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City Hall Moves On Green Energy

by Thomas MacMillan | Dec 7, 2010 8:55 am

(25) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall, Environment

Thomas MacMillan Photo City Hall moves forward Tuesday with plans to install a new green energy source in a now-empty plaza, solidifying New Haven’s claim as the “fuel cell capital of the state.”

That’s an impressive claim, considering Connecticut is the “fuel cell capital of the world,” according to Giovanni Zinn, an environmental consultant in New Haven’s Office of Sustainability.

Zinn has been spearheading a move to install a fuel cell behind City Hall to provide all the electricity and most of the heating and cooling required by City Hall and the Hall of Records. The city has issued a request for proposals (RFP), seeking companies to install and maintain the fuel cell.

Applicants will gather for a mandatory meeting on Tuesday. See RFP details here, here, and here.

The city has identified two potential spots for the fuel cell. It could go on a raised platform either between City Hall and the Hall of Records or along Orange Street in the plaza between the Hall of Records and the building next door.

While the city ponders a new addition to that plaza, some other—supposedly temporary and decidedly non-green—additions are still hanging around in contiguous Federal Plaza. Despite a claim from the federal government that cars would park there for only three months, it’s now been six months since they started showing up there. A new statement from the feds indicates that they’re not likely to go anywhere (see below).

The fuel cell will cost around $3 million, Zinn predicted. A third of that money will come from a grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, he said. The remainder will likely come from bonding. Although the Board of Aldermen has approved some funding for energy generation at City Hall, further aldermanic approval will likely be required, said Rob Smuts, the city’s chief administrative officer.

The fuel cell would be the city’s fifth. Cells are installed at 360 State, the Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, the Water Pollution Control Authority, and the Peabody Museum, Zinn said. That makes New Haven the state leader in fuel cell use, he said.

The fuel cell might be supplied by either FuelCell Energy of Danbury, or UTC Power of South Windsor. Those are the two leading fuel cell companies globally, which makes Connecticut the world leader, Zinn said.

The unit will probably weigh some 60,000 pounds and look something like a shipping container, Zinn said.

Fuel cells generate electricity from natural gas at a low cost and with very few byproducts, Zinn said. While the electricity alone makes the unit a worthwhile investment, “the big financial benefit is capturing the heat” the cell generates, Zinn said. That heat will be used to heat—and cool—City Hall and the Hall of Records. It will supply 60 percent of the buildings’ heating needs, and 30 percent of cooling needs, he said. The cooling comes from the installation of a counter-intuitive “absorption chiller” that runs on heat. “You take heat and make cool out of it,” Zinn said.

Zinn said the unit will be mostly quiet, with maybe a soft hum. While the city is looking at “screening” options to fit the cell in architecturally, Zinn said it’s also important that the cell be noticed, to highlight New Haven’s use of green energy technology.

“Some people will like it, some people won’t. Like everything else,” Zinn said.

A fuel cell would allow the city to extract itself from an energy-sharing arrangement with the Chase Financial Center next door to City Hall. The two buildings share electricity, heating, and cooling from an underground plant behind City Hall. That deal, which has been a money-loser for the city for years, expires at the end of 2012. Zinn said the plan is to have a fuel cell in place before that deadline.

Thomas MacMillan Photo Even with a fuel cell, City Hall would still need to share with Chase for some of its heating and cooling, said Zinn (pictured). But overall, a cell would be a win for the city, saving about $2 million over the unit’s 10-year lifespan, Zinn said.

“I think it’s exciting to look at reasonable energy technology that’s actually going to be more cost-effective for us than traditional energy technologies,” said Smuts. He said a fuel cell would be both environmentally and financially advantageous.

Cars Remain

Some six months ago, parked cars started showing up in the federal plaza behind City Hall, which is under the jurisdiction of the federal General Services Administration (GSA). Cathy Menzies, a spokeswoman for the GSA, said at the time that parking was permitted in the plaza on a temporary basis only, while garage repairs displaced federal employees.

A recent visit to the plaza found about a dozen cars still parked in the plaza.

In an email on Monday, Menzies offered the following statement: “The Giaimo garage has been reopened but there are still a couple of contractors working on the plaza as part of the garage repair project that should be completed within the next couple of weeks.

“Limited parking behind the courthouse for U.S. Courts and U.S. Marshals’ vehicles has always been permitted.”

