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CT Construction Digest Wednesday May 5, 2024

Friday June 7th Bond Commission Agenda

The country's first utility-run geothermal heating and cooling system launches in Framingham

Isabella O'Malley

Jennifer and Eric Mauchan live in a Cape Cod-style house in Framingham, Massachusetts that they've been cooling with five air conditioners. In the summer, the electric bill for the 2,600-square-foot home can be $200.

In the winter, heating with natural gas is often more than $300 a month, even with the temperature set at 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

“My mom, when she was alive, wouldn't come to our house in the wintertime,” because it was too cold, Eric Mauchan said.

But beginning Tuesday, their neighborhood will be part of a pilot climate solution that connects 37 homes and businesses with a highly-efficient, underground heating and cooling system. Even taking into account that several of the buildings will be switching from natural gas to electricity, people are expected to see their electric bills drop by 20% on average. It's a model some experts say can be scaled up and replicated elsewhere.

“As soon as they told me about it, I bought in 100%,” said Jennifer Mauchan, who works in finance, remembering her first meeting with representatives from Eversource, the gas and electric utility that installed the system. “From a financial perspective, I thought that it was a very viable option for us." She cited lower greenhouse gases that cause climate change as an important factor in the decision.

Gina Richard, owner of Corner Cabinet, a kitchen and bath cabinet showroom in Framingham, said she felt "pretty lucky” to be part of the project. She currently uses two air conditioners and two heaters and looks forward to replacing all that with a single system. Richard said she was told she could see her winter heating bill of $900-1,000 go down by as much as a third, which she said would be “amazing.”

The Framingham system consists of a giant underground loop filled with water and antifreeze, similar to the way gas is delivered to several houses in a neighborhood. Water in the loop absorbs heat from underground, which remains at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit all year.

Households have their own heat pump units that provide heating and air conditioning, installed by the utility. These take heat from the loop, spike the temperature further, and release that heat as warm air into the homes. For air conditioning, heat is extracted from the home or business and released into the Earth or transported to the next home.

The energy sharing works best when some buildings are drawing on heat while another needs it, the way a grocery store needs to keep its cases refrigerated even in winter.

Other networked geothermal projects exist in the U.S., including the Texas community of Whisper Valley and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Eversource says this is the first utility-led installation in the U.S. If it works, that could be important because an individual homeowner could not do the digging and drilling necessary to create a neighborhood system.

Right now, homeowners can buy individual air source heat pumps, which have become common and are efficient. Or they can drill for more expensive, even more efficient ground source heat pumps. Incentives, such as those in the Inflation Reduction Act or local utilities, help lower the price on these, yet the final cost can still be tens of thousands of dollars.

Framingham beat out other communities that applied to Eversource to become pilot sites. The city 20 minutes west of Boston is surrounded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plus firms like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Pfizer and Novartis. Eric Mauchan said the proximity of so much advanced technology and a state law requiring that greenhouse gas emissions ramp down to zero by 2050 helped make the community receptive.

Nikki Bruno, vice president for clean technologies for Eversource, also cited the state's emissions law as a reason for the pilot. It was also "an opportunity from a decarbonization standpoint,” she said, because Eversource has its own net zero goal.

“We’re thinking about, okay, we do this pilot now, how can we scale this into a sustainable business model, into a sustainable program to offer in more locations?” she said.

Jack DiEnna, founder of the Geothermal National & International Initiative, an alliance of industry professionals, said utilities are seeing pressure to address climate change plus incentives to do so. Ground source heat pumps are highly efficient, reduce the electricity demand on the grid and can be installed in regions beyond the reach of gas lines. They also cool homes and release very little in the way of climate pollution compared to traditional heaters and air conditioners.

There is also an equity issue that concerns some in the climate and energy sector. If people who have the means disconnect their natural gas, it could have unequal consequences for people.

It “means that the people who can least afford it are stuck paying for this gas system, this very leaky gas system,” said Ania Camargo, thermal energy networks manager at the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a nonprofit working to eliminate fossil fuels from buildings.

“One of the reasons why I advocate for utilities to be a big part of the solution is because it’s a way to make sure we can do this for everybody."

Back at the Mauchans' home, the couple laughs about the accommodations they were making to their old heating system. “I was so mindful of the expense that we would incur if we increased the temperature to, God forbid, 70 degrees in the winter,” Jennifer recalled about letting the house get cold in winter.

They expect their new heat pump to change things. “I mean, we’ll keep our house 71 degrees all year long,” Eric said.

Editor's note: The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. 

DOT Aims to Curb Work Zone Speeding with Expanded Camera Program

Robert Storace

The state Department of Transportation is hoping an influx of recently approved state dollars will help deter the growing number of drivers caught speeding through road work zones.  

According to the DOT, there were 835 crashes — nearly all tied to excessive speeding — within its work zones involving 1,618 vehicles during the 2022 construction season, which runs from April to November.

From April to December 2023, DOT officials piloted a work zone camera program at three different sites, issuing 24,900 warning citations for speeding. With the threat of a $75 fine for repeat offenses, most drivers complied with speed limits, officials said, resulting in fewer than 750 second-offense violations.

