By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent
Woodbridge First Selectman Ellen Scalettar, on February 18, signed an agreement with the state of Connecticut for installation of an electrical microgrid in the center of town. The microgrid will connect the municipal buildings — the Town Hall, the Public Works garage, the new and the old firehouse, the library and the Center Building — to a hydrogen fuel cell to be located at Amity High School. Under normal conditions, the electricity generated by the fuel cell will be fed back into United Illuminating’s regular distribution system. During power outages however, the fuel cell will continue to feed the microgrid, bringing power to critical buildings such as the police and fire stations and the high school.
The $3 million state grant will cover the grid, but not the fuel cell itself. That will be owned and maintained by United Illuminating as part of the utility’s power generation network. UI also will install the equipment and the microgrid. “This is only the beginning of the siting and approval process,” said UI project manager Tom Judge. The Connecticut Siting Council needs to approve the project, as do the local land use agencies. UI is in the process of contracting with a fuel cell manufacturer.
Typically the units are placed on a concrete foundation with a footprint of roughly 90 x 60 feet. The Amity unit may be enclosed to diminish the visual impact of the installation, he said. Power lines will run underground, adding to the reliability of the system. That does not mean that the utility poles in Woodbridge center will disappear, Judge said, since cable and telephone lines share the poles.
If the permitting goes smoothly, installation can begin during the school break in the summer, Judge said. Between the fuel cell installation and the microgrid, it may take four to six months to finish. He said UI would coordinate its hours of work with the school.
A suitable location is at the back of the high school, near the shop area, but details still need to be worked out with the school. It is envisioned that Amity High School will benefit from the installation by using the excess heat to heat its building.
But to make that connection will cost the district money, maybe as much as $300,000 or more, and that hasn’t been budgeted for, said School Supt. Chip Dumais. The district and UI will need to work out a lease agreement once the permitting process is completed. Dumais is hoping that the cooperation may result in a senior service learning internship with UI.
Pilot project: Woodbridge was chosen in 2013 as one of nine pilot projects in the state for the installation of a micro grid. The DEEP program is designed to “develop innovative ways to keep critical buildings powered during electric grid outages,” said the official press release at the time.
Initially the town was looking for a third party to install the fuel cell and natural gas turbine, combined with a long-term power purchase agreement. But at the same time UI was developing its Renewable Connections Program, pledging to produce a certain percentage of its power from renewable energy. UI was already working on several installations, among them another fuel cell in New Haven, and was looking to produce 2.2 additional megawatt from renewable sources.
That’s when they approached the town. It seemed a perfect fit for the utility, the town and the state, and a bonus for the school.
First Selectman Ellen Scalettar was pleased that the project with UI is coming together, especially since the town will not be bound by a 20-year contract, as originally envisioned. Power generation is becoming increasingly local, she said, calling this program “a very forward-looking step”.
How a fuel cell works: UI’s Mike Foley summed up the electro-chemical process of a hydrogen fuel cell as follows:
- The Woodbridge fuel cell will operate using clean natural gas as its power source.
- The natural gas is reformed within the anode side of the fuel cell to extract hydrogen.
- Negative ions travel through the electrolyte to the anode, where they combine with the hydrogen to produce water, heat and electrons.
- Electrons from the anode cannot pass through the electrolyte to the positively charged cathode; they must travel around it via an electrical circuit, creating electric current.
Fuel cells offer several advantages, he said. They are an environmentally friendly power source, with virtually zero emissions of nitrogen oxide, which causes smog; sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain; or particulate matter, which aggravates asthma. On top of that “it offers continuous, clean power around the clock that is not reliant on weather or time of day”.