 

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posted by: robn on December 7, 2010  10:01am

great.

sounds like a good investment

posted by: streever on December 7, 2010  10:38am

Great work Giovanni!
Another proposal from Zinn that reduces costs & pollution with a modest start-up cost largely being covered by grants. I’m glad to see such a progressive and smart city employer making the news.

posted by: davec on December 7, 2010  10:53am

It would be great to put to a positive use what are obviously failed urban design efforts.

posted by: Chad Shani on December 7, 2010  10:54am

its great that there are grant monies to pay for the lion’s share of this, and i know it’ good for the children of india and germany we polute less, and it makes us feel good about ourselves.  However along with the “fuel cell capitol of CT” (my eyes water up with pride just thinking that) we are also the “shot by a 14 year old on a random corner” capitol of CT.  Why are there no prestegous grants for such “real use” things like, infrastructure construction, varment eradication, rape / abuse safe houses in non crack neighborhoods or even free bus passes for anyone with a job?  isn’t that a group of more urgent, viable needs?
p.s. NHI, your “spell check” really messes me up

posted by: yz on December 7, 2010  12:44pm

It sounds like a terrible investment in a time where we cannot afford to take on more debt. This thing will be a money loser for more than 10 years because that we will have to pay back that two million with interest. We gain nothing out of installing this fuel cell. This type of fuel cell consumes natural gas and and will still give off carbon dioxide. Fuel cells avoid nitrogenous oxide emissions, but the reduction will be negligible since this 3 million dollar cell only powers one building. Why not wait until we are out of the recession when the city’s budget can be balanced before even thinking about something like this. Surely technologies advance over time: fuel cells in the future may actually be cost effective.

There’s a reason Connecticut is the fuel cell capital in the nation. It’s because it’s politicians feel no qualms about wasting taxpayer money on symbolic projects.

3 million dollars. The electricity needs of one building. Install it on a platform so all can see what projects city hall wastes our money on.

posted by: yz on December 7, 2010  1:10pm

...in a time when* we cannot afford…

posted by: Townie on December 7, 2010  2:02pm

How is a fuel cell a cleaner alternative to what the building uses now? Are their furnaces still burning coal? I doubt it. Fuel-cells are a lot like hybrid cars; more hype than substantive difference. In fact some claim that natural gas drilling is very dangerous to the environment and the life that inhabits it. Read: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=natural-gas-hydraulic-fracturing-chemicals-wastewater

This seems like another red-herring liberalistic project, its only real benefit is a potential increase to New Haven’s reputation as a “green” city.

As for the parking, get over it. That area is an empty lot, might as well get some use out of it.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on December 7, 2010  2:20pm

Great work Giovanni—any renderings of what the installation would like like in the two locations?

posted by: streever on December 7, 2010  2:51pm

Townie:
Real use for it would be openings from the business into the courtyard, and a small pedestrian “mall”. Don’t forget that 360 State is what, half full already? Walking traffic in the area could increase pretty dramatically.

posted by: Ideat Village on December 7, 2010  6:43pm

Finally,  Green Energy comes to the Ideat Village Stage!!!!!

Not to be selfish, or anything, but the location between City Hall and the Hall of Records is more appropriate than overtaking a useable public stage.

posted by: Granorchy on December 7, 2010  9:39pm

As a fuel cell is nothing more than a cannister of highly compressed natural gas there is always an explosion risk. I’m surprised the Feds are happy with this so close to their building.

posted by: anon on December 8, 2010  11:30am

““Limited parking behind the courthouse for U.S. Courts and U.S. Marshals’ vehicles has always been permitted.””

Really? Sounds like the lawyers need to clarify this and get the cars out permanently, before they are considered homesteaders.

posted by: Neal on December 8, 2010  12:58pm

This is an excellent example of how to reduce costs while being kind to the environment.  I’m going to forward this story to my colleges.

posted by: robn on December 8, 2010  2:09pm

Its good if its good.

The fuel cells are prefab so their deployment time is conveniently rapid…in this case convenient because the city is getting hosed by Chase. They are also continuous so the city can net meter and potentially get paid for excess generation.

If the cost of the cells is cheaper over time than buying from Chase or UI, then its good.

posted by: blue dog dem on December 8, 2010  4:25pm

I still cannot see how this is a good investment.  The city gets a $1mm grant and then sells $2mm in bonds, at a minimum of 4% and probably closer to 5%, for a period of 10 years.  The city will have to pay out $80-100,000 per year on debt service, besides paying back the $2mm to save ..... $2mm.  How is spending an extra $800,000 to $1,000,000 over ten years in interest payments saving money when the savings is equal to the amount borrowed?

posted by: streever on December 8, 2010  5:51pm

Blue Dog Dem:
that is predicated on the assumption that the contract won’t get more expensive.

posted by: blue dog dem on December 8, 2010  6:58pm

@Streever

You’re right.  The two problems I see with it are that the cell only last ten years, which corresponds with the length of a GO Bond meaning by the time we pay off the debt we’ll have to invest in another cell to replace this one (seems like a vicious cycle only helping the contractor lucky enough to win the contract). 

