New Britain's Energy and Innovation Park project coming back to life after pandemic took big toll on progress

Published on Friday, 30 April 2021 13:56
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – As the state begins to return to a semblance of normalcy, New Britain’s Energy and Innovation Park project at the former Stanley Black & Decker site will also be coming back to life.

“It’s safe to say that the impact of the covid-19 pandemic had on a project of this magnitude was huge,” Mayor Erin Stewart said. “While it didn’t derail the project, it did end up being the reason for a brief lapse in progress.”

The estimated $1 billion energy and data center project began construction late 2019. But when the pandemic happened, the project took a hit.

It is still viable, Stewart said, but the project had to take a hard right turn, which includes finding new investors and a new production company that will produce the fuel cells. The city’s original partnership with Connecticut-based Doosan Fuel Cell America has dissolved and will now be working with Bloom Energy, a California-based company that develops clean, sustainable and affordable energy and has a large presence in Connecticut.

Mark Wick, a partner with EIP, LLC, the project’s developer, said the change in production companies is like changing a different battery brand.

“Their fuel cells operate differently but produces the exact same electricity and the exact same amount to the same place,” he said.

The basic schematic of the project is still the same. According to EIP, the first phase of construction will involve the renovation of two buildings on site and the installation of 20 megawatts of grid-connected fuel cells, which will make this the world’s largest indoor fuel cell installation.

Fuel cells run on natural gas to generate electricity but have very low emissions and increased energy efficiency. It will also become a critical backup power for data centers, which reduce capital needs and cost of operations.

Even under the best of circumstances, Wick said developing an energy project is a very time consuming and challenging process. Especially since this project will be built on an industrial site, rather than a greenfield site.

“The biggest issue for us has really been the pandemic,” Wick said. “We had our financing in place but covid-19’s impact was significant to our investment tax credit program. So we’ve had to make some changes, which required us to change vendors and investment partners.”

The various changes basically meant the project had to hit the restart button, from the permitting process through the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to hiring project engineers.

From an economic standpoint, the project is a driving force for future jobs and a very viable redevelopment opportunity, said Bill Carroll, the city’s director of Economic Development.

The park is expected to create more than 3,000 direct and indirect jobs over the next 20 years, according to the developer.

“If you go back just a few years, the idea of an energy and data center is so far away,” Carroll said. “But now it’s a hot topic discussion at the legislature to create a bill specifically for it. Now everyone is motivated to take a look at these data centers as economic drivers.”

But it’s also important to remember that a project like this is not like building houses and putting them together. “Something of this magnitude will be a long process anyway, so in a lot of ways we’re really not that much behind,” Carroll said.

The project is currently in the finalizing stages of securing a financing partner and Wick said the biggest thing holding up the project is the arduous permitting process with the state.

“There’s good reason for that because of the changes, but we’re optimistic,” Wick said.

Developers forecast construction could happen by the end of this year and the installation of the fuel cells by the end of 2022.

From the city’s perspective, Stewart said they are happy that the project was able to survive the pandemic.

“It took us longer to get there but the fact that it’s still happening is great,” she said. “We will do what we can to make sure it’s a smooth process.”

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Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain on Friday, 30 April 2021 13:56. Updated: Friday, 30 April 2021 13:58.