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Connecticut Neighborhood Pushes Back Against Planned Fuel Cell Power Plant

Creative Commons
Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Connecticut

A proposal to site a 9.66-megawatt fuel cell power plant in the South End of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is drawing fire from residents who say the neighborhood already hosts more than its share of industrial facilities.

NuPower, based in Easton, is seeking Connecticut Siting Council approval to build a 70-foot-tall steel-and-concrete structure holding 21 fuel cells on half an acre of vacant land on Iranistan Avenue. The facility would convert natural gas to electricity through a chemical process that emits carbon but eliminates other air pollution associated with combustion power plants.

The wedge-shaped parcel sits between an Interstate 95 overpass and commuter rail tracks. Although the site is zoned for light industrial uses, neighbors say it is no place for a large power generator, and the project will hinder revitalization efforts. 

Iranistan Avenue is a main road through the South End and a primary route to Seaside Park, a 325-acre beachfront attraction. The nearest homes to the site are about 140 feet away. And it’s not far from a public park, a school, a modestly priced residential cooperative called Seaside Village, and a subsidized housing development now under construction, noted Tanner Burgdorf, a Seaside Village resident, in a letter to the Siting Council. 

“Placing a facility so close to these community assets is the most disgraceful part of this plan,” Burgdorf wrote, calling it “a textbook case of environmental injustice.”  

Opponents point out that the South End is already home to a recently retired coal-fired power plant, a waste-to-energy facility, and an asphalt plant. David Brown, who grew up in Seaside Village and returned to buy his own home there in 2016, said he’s still upset about the new gas-fired power plant that went online just east of Seaside Park two years ago. 

“The thing is gigantic,” he said. “We already have so much stuff here in the South End. It’s like never-ending what we have to deal with.”

A previous petition for the fuel cell project by Doosan Fuel Cell America, a manufacturer based in South Windsor, was denied without prejudice by the council last year. The decision said the petition lacked sufficient detail, especially around safety issues and noise mitigation measures. 

Earlier this year, NuPower asked to reopen the petition, saying it could provide more detailed plans, and last month, the council agreed.

“We’re trying to reduce emissions, as far as power generation,” said Dan Donovan, president of NuPower. “This is a distributed resource that allows us to reduce our dependence on fossil-fuel units.” 

The role of fuel cells

Fuel cells are a Class I renewable energy source under Connecticut’s renewable portfolio standard. The efficient technology generates electricity through a chemical reaction process fueled primarily by hydrogen. If the hydrogen can be obtained through renewable sources, the technology is purely renewable. But “green” hydrogen is still very expensive, so most stationary fuel cells now derive the necessary hydrogen from natural gas, which is composed of hydrogen and carbon.

“They have gas reformers in front of the actual fuel cell to strip off the carbon and use the hydrogen in the unit,” said Joel Rinebold, director of energy initiatives at the Connecticut Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Coalition. “The carbon in the natural gas will be emitted, but in smaller amounts than other power technologies.”

Eventually, as the technology improves and renewable hydrogen becomes cheaper and more plentiful, fuel cells will play an important role as a dispatchable source of energy that can fill in “when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine,” Rinebold said. 

Connecticut is a hotbed of fuel cell activity compared to most other states, with roughly 80-100 megawatts deployed both behind and in front of the meter, he said. It is home to two original equipment manufacturers — Doosan and Fuel Cell Energy — and some 600 companies that supply various components and parts for the industry. 

A 14.9-megawatt fuel cell power plant already operates in Bridgeport on a former brownfield site in the West End. And a 20-megawatt plant is under construction in New Britain as part of a large energy and data center project

NuPower’s plant would be connected to a United Illuminating substation and would sell power to the utility in accordance with a power purchase agreement approved by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority in 2019.

Donovan said the Iranistan site is ideal because it provides gas line access and has some industrial neighbors. It “doesn’t have many other uses and has been lying dormant for a long time,” he said.

The closest edge of Seaside Village, with 257 co-ops, is about 500 feet away. The small brick homes, arranged around inner courtyards and garden areas, were built by the federal government to supply housing for factory workers during World War I. Joe Provey, who is intervening on the community’s behalf before the Siting Council, said residents of the diverse community take pride in their homes and regularly pick up trash in the neighborhood at large. 

He had been hopeful that the new housing development under construction, Windward Commons, which is replacing a badly deteriorated public housing complex, would spur some new businesses along what is now a blighted section of Iranistan. But the presence of a large power plant would likely discourage such investment, he said. 

“There’s a feeling that they dump stuff here that nobody else will take,” Provey said.

John Lambo, another village resident, agrees that the plant will have a negative impact on revitalization efforts. 

“If that was there when I was moving in originally, I don’t think I’d buy here,” Lambo said. 

Thrown for a loop

The origins of the proposed fuel cell plant go back some seven years, when NuPower partnered with the city and United Illuminating on an ambitious plan: build a fuel cell connected to a network of underground pipes. The project would capture the thermal heat generated by the fuel cell and use it to provide energy for space heating and hot water to buildings in the distressed municipality’s downtown, thereby further improving efficiency and offsetting the facility’s associated carbon emissions. 

But regulators rejected the so-called thermal loop plan as too costly for ratepayers. Proponents then worked with the city’s legislative delegation to get a bill passed authorizing the project in 2017. The governor at the time, Dannel Malloy, vetoed it, saying it lacked regulatory oversight. But compromise legislation was subsequently approved. 

State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, hailed the project at the time as an opportunity to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, and “directly add millions of dollars to our tax base and invite more residential and commercial development downtown through cheaper heating costs.”

But almost four years later, construction of the thermal loop has yet to begin. Donovan said it is in the design phase, “very far along.”

As to whether the company has any commitments from customers who will buy energy from the loop, Donovan said they have “some letters of intent. But I’d rather not discuss those at this time.”

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had urged the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority not to approve the power purchase agreement with United Illuminating until the companies could produce more evidence of customer commitments for the thermal loop. Without knowing who the customers are, the bureau argued in a brief, regulators could not determine if the system is being installed at a location that maximizes the efficient use of thermal energy. 

In addition, the bureau concluded that the project is too costly to be in the long-term interests of ratepayers, “translates into a particularly high cost per ton of carbon avoidance,” and provides limited benefits to the transmission system. 

In its decision, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority placed a number of conditions on United Illuminating and NuPower, including a requirement that NuPower present evidence of firm customer commitments for at least 50% of the total thermal energy capacity of the system within two years after the commercial operation date, and annually thereafter.

Provey argued that the fuel cell project should not be allowed to move forward without any sign that the thermal loop is viable. Noting that the petition says the plant will emit 42,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, he said that “without the thermal loop, the fuel cell tower simply becomes yet another gas-fueled contributor of CO2” in the district. 

He and a handful of other Seaside Village residents recently took NuPower up on an invitation to visit its fuel cell project at the Cherry Street Lofts complex in the West End. The single 440-kilowatt cell there provides electricity to residents of an apartment building; the waste heat provides discounted space heat and hot water to a charter school. 

But Provey said it’s hard to compare a single cell to a project that will include 20 times as many. For example, he said, how much noise will be generated by the large cooling fans that will sit on top of the plant?

Donovan said residents of Seaside Village will never hear the fans. 

“Between us and them is Interstate 95 with trucks and cars,” he said. “That’s much more of an issue than our project would ever be.”

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