The Green Economy Transforms the Bridgeport Region
The Park City and its suburban neighbors have emerged as state and national leaders in sustainability initiatives.
by Tony Silber
Change is in the air (and in the water and on the streets) across Bridgeport and the surrounding towns as efforts accelerate throughout the region to tap into the expanding green economy.
Smart public-sector leadership and enlightened private-sector action has produced a mosaic of initiatives across Bridgeport, Stratford and Trumbull, cutting power usage, reducing emissions, developing renewable energy and creating much needed new jobs.
Drive through Bridgeport on I-95 these days and take a look around. Driving east, look to the right toward Seaside Park. You’ll see that the former landfill—closed since 1985—is now a green energy park, covered with about 9,000 panels and two fuel cells that produce five megawatts of power. Look left and just north of the railroad tracks and you’ll see the largest fuel cell energy facility in the Western Hemisphere. It provides 15 megawatts of clean energy to the grid every day—enough energy for about 15,000 homes. (Bridgeport has about 50,000 homes.) On the other side of the tracks, the dilapidated old factory buildings along Railroad Avenue, abandoned for a decade or more, are suddenly being transformed into a mixed-use development that’s gotten statewide attention.
Moving east, the 498-foot smokestack—long the symbol of the city’s skyline—is now mostly unused, and is in the process of being replaced by a cleaner-burning natural gas plant that will produce 485 megawatts of electricity. With the new gas plant, the last coal-burning plant in the state will finally be shut down.
Just north of the highway and across the street from the Intermodal Transportation Center, the landmark Park City Plaza at 10 Middle Street is getting new energy-efficient windows that bring a new look to the Bridgeport skyline. The Trefz family has made a commitment to be a leader in this phase of downtown development.
To its credit, Bridgeport is betting big on sustainability, partnering with the Bridgeport Regional Business Council and its members to use clean energy as an economic catalyst. In fact, it’s a longtime commitment for the city, dating back a decade and spanning two mayoral administrations. Municipal recycling rates have increased in that span. Green infrastructure projects are being strategically placed. New schools have been built to much higher standards of sustainability and energy efficiency.
Community gardens are flourishing.“Bridgeport has a history as a hub for inno-vation,” says Mayor Joe Ganim, who is driving much of the strategy behind Bridgeport’s green economy. “It was a seafaring center, an industrial center, a banking center. We’re saying Bridgeport can be the same thing in the new economy—a smart city, a livable city, attracting millennials. And the public-private partnership is the best model to get us there.”
Adds Dan Onofrio, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, ”We can’t stand by and watch our economic well-being and environmental conditions deteriorate. It’s incumbent on us as local community leaders to do all we can.”
A Changing Region
It’s not just Bridgeport. In Stratford, the nationally recognized craft brewer, Two Roads, occupies a former factory where the U.S. Baird corporation made machine tools starting in the early 20th Century. Now the Stratford Avenue facility has its own solar farm, and it’s expanding.
Across town on Lordship Boulevard, wine-and-spirits distributor CDI installed 1,900 solar panels on the roof of its 155,000 square-foot facility. The panels produce 782,000 kilowatts annually and have reduced CDI’s annual energy costs from about $150,000 to zero, says Director of Business Logistics Bill Steindl. Even the company’s on-site vehicles—cherry pickers and towmotors—switched from propane to battery power. “This was financially motivated, just looking at the dollars and cents, but our shareholders are environmentally friendly, and that’s what pushed this initiative forward,” he says. “And our associates recognize the efforts we’re taking and they’re motivated that we’re doing right by the planet.”
On the municipal side in Stratford, upgrades in energy equipment in a variety of buildings, including Town Hall, Johnson House, Bunnell High School and the Birdseye Municipal Building produced a combined energy and operational savings of $766,000 annually.
