Norwich Public Utilities, one step ahead, is buoyed by Malloy proposal

Norwich - Norwich Public Utilities officials said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's announcement Friday of a new state energy plan is an endorsement of programs NPU already has in place and hopes to expand in the immediate future.

Malloy even cited quick action as one goal of the plan.

"I feel like we're a pilot project for the state plan," NPU General Manager John Bilda said Friday.

NPU officials said the city utility has addressed every component of Malloy's energy plan, from the energy efficiency initiatives to the need to expand natural gas lines and promote alternative-fuel vehicles.

Malloy's plan highlighted the need for the state to expand relatively inexpensive natural gas as a home and business heating fuel and as an alternative-vehicle fuel. The governor called for private investment by the state's gas companies to expand natural gas lines and "financing options" provided by banks to homeowners and businesses to convert furnaces, boilers and other appliances to natural gas.

The plan calls for expanding gas service to 300,000 additional homes and businesses.

The governor's new emphasis on natural gas comes less than five weeks before the Nov. 6 referendum in Norwich on NPU's proposed $8 million natural gas line expansion to reach neighborhoods not currently served by natural gas.

Expansions are done only in neighborhoods where enough homeowners and businesses agree to hook into the system before the line is installed. Hughes said the new expansion would bring gas lines to about a dozen Norwich neighborhoods.

The new expansion would not cost existing NPU gas ratepayers any additional fees or cost Norwich taxpayers. New ratepayers who hook into the lines also would not pay any higher rates than existing gas customers.

The expansion would be funded through incremental amounts of those new rates dedicated to paying off the bonds, NPU spokesman Michael Hughes said.

NPU has just spent the last of a similar $3 million gas line expansion bond approved by voters in 2010. Bilda said the expansion covered 6 miles of gas lines and 2 miles of connections from streets into about 500 homes.

While Bilda did not have figures on the number of jobs the project created - another goal of Malloy's energy plan - he said the work doubled the number of private contractors NPU normally hires for road utility work. Private contractors are hired to do the street work, while NPU crews install the connections, he said. Private plumbers hook up furnaces, gas stoves and dryers.

The governor's plan also stresses the need to convert private-sector vehicle fleets to alternative fuel usage and provide private-sector alternative fueling stations for public use.

Through NPU's involvement with the Clean Cities federal program, Norwich now has the largest fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles in the state, with 51 vehicles. The city just received a $2 million grant to build a second natural gas fueling station near the Interstate 395 and Route 2 expressways for public use.

That grant also will upgrade seven vehicles for three private entities, including three employee shuttle vans for The William W. Backus Hospital, two trucks and two vans for Levine Distributing Co. and two vans for Prime Electric LLC.

Norwich also just received approval for another $77,344 for three additional new alternative-fuel vehicles for the city.

"What's exciting is with the grant we've already got, we can show the governor it can work," Hughes said. "It should snowball."

c.bessette@theday.com

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