut,” said company spokesman Craig Gilvarg.

Although the exact status of the Park City Wind contract is unknown, the events leading up to this point are less of a mystery. It’s also clear that the contract is not the only problem facing the Park City project.

What happened and why?

A bit of background first.

Connecticut was already late to the offshore wind game in June of 2018 when it approved its first project — just 200 megawatts of what is now called Revolution Wind. Another 100 megawatts was added, and the project’s current total is a little over 300 megawatts. Another portion of Revolution will supply 400 megawatts to Rhode Island. Not huge, but the first grid-scale offshore wind power for each state.

Revolution is being developed by Eversource and Ørsted from hubs at the State Pier in New London and ProvPort in Rhode Island. The port authority running the State Pier has been mired in political, financial and ethical upheaval, but its redevelopment for offshore wind is moving along. One portion is complete, and in just a few weeks, turbine components will be delivered then assembled and shipped out for construction at a lease area called South Fork Wind. It’s another Eversource/Ørsted project that will provide power to New York from the waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.

The Northeast Bulkhead/Delivery Berth portion of State Pier in New London is now complete and usable for offshore wind construction work. It is a heavy-lift platform capable of handling loads of 5,000 pounds per square foot. Beginning in a few weeks, offshore wind turbine components will be delivered there and prepared for shipment to offshore wind lease areas for construction, starting with South Fork Wind. It is the first of two heavy-lift platforms that will be at State Pier.

Revolution Wind, at the time it was approved, however, was not enough to satisfy environmental advocates and others because the state still hadn’t done what its neighbors, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, had already done, which was to authorize large amounts of offshore wind to be developed. New Jersey had already mandated 3,500 megawatts of development by 2030 and, in addition to its own mandate, Massachusetts had rehabbed a port to handle offshore wind components and opened a turbine-testing facility.

It took another year after Revolution was announced for the Connecticut legislature to approve an authorization of up to 2,000 megawatts by 2030, not including Revolution. And that remains the only mandate in place.

In December of 2019, DEEP approved the 804-megawatt Park City Wind, which was to include a massive redevelopment at the port of Bridgeport, hence the project’s name. The department still faced criticism for only tackling one project from the new authorization. Part of DEEP’s explanation at the time was its desire to wait a few years until prices fell, which was already happening.

One pandemic, a European war, an energy realignment and economic meltdown later, and it’s clear that may not have been the best strategic decision, but no one could have predicted that. Then again, contracts for large energy developments such as offshore wind often do plan for the unexpected — building in mechanisms such as inflation indexing or other sorts of adjustments.

The Park City contract did not. Nor did Avangrid’s 1,200-megawatt Commonwealth Wind for Massachusetts.

“We had been sort of lulled into thinking the price of renewables was always going to go down,” said Rich Sweeney, an assistant professor of economics at Boston College who studies renewable energy with a particular emphasis on wind. “The thing we’re all learning now is everyone forgot that interest rates could go up for this, right?”

Greg Cunningham, vice president for clean energy and climate change at the regional Conservation Law Foundation, described the explanation that no one could have foreseen COVID or the Ukraine invasion, never mind the ensuing economic fallout, “the kinder and gentler version of it.”

“These are hard-hitting, very experienced energy companies and utilities, who have factored into long-term contracts lots of conditions over decades, and so they may own some of this,” he said. “I guess the overall message I’d like to convey is, we’re still in a learning process with this energy resource — how we contract for it, how we build it, how we permit, the precautions we put in place in the permitting process — while simultaneously trying to expedite what’s a much needed clean energy resource.

“I think it’s unrealistic for any of us to expect that this is going to have been entirely smooth sailing.”

John Carlson is the senior manager of state policy at CERES, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with investors, companies, capital markets and others to promote sustainable policy solutions. He oversees East Coast work. Connecticut does not work directly with CERES, though Massachusetts does.

“I think you can go back and forth a little bit on whether they should have planned for some things like inflation that had been a non-issue for so long,” Carlson said. “It probably should have been anticipated, but I'm not going to spread around too much blame for that.

“But there is clearly a moment of reassessment happening. And I think all of these projects and developments will look a little bit different going forward,” he said. “I am sympathetic to the developers’ issues, especially to the extent that they simply couldn't finance the project anymore. I do think there is some truth to that. But I also understand the frustration of the state officials who had a signed contract that is trying to get backed out on.”

Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at Save the Sound and also the Connecticut lead for New England for Offshore Wind, said the absence of certain provisions like inflation indexing seemed pretty ridiculous in hindsight.

