CT Construction Digest Tuesday September 7, 2021
BRIDGEPORT — A previously rejected proposal to build a hydrogen fuel cell plant off Iranistan Avenue is back on the table and facing stiff neighborhood opposition.
Easton-based NuPower is asking the Connecticut Siting Council for permission to build a 70 foot high, 9.6-megawatt power plant and thermal heating loop at 600 Iranistan Ave. on a triangular half acre lot below Interstate-95.
The $80 million plant would extract hydrogen from natural gas — the gas is not burned — and convert it into electricity. A thermal loop of heated water would provide heating and cooling for buildings up to a mile away.
“We are proud of [the plant] and excited about it and hope we can help Connecticut,” said Dan Donovan, president of NuPower. The company operates a similar fuel cell plant at the nearby Cherry Street lofts.
That enthusiasm, however, is not shared by over 200 neighbors of the proposed plant who have signed petitions and written letters in opposition.
“This is a textbook case of environmental injustice,” Tanner Burgdorf, a resident of the nearby Seaside Village condo complex, said in a letter to the Siting Council.
“[The proposal] is shameful, shocking, and disrespectful to every member of the Bridgeport community that would suffer from such a short-sighted and inhumane decision,” Burgdorf said.
Opponents claim carbon dioxide and other emissions from the plant will lead to higher rates of asthma in the South End neighborhood, which is already within a “red” zone for asthma related hospitalizations.
“We are home to I-95, a gas plant, 2 other fuel cells, severe flooding, United Illuminating, a garbage dump, a nearby trash burning plant, a solar panel park and until last week a coal plant,” Kate Rivera, a South End resident, said in a letter to the siting council.
“This is environmental racism and classism,” Rivera said.
NuPower last year failed to gain Siting Council approval for a similar proposal and earlier this year submitted a revised plan that it believes satisfies previous objections.
One of the concerns expressed by the council was formation of a vapor plume around the plant due to condensation. Donovan said that plume, which would have occurred only once a year, was eliminated by a new design that passes exhaust water lines underneath a series of coolers.
Other Siting Council questions over emergency shut off procedures, the types of valves to be used and noise produced by the plant were also addressed, Donovan said.
Fuel cell technology is a form of renewable energy that uses hydrogen to produce electricity and hot water to heat and cool nearby structures. The plant extracts hydrogen from natural gas and converts it into protons and electrons. Those electrons are then passed through a circuit that creates electricity.
Fuel cells are generally promoted as much cleaner than coal or oil-fired electric plants and even gas-fired plants such as Bridgeport’s Harbor Station that overlooks Long Island Sound.
Although the natural gas is not burned, some carbon dioxide — a major cause of global warming and climate change — is released by a fuel cell plant. NuPower projects the plant would emit 45,465 tons of carbon per year.
“This results in [a] fossil fuel power plant like Harbor Station releasing 789 tons more CO2 per [megawatt] annually than the apportioned electricity production from the fuel cell system,” according to NuPower.
Other notable emissions include .45 tons of methane a year and .2 tons of nitrous oxide — amounts far below levels that trigger the need for regulatory review and permits, NuPower said in filings with the Siting Council.
“The project will provide the state’s electrical system with additional generating capacity that will meet demand using renewable energy, upgrade grid infrastructure, contribute to grid stability and foster the redevelopment and reuse of an underutilized,” NuPower told the council.
During deliberations last year over the failed NuPower proposal, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection stopped short of opposing the project but pointed out that fuel cell plants work against the state’s goal of carbon free electricity.
“Such projects hinder our ability to achieve our climate goals, including a 100 percent zero carbon electric supply sector as charged by Governor [Ned] Lamont,” DEEP said.
Not in my backyard
Thomas Melone, president of Allco Renewable Energy, told the siting council the proposed NuPower plant will result in “serious adverse health effects” for the South End neighborhood.
“The area for the proposed project is an environmental justice community,” said Melone, whose company sells power from large solar arrays and says its “corporate mission is to combat climate change.”
“The project area has by far one of the highest incidents of emergency room hospital visit rates for asthma in Connecticut,” Melone said.