“People changed their behavior,” DOT spokesperson Josh Morgan said. “The fact that we did not have an incredible number of citations go out the door let us know that people got the message and that they were more cautious in work zones.”

The DOT, led by Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto, lobbied lawmakers during the 2024 legislative short session for more money for cameras and other transportation initiatives. That lobbying paid off as the state Legislature approved a bill that, among other things, allocates about $3 million for cameras; increases the number of work zones with cameras from three to 15 sites; mandates warnings and then caps fines at $75 for each offense; automatically fines drivers traveling 85 miles per hour; and lowers the threshold for fines in work zones from 15 mph above the speed limit to 10 miles above the speed limit.

Morgan said the expanded program probably won’t start until early 2025 in order to secure vendors and contracts.

The measure also included $20 million to rebuild more than 1,000 bus shelters; municipalities would then be allowed to have local advertising at those shelters for additional revenue. The bill additionally allows municipalities to establish their own traffic authorities by July 1, and requires the DOT commissioner to submit a report by Jan 1. to the Transportation Committee identifying at least five alternative methods for restoring Shore Line East rail line service and recommending the needed funding levels to implement each alternative.

Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill into law on May 22.

Lawmakers say the work zones cameras provision is the most important aspect of the bill, especially given the number of speeding incidents in recent years.

State Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, D-Ridgefield, vice chair of the Transportation Committee, voted for the bill, saying it’s all about “saving lives.”

“It’s important to note that, between pilots and the bill that was actually passed, the amount of the fine for subsequent violations dropped from $150 to $75, which, I think, is evidence this was never about collecting fines,” Berger-Girvalo said. “This was never about being a source of revenue. It was, and has always been, about saving lives.”

State Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-Milford, a ranking member of the Transportation Committee, also voted for the bill and said she’s hopeful that motorists will slow down after knowing certain work zones might have cameras watching them. 

Morgan said DOT workers have reported feeling somewhat safer and believe the work zone camera pilot initiative has made some progress. 

“Anecdotally, our men and women are feeling safer on the highway. They know, especially with truck traffic or larger SUVs, the wind gusts that a vehicle creates as you are working behind a set of cones and barrels,” Morgan told CT Examiner. “Anecdotally, they say it’s better.”

Some Republicans, however, voiced opposition to the measure. 

“I think there are more effective road safety measures that could be implemented in work zones,” State Rep. Martin Foncello, R-Brookfield, told CT Examiner, adding he’s concerned about the $3 million price tag amid a tight state budget.

State Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, said she was disappointed that many provisions of the bill were added late in the process.

“It went from 22 pages and 19 sections to 49 pages and 54 sections,” she said. “Obviously, the safety of our workers is very important, but again, there was so much to the bill that we didn’t have a chance to read because they were ‘strike all’ amendments,” which refers to a proposal to delete the entire text of an existing bill and substitute new language.

One part of the bill — which would have required motorcyclists to wear protective headgear for the first three years of holding a permit — was eventually cut from the final version by lawmakers due to significant opposition on both sides. 

Morgan said the DOT will “continue to have the conversation” with lawmakers regarding helmets in future sessions and might introduce a motorcycle helmet provision in 2025.

Morgan said the transportation bill is “all rooted in safety and expanding accessibility. It’s about making sure that, however people are traveling, that they can do so safely.”

Moody’s downgrades water utility’s credit rating, citing weakening finances, debt

Andrew Larson

Moody’s Ratings has downgraded Aquarion Water Co.’s credit rating one notch, placing it into a higher-risk category.

In late May, Moody’s lowered the water utility’s credit rating from A3 to Baa1, noting its low overall business risk, with a weakening financial profile.

The credit rating agency said that Aquarion’s rating change reflected increased risk from “adverse regulatory or political decisions,” following the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority’s decision to reduce Aquarion’s revenue and lower its return on equity last year.

In March 2023, PURA cut Aquarion’s request for an annual revenue requirement of $236 million by 17.2%, down to $195.5 million. Also, it approved a return on equity of 8.7%, after Aquarion requested 10.35%.

Aquarion requested the rate increase in August 2022 – its first rate case since 2013. PURA made its decision after roughly 48,000 pages of documents were filed.

Bridgeport-based Aquarion and other Connecticut utilities have said PURA’s crackdown on rate increases threatens their ability to attract capital and will ultimately lead to increased costs for consumers.

Aquarion has appealed PURA’s decision in state courts. A Superior Court judge upheld most of PURA’s decision, noting that “the court observes that Aquarion and its investors face little practical economic risk.”

Aquarion has appealed the trial court’s decision, and the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Moody’s said that Aquarion’s lower rating comes as a result of the state’s “less consistent and predictable regulatory environment.”

Moody’s expects the company’s financial metrics to improve in 2024 once its owner, Eversource Energy, repays $360 million of intermediate holding company debt.

The credit rating agency did not take a position on Eversource’s February announcement that it plans to sell Aquarion, a process that is expected to take more than a year.

“It is too early to determine the credit implications, including uncertainties related to PURA's regulatory approval, the acquirer, final valuation and timing, among other things,” Moody’s report states.