“All of the parties involved are sophisticated commercial actors,” he said. “The question then becomes, who bears the risk? Certainly it shouldn't be, I don't think, Connecticut ratepayers. That being said, a contract is a contract.”

And there are a lot of contracts out there right now, with the potential for many more. Most of the action has come since the Biden administration took over.

A report on the state of U.S. offshore wind development released May 4 by the American Clean Power Association, a renewable power trade group, said while there are only 42 megawatts of offshore wind operating in the U.S. right now, there are 32 leases in various stages of development that represent more than 51,000 megawatts of capacity — enough, it said, to power about 20 million homes. About 85% of the capacity is on the East Coast, mainly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Connecticut’s place in that constellation is pretty small. ACP shows the state in sixth place with about 1,100 megawatts in the pipeline, far behind New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts — with nearly 4,400, 3,800 and 3,300 megawatts of offshore wind, respectively, in the pipeline. And if Park City falters, Connecticut’s rank will drop dramatically.

So where do things stand with Park City?

Here’s what we don’t know: If there was or is an effort to renegotiate the Park City contract. In Massachusetts, industry sources said Avangrid is looking to void its contract, pay the fine associated with such action and then rebid it in a future solicitation, even though there’s no guarantee Avangrid would win it again.

Although there is some indication Avangrid would like to do the same in Connecticut, it’s not clear if that option is actually on the table. An announcement in early March by DEEP that it is planning for a new round of proposals for offshore wind projects could be seen as a tool for rebidding the Park City projects, but the solicitation has no time frame or parameters.

On May 2, Massachusetts announced a new 3,600 megawatt request for proposals (RFP) — the first step in a solicitation that would run through the end of January 2024 and fulfill its mandate for 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind by 2027. There has been much speculation that Connecticut would link its solicitation to Massachusetts', which contains language about a coordination announcement in the fall if states choose to work together.

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources provided a statement via email responding to a question about whether Massachusetts and Connecticut were presently discussing coordination.

"The Healey-Driscoll Administration is committed to working with our state partners to grow our clean energy economy, enhance the reliability of our shared electric grid, and drive down consumer costs by leveraging project scale," the statement said. "The latest proposed RFP was drafted to allow for flexibility in Massachusetts' procurement timeline and possible coordination with other New England states should they seek their own procurements. We'll continue to be in dialogue with neighboring states throughout the process and communicate with potential bidders through the proposed Coordination Announcement."

But Sweeney at Boston College thinks both states should consider whether to even allow Avangrid to re-bid in those solicitations. “If you have a vendor who backs out on a deal, you just try to look for another vendor next time, right?” he said. “That only works when all potential participants are the same on all dimensions. But if one participant has now revealed to you that they’re a risk, you want to penalize them in some way and an extreme way to do that is to just say, ‘we don't trust you, you're excluded.’”

He would have support for that from Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs.

Other problems and warning signs

Dehkan’s main concern is the port redevelopment Avangrid promised in Bridgeport and the jobs expected along with it, which are tremendously important to the trade unions he works with and the environmental justice community in the area. But that port development was already in big trouble when inflation, high interest rates and Ukraine hit.

Avangrid’s original proposal included a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of an 18-acre area at the port in Bridgeport. It would include staging for construction and long-term operations, maintenance and management. The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner at the time said this work would provide nearly $900 million in direct economic benefits and more than 2,000 direct jobs, though not all would be permanent, and an equal number of indirect and induced jobs.

As of now, not a speck of dirt has been moved toward that goal.

Instead, the Ganim administration in Bridgeport has rezoned much of that port area as residential, making it almost impossible to have enough space for a staging area. According to Dehkan, Avangrid could have applied for a waiver but didn’t.

“They told us in meetings that they couldn't get a variance and when asked ‘did you apply for a variance?’ They said ‘no, we didn't apply for a variance.’ To which I replied, ‘If you don't apply for a variance, how do you know you can't get a variance?’”

It may not matter at this point. There are indications Avangrid is now considering other port areas out of state for staging and other operations for Park City. Avangrid did not respond to written questions on that subject.

“We’re very disturbed by the action of an international conglomerate, who promises things that they can't deliver on and don't seem to want to attempt to deliver on,” Dehkan went on. “You won your contracts based on what you were promising. Otherwise, they may have been let out to other people.”

He said his organization wants stricter negotiations and more stringent repercussions if a company backs out. “It can't just be a corporate slap on the wrist. We would like to see companies being barred from bidding.”