Melone added the NuPower plan would also displace “true renewable energy projects” in Connecticut and across New England.
“But for the (NuPower) project and ones like it, Connecticut would turn to solar electricity projects with storage, which create more of a positive economic impact, and none of the adverse consequences of the (NuPower) project,” Melone said.
In a letter to the Siting Council, Bridgeport City Council members Denese Taylor-Moye and Jorge Cruz, Democrats who represent the city’s South End, supported residents opposed to the plant.
“The plant will emit greenhouse gases in an area already subject to high levels of ground-level ozone,” the council members wrote.
“Further, the site is at the entrance way to Seaside Village, Seaside Park, the new Windward housing complex, as well as one entrance way to The University of Bridgeport,” they added. “The residents are worried about livability and health concerns which are overwhelming to the residents in the South End community.”
Joe Provey, a neighborhood activist who told the Siting Council he represents the Seaside Village Board of Directors, submitted nearly 200 petitions from residents opposed to the project.
The petitions note that the plant “would emit unacceptable levels of noise, CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and other pollutants, leading to higher rates of asthma in our community” and pour “hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases that cause global warning.”
State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford and Bridgeport’s Green Initiatives Coordinator, told the Siting Council the city fully supports the venture.
“The city is very comfortable in taking the position that this project is in the best interests of the city and will provide significant fiscal and conservation benefits,” Gresko said.
“We are keenly aware of the dangers associated with global warming and especially with rising sea levels,” Gresko noted. “This is truly a unique opportunity to bring all the environmental and financial benefits together under one project.”
If approved by the Siting Council, the Bridgeport plant is expected to begin operations in the second half of 2022. No further regulatory approvals are needed; emissions are well below levels that require an air permit and there is no discharge from the plant.
The project is to be built by Doosan Fuel Cell America Inc., based in South Windsor.
United Illuminating has awarded a 20-year contract to NuPower for electricity as part of a larger authorization by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority for renewable energy.
NuPower estimates the plant will provide up to 20 construction jobs, generate over $5.5 billion in state tax revenue and $5 million in local taxes over 20 years.
The thermal loop is created by a closed water system that flows through the 21 fuel cells that make up the plant. That water can be piped to buildings for heating and cooling, providing a second revenue source for the plant.
“We have quite a bit of heat that we can use, and we have side contracts with an off taker and are in the process of signing up additional takers,” Donovan said, adding NuPower has two years after commercial operations commence to sign up users.
NuPower had planned to build a similar plant and thermal loop in Bridgeport’s downtown but that effort failed to gain traction.
“We wanted to take the heat from various power plants, waste to energy facilities and use it for downtown and various other areas,” Donovan said.
“Downtown is very viable,” Donovan said. “It’s just a question of how much heat we have. This is our first step. It’s sort of if you build it, they will come.”
RIDGEFIELD — After an extensive scouting process, town officials have selected a location to erect a brand-new public safety building, which will house Ridgefield’s police and fire departments.
The joint facility will be built at the former Schulmerberger property on Old Quarry Road where the Sky Dome Building currently resides. The site lies “substantially north” of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut and BassamFellows, Inc., said Jacob Muller, director of purchasing, facilities and safety.
While the topic has been discussed for years, interest for the project renewed when former state representative John Frey joined the Board of Police Commissioners. Earlier this year he told Hearst Connecticut Media that he would speak with fellow commissioners about plans to create a joint station for the police and fire departments, which both exist “in cramped quarters,” he said.
The Ridgefield Fire Department has been headquartered at Catoonah Street for more than 100 years, but its proximity to Main Street limits any sort of physical expansion.
“We’re utterly landlocked,” Fire Chief Jerry Myers said.
Also limited is the space within the building itself — the apparatus bay has engines “stacked up one behind the other,” Myers described. In the middle of one hallway is a makeshift office that two people share, and a classroom doubles as the department’s conference room.
The Ridgefield Police Department is housed in an antiquated mansion that previously served as the governor’s residence and state police barracks. Police Chief Jeffery Kreitz said the layout is “not indicative of a modern-day police department,” and noted its lack of storage space and overall functionality.
