Fear is the driving force behind a $23 million state program to create a network of mini-power generation plants across Connecticut — fear that climate change will bring more massive storms like the ones that rocked the state in 2011 and 2012.
Tropical Storm Irene and storm Sandy caused widespread power outages and flooding, sewer plant failures and major water pollution issues for tens of millions of people. Many climate scientists warn such violent weather events are likely to become increasingly common as the planet warms.
Connecticut is one of the states that has responded by funding microgrids capable of providing power to water treatment plants, emergency shelters, hospitals, police and fire stations in the event of more disaster-related blackouts. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are also funding microgrids.
Connecticut’s program has helped pay for microgrids at Wesleyan University, a municipal complex in Fairfield and at the University of Hartford. Other microgrid grants are funding similar power generating stations in Woodbridge, Hartford, Bridgeport, the University of Bridgeport, and Windham.
Alan Rubacha, director of Wesleyan’s physical plant, said these mini-power plants offer advantages that go beyond providing power in emergencies. He said the university’s microgrid, which went on line in 2014, is producing enough electricity and steam to save Wesleyan an estimated $300,000 a year in energy costs.
Not only does the university’s natural gas engine produce electricity “as efficiently as a utility,” according to Rubacha, “the big thing is we use all the heat off the back end” as steam to heat the Freeman Athletic Center.
Wesleyan’s plant was one of the first Connecticut microgrids and the overall cost amounted to $4.1 million, including a $603,836 state grant. The combination of university and state funding paid for a 676 kilowatt natural gas engine that operates continuously to power the athletic center.
The center is also a designated emergency center for the area and a distribution point for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Wesleyan’s microgrid includes some solar power as well, and Rubacha said university officials calculate that the system will pay back the entire investment in a little over a decade.
In Fairfield, a $1.2 million state grant and $133,000 in town funding paid for a microgrid system that can provide power to the sewer plant, police and fire stations, a homeless shelter and a cellphone tower.
Ed Bowman, assistant director of Fairfield’s public works department, estimated the natural gas-powered microgrid system saves the town about $60,000 a year in electricity expenses and about $10,000 a year in heating costs.
Woodbridge’s planned natural gas fuel cell microgrid project is expected to be ready by December, according to Tony Genovese, the town’s administrative officer and finance director. The fuel cell is being provided and installed by United Illuminating under an arrangement with the town.
A $3 million state grant will pay for the costs of creating a transmission system that will allow the microgrid to provide power to United Illuminating’s electrical grid during normal times, Genovese said. If the UI grid went out in a disaster, the microgrid would switch to an independent “island mode” to provide power to town emergency facilities, he said.
Hartford officials and representatives of two energy companies this month announced the start of construction on a $2 million state-funded project to provide electricity to several city facilities, including Parkville Elementary School, Dwight Branch Library, Parkville Senior Center and the Charter Oak Health Center. The 800-kilowatt fuel cell project is being built by Constellation, a subsidiary of Exelon Corporation, and the fuel cell is being made by Bloom Energy.
The project will supply 100 percent of the energy needs of those facilities, and any excess electricity will be used to reduce energy costs at several Hartford schools. The microgrid is expected to be in operation by August.
Other microgrid projects being funding under the Connecticut program include:
A University of Hartford microgrid costing $2.57 million was up and running in August. State funding for the project was $2.27 million, and the microgrid will provide power to university facilities, which can also serve as emergency community shelters.
State funding of $709,000 will be used to help pay for a $1.8 million microgrid project to provide power to two Windham schools. A state school facilities grant of $872,800 and local funding of $218,200 will pay for the balance of the microgrid costs.
The University of Bridgeport is using a $2.18 million state grant for a microgrid project expected to be completed by the fall of 2016.
A state grant of nearly $3 million will help pay for a microgrid project in Bridgeport to provide emergency power for city hall, the police station and a senior center.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy summed up the state’s policy on microgrids during one of the early rounds of state grants.
“Microgrids play a major role in our efforts to modernize and harden our infrastructure to withstand severe weather,” Malloy said. “These projects will help protect residents and vital public services even when the power goes out.”