State official impressed with Norwich's energy initiatives

State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, right, and John Bilda, general manager, Norwich Public Utilities, tour the Digester Building portion of the Sewer Authority of the City of Norwich Wastewater Treatment Plant on Monday.
State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, right, and John Bilda, general manager, Norwich Public Utilities, tour the Digester Building portion of the Sewer Authority of the City of Norwich Wastewater Treatment Plant on Monday. Tim Martin/The Day

Norwich —When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled his long-term energy plan for the state in October, Norwich Public Utilities officials found familiar rings to most of the governor's points — expand natural gas use, stress energy efficiency and conservation and use micro-grids to cut down on widespread power outages.

On Monday, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty visited NPU to see first-hand the programs the utility's officials have touted in trips to Hartford in recent months.

"I'm trying to learn here today what is it that allows this community to be out in front," Esty said.

Esty met with NPU officials to discuss innovative programs, including expansion of natural gas lines, energy efficiency programs and plans to expand electricity micro-grids. Esty praised NPU for its leadership and innovative programs and extended that praise to the Norwich community for supporting NPU's efforts with funding.

Esty said when it comes to renewable energy production, he knows of no other utility that has a combination of solar, wind, hydro and anaerobic gas-powered generation systems.

When it comes to storm response, Esty said the communication and cooperation among the utility and other city response agencies has been exemplary.

The governor's plan calls for expanding the use of natural gas for heating in Connecticut as the projected "cheapest, cleanest most reliable fuel in the next couple decades," as Esty described it. In Norwich, voters twice have supported referendum bonds — $3 million in 2010 and $8 million in the November election — to expand NPU's natural gas lines through the city to serve more urban and suburban neighborhoods. NPU offers rebates on fuel-efficient furnaces and appliances as well.

The concept of micro-grid electric service systems dominated Monday morning's discussions as a way to keep key sections of the city powered during storms that bring widespread power outages. NPU has one micro-grid that serves the Stanley Israelite Norwich Business Park, allowing businesses, including retail gasoline stations and convenience stores, to remain open to customers.

An additional micro-grid is planned that would keep The William W. Backus Hospital powered by connecting it to a proposed new 10 megawatt natural gas generating station off Rollins Road. Backus will apply for a $2 million state grant for the project.

Esty also visited NPU's natural gas fueling station on North Main Street, which is open to the public as well as the city's growing fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles. NPU has 29 natural gas vehicles and plans to purchase or convert another 13. The utility also has two electric vehicles, three hybrid electric and 15 biodiesel vehicles and off-road equipment.

A second natural gas fueling station is planned for the West Town Street area within the next year, NPU officials said.

Esty's final stop Monday was at the city's sewage treatment plant on Falls Avenue, where two micro-generators capture methane emitted from the sewage treatment process to produce 140 kilowatts of power that help run the plant. At peak times, NPU General Manager John Bilda said, the system generates 2 megawatts of power along with eliminating odors that previously plagued the waterfront area during the summer.

"This utility has taken the lead in this," Esty said of the micro-grid systems.

Esty said the state is looking to fund 10 to 12 pilot micro-grid projects in the state. Bilda said Norwich would be poised to take advantage of those pilot programs Malloy is promoting if a project "makes sense" for the city.

c.bessette@theday.com

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