The Clean Green Financing Machine

Posted on 28. Oct, 2011 by in Points of Departure

Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state legislature overhauled Connecticut’s energy bureaucracy over the summer. They merged the regulatory body for utilities and the old environmental commission to create a new agency, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The department is headed by Daniel Esty, a Yale University professor on leave, and is sometimes known by its profound acronym, DEEP. Malloy also established the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which calls itself “the nation’s first ‘green bank.’ ” As a “quasi-public” agency, it has broad legal power not only to award grants, but also to make various types of loans and to seek investment, like a private bank.

The aim is to leverage public and private money to help scientists and entrepreneurs in Connecticut develop renewable, efficient sources of energy, and to encourage the commercialization and adoption of new technologies. “Financial institutions across the country have been in touch with us to try to think through opportunities and partnerships. Attracting private capital is the main goal here,” said David Goldberg, the green bank’s director of government and external affairs.

It may be too early to tell what the new authority’s impact will be, but if Goldberg and his colleagues are successful, the Leeway-Putnam building on Putnam Avenue in Hamden may offer a glimpse of what’s to come.

The supportive housing facility for patients with HIV and AIDS is a stucco-sided box with bright blue metal roofing on the gables and awnings over the entry. It sits across from a vacant lot and next to a warehouse and garage where grass sprouts through cracks in the asphalt of the parking lot. Inside, a vent near the floor was quiet on a rainy September afternoon. A visitor wouldn’t give the dusty grate a second glance.

Yet energy-efficiency technology doesn’t always look fancy and futuristic. When the building’s vents are whirring, its heating and cooling system draws energy from the ground through many shallow, water-filled wells several feet deep. The system is called a geothermal or ground-source heat pump, and it’s designed to meet the building’s heating and cooling needs more efficiently. Geothermal pumps can save more energy per dollar than solar panels, and they’ve been around for decades. Reducing fossil fuel consumption doesn’t have to mean cold fusion generators, acres of solar panels gleaming in the sunrise, or faster-than-light travel.

Leeway, the New Haven support organization for patients with HIV and AIDS, opened the 17-unit facility in Hamden last fall. The system was installed with a $71,000 grant from the Finance and Investment Authority’s predecessor, which did not offer loans to the extent that the new authority will.

“It’s had its quirks just like any other system, but I think it’s been working very well,” said Rick Ross, who oversaw the project for Leeway. “That, along with the insulation that was installed there, makes it a very energy-efficient building.”

Mark Simon, a founding partner of Centerbrook Architects in Centerbrook, Connecticut, is especially familiar with geothermal systems. He helped draw the plans for Kroon Hall, Yale University’s $33.5 million experiment in efficient building design, which uses four 1,500-foot wells for geothermal heating and cooling. When I spoke to Simon, he was preparing to catch a flight to Ohio, where his firm is designing a system for a boys’ high school in a Cleveland suburb.

Soil and water belowground are insulated from seasonal temperature changes, and the pumps use the planet’s body heat to keep buildings comfortable inside. Ten feet down, the temperature in most places stays around fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit all year, Simon said. In the winter, the warmth that the soil and groundwater absorbed during the summer can heat buildings. In the summer, water that is the temperature of the soil can be used to cool them down.

Geothermal heat pumps are inexpensive and don’t require sophisticated technology. They will typically pay for the cost of installation in five to ten years. Still, a geothermal heat pump can be very difficult to design. “There are a lot of tricky technical issues that need attention. Some things aren’t going to work the way you want them to,” Simon said.

The engineer designing a heat pump needs to consider what’s in the soil—mud, sand, rock, gravel, clay—as well as how much groundwater there is and whether changing seasons will affect the water table. The amount of heat the ground can absorb depends on all of these factors. The climate of the region matters as well, since when a geothermal pump heats groundwater and soil, they stay warm for a surprisingly long time. In a climate with hot summers and mild winters, Simon explained, “the ground over time will slowly get warmer and warmer.” Yet the pumps work well in a state such as Connecticut, with warm summers and cold winters.

Funding geothermal heating and cooling systems is only a small part of the new green bank’s mission. The agency also plans to add enough solar panels to Connecticut homes to generate thirty megawatts of electricity, and Goldberg said the agency’s staff expects to exceed that goal. Another ambition is producing methane, which can power electrical generators, by feeding agricultural waste to bacteria on a large scale.

Goldberg emphasized, though, that choosing particular technologies or industries to support isn’t his agency’s goal. It’s a familiar criticism of government efforts to support entrepreneurship. “The state didn’t pick a winning technology,” he said. “We’re going to say, ‘We got a pot of money, we’re looking for the lowest cost, ultimately, to the ratepayer.’ ” If the Leeway-Putnam building is any indication, the cheapest, most effective technologies in Connecticut’s clean-energy future may be old ones that look surprisingly familiar.

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