Both chiefs said their departments would benefit from moving into a new facility that could adequately accommodate their first responders.
“We train together, work together, obviously go on calls together ... we’re closer than ever,” Kreitz said. “(So) when we started speaking about a combined facility … it just seemed to work.”
A working group comprising the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Police Commissioners retained Kaestle Boos Associates (KBA) to conduct a feasibility study at a cost of $65,000 to assess the state of the town’s police and fire buildings. The New Britain-based architecture firm specializes in the planning and design of police, fire and public safety facilities.
The study sought to answer if the existing buildings — on East Ridge Road and Catoonah Street, respectively — should be modified, or if a new, joint facility should be established. It ultimately landed on the latter.
Officials considered multiple sites that could support the project before settling on the Schlumberger property, which is owned by the town. The Sky Dome Building, which is currently being used for storage, will be demolished prior to construction of the new facility.
Muller said KBA will provide proposals to take the project “beyond a conceptual design” and will soon launch a public relations campaign to provide residents full transparency in relation to the project.
In with the new
The chiefs had “extensive discussions” with KBA to ensure the new facility would fulfill public safety and daily administration requirements, Muller said.
Myers envisions a dedicated training space that would enable the department to host training events and better prepare for day-to-day missions. Kreitz discussed a community room for the design, but is mostly looking forward to the “extra square footage,” he said.
The new building will also include a centralized dispatch facility for trained staff to field 911, routine and non-emergency calls, which is expected to increase communication efficiencies, Myers said. Multiple access points for both visiting and emergency vehicles are planned for the property.
The project does not have a set price tag, with crews years away from breaking ground. First Selectman Rudy Marconi explained that the town would not move forward on constructing the joint facility until 2023, when a debt service from prior school improvements “comes to an end,” he said.
Approved in this year’s capital budget was a $360,000 expenditure to begin architectural work at the site. As with normal budgetary proceedings, the project would have to be approved via public hearings, town meetings or a natural referendum, but Marconi expects it will be welcomed with support.
“The people of Ridgefield ... appreciate the level of service that both the P.D. and the F.D. deliver to our residents,” he said. “These men and women … deliver ... the best possible service they can, and they do, and now we need to get a building that’s reflective of that level of service.”
Myers agreed. “This is a physical reflection of the esteem that the community holds our responders in, and that is important for the morale of our department,” he said.
Developers and town officials cut the ribbon on the first phase of the Avon Village Center, a sprawling office, retail and residential development in the heart of Avon.
The Sept. 1 ceremony marked the opening of a 44,000-square-foot Whole Foods at 50 Climax Road plus four other buildings totaling 57,000 square feet.
Other announced tenants are two national companies, AT&T and Ivy Rehab, and the local Whole Animal Grocery Store, which moved from another Avon location while doubling its size, said Kelly Coates, president and CEO the Carpionato Group of Rhode Island, the project developer.
Coates and Joe Pierik, Carpionato’s vice president for retail leasing and acquisitions, said they are negotiating with other potential tenants and expect a mix of national and local businesses.
“It’s definitely a fabulous site and Whole Foods is killing it,” Pierik said. “Their opening was phenomenal.”
The Avon Village Center occupies the space of the former Ensign-Bickford Corp., a long-time Avon employer that sold the property to Carpionato in 2011.
The project is in prime space—near Town Hall off Route 44 at Route 10.
The afternoon ribbon cutting was done inside the store due to heavy rain but earlier in the morning, Carpionato Group officials and Avon Town Manager Brandon Robertson joined Whole Foods employees as they broke freshly baked bread.
The project’s next phase will be primarily residential with mixed use, Coates said.
That work will involve the design and permitting of 150 residential units this fall and next spring with the project slated for full completion over the next five to seven years, he said.
Whole Foods said in a release that the new store will provide support to several local organizations including Forge City Works, the Children’s Museum of Connecticut, Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center, the Boys & Girls Club of Hartford, the Hartford Yard Goats Foundation and FoodShare. The Whole Kids Foundation will also grant $3,000 to the Talcott Mountain Academy to support its hydroponics enrichment class on growing garden vegetables.