There are other uneasy signs, however, that offshore wind development broadly may be cooling a bit just as Connecticut is trying to, and to some degree is being forced to, have a reset.

A year ago it was widely reported that Eversource was looking to sell its offshore wind operation — presently consisting of three active projects and proposals for two more, all of which are 50/50 partnerships with Ørsted. A spokesman now refers to that as a “strategic review.”

While the spokesman said in an email “there has been significant interest from multiple sophisticated potential buyers,” it has not gone unnoticed that Eversource’s holdings have not been snatched up yet, though some decision is expected later in this quarter.

In the interim, Eversource and Ørsted have bid on offshore wind solicitations in New York and Rhode Island. Theirs was the only bid in Rhode Island. While some said the solicitation was not well-constructed, many noted the lack of interest was a far cry from the mob scene solicitations generally have been. And there is some concern that it reflects broader financial difficulties and that upcoming solicitations could have few to even no bidders, or prices could be so high as to be prohibitive.

A so-called liftboat in place off Long Island is part of the initial construction of New York's South Fork Wind project, owned by Eversource and Ørsted. In a few weeks that construction will be supported by operations at State Pier in New London, which will eventually handle construction and other operations for Connecticut's Revolution Wind. SOUTH FORK WIND

It may mean states with offshore wind interests find themselves trying to navigate diametrically opposed factors. On one side inflation, high interest rates and supply chain problems are making projects more expensive, so it’s not an ideal time to bid for them. On the other side, the Biden administration is providing historic levels of funding and other incentives for them, making it absolutely an ideal time to get in.

So what do we do now?

“If we're actually going to be procuring things at what one might assume is a peak, are there going to be any opportunities to adjust downward should materials become relatively less expensive?” asked Rothenberger of Save the Sound. “Or is that all just going to be profit that accrues to the developer?”

An initial answer might be found in the just-announced Massachusetts solicitation, which does provide options for inflation and other economic considerations. Some of the more recent solicitations by other states also include inflation indexing.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee and an offshore wind advocate going back to his first year on the committee in 2011, said there have been discussions about the lessons from the unfolding experience with Avangrid. And he had a warning.

“Contracts are about certainties, are about long term consistency. Throwing indexing in either direction undermines some of those assumptions,” he said. “But the bottom line is, are we on the brink of a new rubric for making such decisions? Or is this just a hiccup we can wait out and things will smooth out again in two years?

“We're going to be paying a premium because of uncertainty currently.”

Carlson of CERES said without adjustment mechanisms, bidders would have to assume the worst-case scenario for the long term. “Which means they're going to come in at a higher price that ends up falling to ratepayers in the states,” he said. “So, I think by including the adjustment mechanisms, you're actually protecting the states and ratepayers.”

Carlson also suggests thinking creatively. For instance, as turbines get bigger and can generate more power — something already happening at a pretty rapid clip — it means offshore wind installations could produce a good bit more power than initially thought. Finding buyers for that excess power could relieve some of the financial pressures.

In the meantime, he’s not worried the current situation is fatal.

“This is going to happen. It makes too much sense,” he said of the adoption of offshore wind broadly. “There are hiccups. There are problems we are planning around, but I don't think it's going to be a series of dominoes that stops everything in its tracks.”

But for Connecticut with its four-year-old authorization for 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind, if Park City’s 800 megawatts disappears, the state will essentially be starting over.

But no one thinks these difficult economic times warrant a voluntary pause in offshore wind development.

“I don't think we can afford it, number one. We can't from a climate mitigation perspective,” said Cunningham at the Conservation Law Foundation. “I would suggest rather than stopping and taking a breath, instead we proceed. We continue to learn from history, and particularly the recent history. We modify our RFPs and draft contracts appropriately and accordingly and if we don't get any bids in this round, we do it over again. And we improve upon the RFP and we improve upon the contracts. But it's more, I think, vigilance that's needed than a pause.”

The point, everyone said, is to deal with climate change at its core — eliminating the use of fossil fuels in favor of non-carbon energy like offshore wind.

“We need to decarbonize as fast as possible. And we need to build a lot more renewables, and we're not going anywhere near fast enough,” Sweeney at BC said.

“Specific mechanisms aside, I think we are really interested in making sure that the states and the utilities learn from this experience so that we don't go through this again,” said Hatch of New England for Offshore Wind. “Frankly, we need these projects. And if we don't get these projects in the water, we're getting more gas power plants and more pipelines in New England.

“We will see what happens. We’re all waiting on the edge of our seats here.”