Trumbull also has a slew of sustainability initiatives underway, both on the municipal side and in the private sector. At Long Hill Green, a green infrastructure project is underway in front of the Franco Gianni’s and Mici Asian Restaurant. A section of the historic green will be expanded with permeable pavers to create a patio and replace the existing asphalt at that end of Broadway. Parking will be relocated. There will be storm water runoff benefits as well as improvements to the function and usability of the area. This project is being funded with EPA 319 funds (awarded through the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Department of Housing investment funds).
Trumbull Economic Development Director Rina Bakalar says the pending 48 Monroe Turnpike project is also a great example of sustainable development. In that project, a massive existing 250,000 square-foot office building is to be converted to a senior housing community at the 17-acre site. “There will be a reduction of impervious surface and a walkable connection to surrounding commerce areas and the Pequonnock Trail,” Bakalar says. This project is currently in litigation.
These initiatives and much more across all three municipalities represent the region’s accelerating effort to encourage sustainable business and commerce. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that a sustainable, eco-friendly community or region is part of a broad, top-down mandate. It’s not. In reality, a green economy is built from the ground up—a series of interconnected actions by individual enterprises, some large and some small, initiated or many divergent economic and social objectives.
Only when they come together does the pattern emerge. And it’s there, in the overall vision, where government policies are critical in channeling green projects and stitching individual actions into a unified framework.
The elected leaders of Bridgeport, Stratford and Trumbull are collaborating on sustainability efforts, supported by many of the region’s largest companies—notably United Illuminating—which provides power to more than 325,000 customers in 17 towns in the region, and the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. “We need to do more,” Ganim says. “Bridgeport is a recognized national leader on sustainability and resiliency and that’s why we will take the foundation we have built over the past decade and expand our work to make Bridgeport a smart eco-city.”
Bridgeport Leads the Way
In many ways, Bridgeport is well down the path. Since 2010, through two administrations, the city has been focused on building and ex-panding its Eco-Technology Park, a patchwork of green businesses across the city’s West End and South End.
The park includes:
- The FuelCell Energy Park.This facility was completed in 2013. Fuel cells create clean energy through a chemical reaction, not by burning fossil fuel, and they produce very little pollution—much of the hydrogen and oxygen used to generate electricity combines to form a familiar and harmless byproduct, water.
- The Green Energy Park.The former Seaside Park Landfill now combines a 2.5 megawatt fuel cell plant with the 9,000 solar panels.
- The University of Bridgeport.UB is now off the electrical grid, relying instead on a 1.4 megawatt “microgrid” fuel cell plant that is now fully operational.
- EnviroExpress.This company runs a compressed natural gas and liquified natural gas fueling station at its Wordin Avenue property and has converted its diesel trucks to natural gas.
- PosiGen,a solar installation company with offices in Connecticut, Louisiana and New Jersey. The company is bringing solar power to lower income housing stock.
- Green Depot,a green-building supply yard and warehouse on Pine Street serving the construction industry throughout the region.
- Future Healthcare Systems CT,a medical waste recycling and processing facility, which autoclaves refuse from doctors’ offices, hospitals and other medical centers. Onofrio notes that Future Healthcare, a spotless facility on South Avenue, is just a few blocks away from the Wheelabrator trash-to-energy facility, where much of the waste is burned and converted to energy. “We consider this a green business because you’re not trucking medical waste all over New England—to Rhode Island to be autoclaved, and then to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to be burned and converted to energy,” Onofrio adds. “Instead it goes a few blocks to Wheelabrator and the huge carbon footprint is minimized.”
- Cherry Street Lofts,the project with the most potential to transform Bridgeport visually and culturally. It’s a mixed-use development located between Railroad Avenue and I-95 and Howard and Hancock avenues that when completed will see six old industrial buildings renovated and converted to 350 residential units and the Great Oaks Charter School. As the Eco-Technology Park concept expands throughout the city, stakeholders continue to look for opportunity. The Cherry Street Lofts project was conceived as green workforce housing, but the developer, Corvus Capital Partners, reports that demand for the dwelling units has been extraordinary. “What we’re trying to do is create a community that’s good for everyone,” Geof Ravenstine, one of Corvus’ partners, said at a dedication in September. “We’re working on changing the face of Bridgeport—and that’s going to happen.” The first phase is well underway, with 140 units being marketed. The site, one of the most visible parts of Bridgeport from the interstate, is in the process of being transformed.
