Power Makeover

Matt Tobin talks as he crosses through the new quilt of solar panels that blanket five acres overlooking the Southbury Quarry. “There were a number of challenges getting this solar farm built, and solar was new to me, but the process I have to say I’ve really enjoyed.”

Since 2018 Tobin, an engineering manager in O&G’s Power Division, has led the development of this solar farm, as well as earlier rooftop solar installations in Torrington and Bridgeport, from engineering and permitting through contractor selection and site preparation to commissioning and debugging and, in Southbury, even final touches like seeding soil-stabilizing grass.

Tony Blanchard is O&G’s Plant Maintenance Manager. At Bogue Road in Torrington on a sunny early morning, he’s in his office catching up on paperwork. Before he leaves to check progress in an expansive energy-saving program at the plants he oversees,
he considers the list of projects underway at O&G facilities across Connecticut. “We’ve got plans for Stamford, Bridgeport, Beacon Falls, Harwinton, New Milford, Danbury, Southbury, and Waterbury and we’re working on many right now and have finished some. The list of improvements we identify keeps growing,” he says, “and the advantages of becoming more energy efficient are fantastic.”

Renewable solar power generation and energy efficiency: they’re the two prongs of an energy reduction initiative that began rather inauspiciously in 2017 at the prompting of environmentally minded Corporate Counsel and Assistant Secretary Paul Balavender. It started with simply changing out inefficient lighting for new LED fixtures at the corporate offices, showrooms, and mason supply yards. That same motivation – reducing energy consumption, with all the benefits it accrues to the environment and the bottom line – continues to empower a growing list of projects across the company, and Balavender continues to champion the initiative.

Payback for the company’s multi-million-dollar investment in energy efficiency to date, after sizable incentives from energy provider Eversource tied to O&G’s sizable initiative to cut energy consumption, is estimated to take just three years.

Clean solar powers some very heavy machinery

The 100kWAC solar rooftop installation above the mason supply store and showroom in Bridgeport covers all the power needs of the facility. At the South Main maintenance facility in Torrington, 96kW AC of solar-generated electric powers lighting and provides most of the energy consumed by heavy equipment like overhead cranes, compressors, generators, welders, and air handlers.

But it’s at the company’s quarry in Southbury that solar power is having its biggest impact, making the facilities there virtually energy-independent. There is the capacity to power a repair shop like South Main, plus concrete and asphalt batch plants and crushing equipment, with excess power held in a 280kW energy storage system (think of it as a gigantic battery). Power in excess of need can be fed back into the Eversource grid.

The solar farm is impressive to look at: 3,762 solar panels stand in rows, mounted to racks pinned into the quarry-spoils ground. They are situated and angled to best capture sunlight. It’s the first industrial installation of its kind in Connecticut.

Tobin has enjoyed collaborating with solar contractor Solect Energy: he modified their plans for siting the arrays, and though having worked in power generation at O&G since 2001, was eager to absorb the intricacies of solar power.

Before he retired, Rick Audette, who headed O&G’s Power Division and now provides his expertise on a consulting basis, led the entry into solar and the state-administered zero-emission renewable energy certification (ZREC) program which compensates generators with tax credits for energy delivered back to the grid. With an engineer’s proclivity for nuts-and-bolts detail and a project manager’s eye to fiscal performance, Tobin has taken over tracking the financial performance of the new solar arrays, along with Balavender.

Taming the energy beast with new tech

“We use our own people to do everything we can,” Blanchard says with justifiable pride. “They’re doing excellent work, Barry Squinobal, and J.J. Alciati and their crews. We only hire specialty trades or to keep the work moving when we’re stretched thin.”
At asphalt and concrete plants, initial energy use assessments, or EUAs, have determined the areas in need of work. In Stamford, Harwinton, and Southbury work is virtually complete. In Danbury, the company decided a complete rebuild of their ready mix plant was in order and work, halted by the COVID-19 outbreak, is back on track toward completion. EUAs and plans for other plants are on the drawing board.

Typical plant conversions from conventional to sustainable and efficient include abandoning costly electric power in favor of cleaner, less expensive natural gas. They include switching to LED lighting everywhere. At asphalt plants especially, it means upgrading burner controls, and adding variable speed fan drives to fans and motors that link them to levels of demand. A primary concern is eliminating air leaks into and out of facilities and air leaks involving compressors, an especially wasteful drain on energy. And it includes insulating tanks and pipes that carry heated asphalt across open outdoor spaces.

In late 2019, O&G’s asphalt plants at Canal Street in Stamford and in New Milford were the first in America to enter into the EPA/DOE’s ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry program aimed at maximizing efficiency.

“The more we invest in these improvements,” says an enthused Blanchard, “the greater the percentage of reimbursement we are going to receive through Eversource.”

Done in partnership

Eversource Energy Efficiency Consultant Jim Racca, an energetic man himself, worked closely with Balavender and Blanchard, first assessing energy use and then recommending solutions. Racca helps companies who “want to do it right” navigate the application process to receive the maximum dollars from the State’s Energize Connecticut fund and make the improvements affordable.
The process of analyzing plant production began with an EUA. Energy consumption for any item that uses energy directly, handles the flow of energy or otherwise impacts that energy (air leaks in a compressor, for example) was measured by Loureiro Engineering Associates, an independent third party. Their in- depth reports enabled O&G to determine how to proceed, with guidance from Racca and Eversource.

With a wry chuckle Racca says he sometimes has to tell Balavender to ask fewer questions, that he has other clients who need his time. “O&G is very motivated to save energy. They do it for the bottom line but they also know it cuts down on power generation at the source which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps make them a good environmental steward.”

Much of the work at O&G is commonplace to industrial energy makeovers. Other work is highly specialized, like assessing burner controls for giant asphalt rotary dryers. O&G is very attentive to the details, concludes Racca. “There’s a lot going on there,” he says, “and they keep going on with assessing and improving. That’s a great thing.”

While Blanchard and crews are busy with the demolition and reconstruction, Vice President Brad Oneglia, who oversees O&G’s asphalt production, considers the broader perspective. “The reality is that our plants are ready for these improvements, especially with new technology that’s available now like variable speed motors and improved insulation.” He sees the long-term benefits beyond the obvious cost savings. “We are lowering our environmental impact, particularly when sources of pollution are in tightly populated urban neighborhoods. As we decrease our environmental footprint we’re being good corporate neighbors. Our investment is a win for stakeholders and neighbors, a win for the environment and a win for the company.”