Second, based on your assumption, the contract would have to increase 40-50% over the lifetime of the cell to equal the debt service on the loan.  Also, this cell is not providing 100% of the service, so if it would not make the offices self-sufficient, it seems a high cost to pay to be green (since the debt service will be paid back by our tax dollars).

The contract rate increase is not implausible but with all our other debts, I think the money could better be used elsewhere, like spending down debt or contributing to the pension or healthcare shortfall.

posted by: yz on December 8, 2010  11:05pm

If the heating and cooling contract goes up, then the fuel cell might become cost effective. Then the city can buy the cell. These fuel cells will only get cheaper as technology improves. The city will gain nothing but debt right now.

Why does the city cut spending its various consultants and other waste, lower taxes, and attract more homeowners? Surely the overall carbon footprint of the region will be reduced if more people move into the city. It’s not that implausible.

posted by: Political Scientist on December 9, 2010  8:26am

Blue Dog Dem

The payback is that Johnny Boy can claim to be a ‘green’ mayor, so its a way of getting more votes and stifling opposition. Who cares what it costs the taxpayers. The Office of Sustainability is there to sustain Johnny’s reign of financial terror. 99% of what they do wastes money.

posted by: robn on December 9, 2010  10:16am

The central issue is cost since our current problem is really one of short and long term fiscal stabilization (current budget vs looming issues such as bond and pension debt). Is the total cost of the energy produced by the fuel cells offset by the savings at todays rates with some reasonable inflationary escalation? (probably conservative since energy is and will be more volatile).
Peripheral issues are Control (getting the yolk of chase off our neck) and Stability (both subset contributors to Cost.

posted by: yz on December 9, 2010  12:02pm

It seems pretty clear that this is a bad deal. The fuel cell costs total three million. It will cost the city 2 million and interest for the bonds. It will pay back only 2 million over its 10 year lifespan. Absolutely no benefit at all. You have to be crazy to think this is a “win for the city”. It’s a loss for tax-paying New Haven residents.

posted by: Rob Smuts on December 9, 2010  1:56pm

The significant savings that are projected with a fuel cell are net of debt service payments.  The responses to the current RFP will finalize our numbers and we will present to the Board of Aldermen where people can go over the costs and savings with a fine-tooth comb.  Unless the responses to the RFP come in very different that we are expecting (in which case we will go a different direction), this is a VERY good deal for the City financially and happens to be a benefit environmentally as well.

- Rob Smuts, Chief Administrative Officer

posted by: robn on December 9, 2010  2:01pm

YZ,

The article doesn’t state that the fuel cells will return $2M. It states that the fuel cell will “save” $2M over the life of the project. I’m not privy to the detailed numbers but presumably its calulated something like this….

hard_cost+bonding_interest+fuel+maint < current_cost_of_purchasing_from_chase

posted by: yz on December 9, 2010  10:24pm

My apologies for misreading. I was writing with the wrong interpretation.

posted by: blue dog dem on December 10, 2010  5:20pm

I think it a tad early to apologize to the administration for “misunderstanding” the project.  After all, this is the same administration that has led us to this fiscal mess.  I am going to assume that the proposals will be filled with smoke and mirrors, such as the 8% discount rate on the pension.  Every point under 8 should have an additional million dollars contributed, but of course it’s not.  We haven’t seen an 8% return in years, so no wonder it’s underfunded, but I digress.

If the proposal states that debt service will be based on the bonds having a 4% yield, when in fact it is 5%, that’s an additional $20,000 per year, or $200,000 on the life of the bond.  There are many ways that can be used to hide actual costs, so I’m hopeful that these proposals will be public prior to implementation.

The crux of the matter is that this plan will only reduce, not eliminate, the reliance on Chase, unless there is another way to cool and heat the building of which I am not aware.  And BTW, 60% heating and 30% cooling are not considered “most”, rather, less than half.  I am all for eliminating reliance on Chase, I just don’t want to see tax dollars wasted (AGAIN) in the process.

If I am wrong, I’ll gladly apologize to the administration, but somehow based on it’s track record, believe that it’s another sham against the taxpayers.

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