And then there are jobs. Together, the Eco-Technology Park employs hundreds of people. And many of the enterprises will expand in the years ahead. Mayor Ganim defines the topic of sustainability broadly. It’s not just environmental sustainability, there are social and economic components as well.
For example, Future Healthcare Systems employs “second-chance” workers—people who’ve been incarcerated. “To be a second-chance employee is not an easy task,” he says. “A job like this can turn someone’s life around. The job creation piece of this is as important as some of the other aspects of our effort.”
Converting to Green Energy
The city’s conversion to clean energy will continue over the next 16 months, and it will have four fuel cell plants, generating 30 megawatts of electricity, by the end of 2020. Future Healthcare Systems will be off the grid by the end of the year. It’s installing a rooftop solar system and all its electrical energy needs will be come from that system. Another example is Wade’s Dairy, located on the east side of Bridgeport, which recently showcased its newest sustainable addition of solar panels. The panels are generating 211 kilowatts of solar electricity annually from 640 solar panels. This amounts to about 40% of the company’s total electrical load. Funding was provided through CPace, a program of the Connecticut Greenbank. Eco Solar Installations and McBride Electric were the primary contractors involved with the project.At the hub of the Eco-Technology Park is the Wheelabrator facility, itself considered a Class III renewable energy producer by the state government. It burns 2,200 tons of trash every day, generating 80 megawatts of electricity per day, and is used by a variety of businesses in the area—and is vital to Future Healthcare, Park City Green, a mattress-recycling facility and the city’s planned thermal loop.
Driving the move toward energy efficiency at Two Roads, 10 Middle Street and scores of other businesses is United Illuminating, which offers a range of incentives for businesses and residences alike to get more efficient. In a half-dozen interviews with area leaders, UI came up again and again, described as a catalyst in decisions to move forward with major investments in energy efficiency. “We work with customers to assess all opportunities, calculate savings potential and identify financing opportunities available to commercial and industrial customers,” says Elizabeth Murphy, conservation and load management supervisor for AVANGRID C&I, UI’s parent company. “We support our customers all the way through their processes, whether it’s new construction, renovations or upgrades to facilities, equipment, processes or lighting fixtures.”
Looking Out to the Next Decade
The Eco-Technology Park is the core of an even more ambitious effort for the next seven years, creating what Ganim and his predeces-sor, Bill Finch, refer to as an Eco City. Because the Eco Park has limited land availability, a citywide expansion will provide greater oppor-tunity for success. At the heart of this effort is a proposed Bridgeport Climate Change Initiative, called BC2, a forward-looking plan created this year that expands the partnership between the BRBC and the city. It serves to bring together in a single roadmap the city’s response to climate change and its expanding sustainability efforts. The Eco-City concept outlined in the draft BC2 includes:
- Continue the strong BRBC-Bridgeport partnership.Mayor Joe Ganim at the dedication of the natural gas plant.
- Expand the Eco-Technology Park to other parts of Bridgeport.
- Establish an Energy Working Group to accelerate public and private sector conservation and expand the renewal energy generated in the city, as well as attract more energy-related businesses.
- Support the expansion of key state and local mass transportation initiatives, including a second train station, and green infrastructure projects to reduce air pollution and storm-water runoff.
- Strengthen workforce development and education programming to support the green economy.
- And develop more livable city initiatives to make Bridgeport a better place to work and live.
“Cities serve as the hub of a successful region and state,” Ganim says. “As cities prosper, so does the economy, the education systems serving it, and the diversity within it. But sustainable cities and regions cannot realize their potential without the active engagement and collaboration of many of its institutional forces—business and labor, neighborhoods and civic leaders, and entrepreneurs.