The University of Connecticut has withdrawn its opposition to a proposed 358-unit multifamily housing development in Storrs, following backlash from Mansfield town officials.
UConn officials said they will also work with Mansfield on local housing and economic development initiatives, following a meeting this week between UConn Interim President Dr. Andrew Agwunobi and Mansfield Mayor Toni Moran and other town officials.
“UConn deeply values our partnership with the Town of Mansfield, and we believe that whenever possible a collaborative approach to local residential and commercial development will yield the best results,” Agwunobi said.
The detente between the university and town came after Moran publicly blasted UConn in July for "blindsiding" the town by purchasing a parcel of land on which the town was expecting an affordable housing project that could have added $2 million per year to the municipality's tax rolls.
UConn's Board of Trustees on June 30 approved the university's $4.2 million purchase of a 19.4-acre parcel in Mansfield’s Four Corners section, adjacent to the UConn Innovation Partnership Building — known colloquially as the UConn Tech Park.
Alabama-based developer Capstone Collegiate Communities was in the advanced design stages on a proposed 358-unit multifamily housing development on that land, which would have included 30 units for low-to-moderate income residents, Moran said. UConn last year filed suit against Capstone and the town, arguing the project would interfere with plans to fully develop the Tech Park.
Moran said in addition to the lawsuit, UConn threatened it would block the development from access to the new $9 million Four Corners sewer and water system, $3 million of which was paid through state funds. The mayor said UConn's actions could have a chilling effect on the town's ability to attract developers for housing projects.
However, following the meeting with Agwunobi and UConn withdrawing its lawsuit, Moran said the mixed-use development plan could get back on track, and the town's relationship with Connecticut's flagship university is in a better place.
“With UConn dropping the opposition to the Haven mixed-use housing and development proposal, our process of review can continue on its course,” she said. “We are eager to focus on this joint approach to development with UConn that serves the best interest of our town and its future.”
Advocates say a passenger train route from New Haven to Boston through Hartford, Springfield and Worcester would invigorate the regional economy.
When Gov. Ned Lamont announced in June that the state would spend $8 billion to $10 billion to (modestly) improve travel times on the busy (if pokey) New Haven Line, the reaction was generally favorable. Most understand that the rail connection to New York City is vital to Connecticut’s economy and quality of life, and the faster the better.
But if the state benefits from commuter rail to the Big Apple, as it clearly does, would it not also benefit from similar service to Boston, the Hub of the Universe?
A study released in April answered with a resounding yes. Fast and reliable passenger service from New Haven to Boston via Hartford, Springfield and Worcester would have a “transformative effect” on the Hartford-Springfield regional economy. The report said an investment of $6 billion to $9 billion could yield between $47 billion and $84 billion in new and direct gross domestic product over 30 years in the Hartford-Springfield metro area, and another $15 billion to $21 billion in indirect or induced growth.
The study, along with the growing prospect of a major federal infrastructure bill, has bolstered efforts to restore full passenger service on what was once called the “Inland Route” from New York to Boston.
“I cannot think of a better time to invest in rail, “ said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., whose sprawling district covers most of Western Massachusetts. Neal has long supported improved rail service in his part of the state, and as chair of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, he is a formidable proponent of better rail service.
He said in a statement to The Connecticut Mirror that the new study is “welcome news and echoes what we already know – improved rail along the inland route … is good for the entire region. Economic growth, jobs, and unparalleled opportunity are waiting. It is simply too costly not to act at this moment.”
But despite the strong support of Neal and other members of Congress, including Connecticut’s John Larson and Rosa DeLauro, getting regular commuter rail service on the inland route remains a challenge.
For openers, a project that involves two states is almost invariably more complicated than one that can be done in a single state.
Also, while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owns the tracks from Boston to Worcester, now part of the MBTA commuter rail system, CSX, the freight carrier, owns the tracks from Worcester to Springfield and would have to be accommodated. Also, as is typical of rights-of-way laid out in the 19th century, the route does not describe a straight line.
Finally, despite Congressional and public support, neither state is exactly fired up about restoring the inland route, though for different reasons.
Connecticut took the initiative, opening The Hartford Line, regular rail service between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, in 2018. Though some infrastructure work remains — for example, the line north of Hartford to the Massachusetts state line must be double-tracked to support more frequent commuter rail — the state is in no hurry to get to it unless Massachusetts shows some interest in upgrading its east-west line, particularly the critical 48-mile Springfield to Worcester section.
“Connecticut has done its part by investing in the Hartford Line. It’s really Massachusetts that has been slow-walking it,” said Massachusetts State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, an ardent supporter of “East-West Rail,” as it is known in the Bay State.
Critics blame Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. “When it comes to the east-west rail link, to date he has been passionately uninterested in it,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi on March 31. She also cited Baker’s “historic lack of enthusiasm for public transit.”
Two ways to Boston
In the heyday of mid-century rail travel, trains regularly plied the Inland Route from New York to Boston. But it dwindled in the 1960s and ’70s as the nation took to the new interstate highways. Amtrak ran self-propelled Budd cars, and not new ones, on the Springfield line for more than a decade.
There was a citizen effort to revive the Inland Route in the early 1980s, led by Meriden lawyer and rail enthusiast James M. S. Ullman. Ullman argued that the Inland Route actually served a larger population base than the Shoreline Route and was only two miles longer. He urged Amtrak to provide good service on both routes.
Ullman got people thinking. Gov. Lowell Weicker urged Amtrak to restore the Inland Route. But Ullman’s untimely death in 1994 following serious personal difficulties pretty much ended the effort to restore the route, at least for the moment.
Two decades later, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy actually got the work started. A former mayor of Stamford who understood the value of commuter rail, Malloy, in partnership with Amtrak and Massachusetts officials, redeveloped the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, known now as The Hartford Line.
It opened in 2018 and offers 17 northbound trains from New Haven to Hartford, all but four continuing to Springfield, and 16 southbound trains, all but four starting in Springfield. It got off to a strong start, carrying more than 1.4 million riders in 2019, though COVID caused a significant drop in 2020.
In 2017, as the work was progressing, Malloy wrote to Baker, his Massachusetts counterpart, “strongly encouraging” him to begin work on the Inland Route section from Worcester through Springfield to the Connecticut border.
Baker didn’t bite, despite considerable public support for the project. Polls in 2018 and 2019 by MassInc, a nonpartisan think tank, found support for east-west rail expansion at 67 and 76 percent, respectively. They are left with one slow and unreliable train a day between Springfield and Boston. It takes two and a half hours, about an hour longer than it takes to drive in midday traffic.
In January, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a major feasibility study of east-west rail expansion. That study initially looked at six ways to improve service, including the intriguing idea of running a rail line in the Massachusetts Turnpike corridor.
Alas, the consultants believed it too expensive and too far from some of the cities it would serve, so it was dropped. In the end, the study offered three options for improved east-west service. The first would use the existing CSX tracks; the other two call for building new stretches of track alongside the existing track. The estimated costs range from $2.41 billion to $4.63 billion, which includes the option of extending the service west to Pittsfield.
The state’s study cites the costs but not the potential economic benefit. That was the point of the study released in April, which projected a major return on investment if the Inland Route is revived.
The report, commissioned by the Capitol Region Council of Governments and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and prepared by the infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, makes a case that commuter rail service would greatly benefit the Hartford-Springfield metro area.
The Hartford-Springfield metro — defined as Hartford County, Conn., and Hampshire and Hampden counties, Mass. — is a “distinct and consequential economic location in the Northeast Corridor,” the study says, with a combined population of 1.6 million, a gross domestic product of $120 billion, 20 colleges and universities and New England’s second-largest international airport.
Nonetheless, the region is somewhat isolated economically and has not kept pace with the rest of the Northeast Corridor, the report states. Since 1990, job growth in the Northeast Corridor as a whole has been 1.1% annually, but in Hartford-Springfield, only 0.6%.
This translates to about 130,000 jobs not created, notably in the “key sectors of … information, finance, and professional services (including insurance, in which employment has actually declined),” the report states. Transportation isn’t the only reason for the job lag, but it is one reason.
“Hartford-Springfield is seeing a decreasing share in an otherwise growing market because it is not connected to it,” said Chris Brewer, an AECOM economist who worked on the economic impact study.
Hartford-Springfield is about equidistant from Boston and New York. Fast and reliable commuter rail could, over time, regain 20,000-40,000 of the lost jobs, the report estimates. Brewer said a 90-minute commute to both big cities would put Hartford-Springfield in play (in 2019, Lamont announced a goal of 90 minutes from Hartford to Manhattan).
With a 90-minute ride to both major cities, Brewer said, Hartford-Springfield would become attractive to workers on a hybrid schedule, who only need to travel to the Big Apple or the Athens of America two or three times a week. And, as James Ullman observed 40 years ago, commuter rail doesn’t serve only the big cities at the end of the line but the smaller cities along the line as well.
Brewer’s study said if any of the options Massachusetts put forth is chosen, “an investment in the $4 billion range would cut nearly an hour off the Springfield-Boston trip” and enable at least 10 round trips per day.
New England’s second-largest city offers an example of what might happen. Worcester was connected to Boston via the MBTA commuter rail system nearly a decade ago. Good things have happened since: a number of new residential and commercial projects; the arrival of the Boston Red Sox Triple A farm team, the WooSox; and the announcement that a major Chinese biotech firm, Hong Kong-based WuXi Biologics, would locate its first U.S. facility in Worcester. The $60 million facility is expected to employ 150 people when it opens next year.
Perhaps most remarkably, recently released census figures show Worcester’s population increased 14% from 2010 to 2020, to 206,518, more than 25,000 new residents. By contrast, Springfield grew 1.9%, to 155, 929, and Hartford lost 2.8% of its residents, dropping to 121,203.
“We’ve all seen what’s happened in Worcester. The same thing can happen in Springfield and Hartford,” said Dana Roscoe, principal planner and transportation manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
“If you are connected to Boston by commuter rail, your economy is probably doing well,” said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Regional Council of Governments.
Wray and other inland route proponents have met with transportation officials as well as Congressional and gubernatorial staffers over the summer to make the case for the inland route. “At least they are listening,” he said. He said he’d like to see Connecticut commit to finishing its part of the double-track work and eventually electrify the line.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said electrification is a subject for future talks with Amtrak. He said while double-tracking from Windsor to Enfield is “not required for near-term service” and the work is not scheduled, it is in the department’s long range capital program. He said the new Windsor Locks Station is being designed to accommodate the second track.
But that second track is not likely to appear until there’s progress on East-West Rail north of the border. Lesser believes there’s a strong argument for it.
He said in state transportation spending, there is a “legacy of bias toward Boston and the needs of the Boston core.” But he said East-West Rail is “as good for Boston as it is for Springfield.”
Boston’s issues are congestion and housing prices. “Nobody can afford to live in Eastern Mass, housing prices are out of control, and no one can get around” because of the traffic and crowded transit, he said.
In Western Massachusetts, “we have the reverse — lower cost of housing and good quality of life” — but the region has seen a loss of jobs and population. East-West Rail would solve problems, if not overnight, giving people in Eastern Massachusetts access to lower-cost housing and a calmer quality of life, while giving folks in Western Massachusetts access to jobs to the east.
He said connecting Western New England, including the Pioneer Valley towns north of Springfield, to Hartford and Boston by rail will have a major environment benefit, taking thousands of cars off the road and helping clean the air, noting that the valley area has a high rate of asthma. Also, as Wray noted, climate resilience may well favor a route away from the shoreline.
“We need the governor of Massachusetts to make this a top priority,” Lesser said. Gov. Baker’s office did not respond to several requests for comment, though MassDOT spokeswoman Judith Reardon Riley forwarded a press release citing the need for more study, coordination with CSX, identification of funding sources and creation of a governing structure to move the East-West rail project off the drawing board and onto the tracks. .
Lesser believes the challenge is not insurmountable. “We built a railroad through the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War. We can do this.”