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City discusses district heating off CPD plant

October 14, 2009
BERLIN — Representatives from Clean Power Development, Horizon Engineering, Business Enterprise Development Corporation, Cos Economic Development Corporation, city staff and the mayor met on Thursday to discuss building a district heating system for the city.

The system would provide heat to residents and businesses using heat from the biomass facility. It would require laying pipe throughout the city to transport hot water, a large upfront expense.

"If a district heating system has merit in Berlin this is the time," said Mel Liston, president of CPD. "You have a window of opportunity. Right now there is more government stimulus than at any time since World War II."

Who is supposed to pay for it? asked Peter Riviere of CEDC. The city? "You guys are in no position to take on the tax burden of a $20 million operation," he said.

City Manager Pat MacQueen said he thought of it as an asset, not a burden. Like the wastewater treatment plant, it would generate revenue, he said. "If it makes sense financially, we're going to do it."

The city, however, might not be the owner. The heating system could be a municipal system, or it could be its own entity—a utility, a non-profit, or a for profit company. Whatever model, it has to offer cheap heat.

"If you don't offer them heat cheaper than they can make it they aren't going to buy it," Mr. Liston said.

The challenge is staying competitive with $2 oil, said Dr. Morris Pierce, an expert in district heating systems. Another challenge is reaching large customers, like the community college, the hospital, and the federal and state prisons, he said, which act as anchors. They are far from the city in Berlin's case, he said, which requires more infrastructure.

The density of the downtown makes district heating very viable, said Don Bouchard of Horizon Engineering, but it doesn't have large customers to serve as anchors. But if the schools are incorporated into the system they might be able to serve as anchors for the downtown, he said.

Mr. Bouchard suggested the schools might be phase one of the project, allowing the city to test it out without the cost of putting in the entire system and still bringing heat to residential customers. The first phase could be overbuilt to allow later expansion, he said.

That phase one would be key in selling the idea to the city as a whole, Mr. Riviere said.

The system would have a 70 to 80 year lifespan, Dr. Pierce said, and might need additional heat sources if it was expanded. Plugging more or different heat generation systems into the district would be easy, he said, as the big infrastructure investment is in the pipe network.

CPD will have a backup boiler on site that runs on biodiesel, Mr. Liston said, so there will be consistent heat should the plant ever be in need of repairs. All the heat would be from renewable sources, he said, for which some communities would pay a premium. Berlin wouldn't have to pay that premium, he said, because the plant will already be there.

"I don't think there's ever going to be a better time in our lifetimes to pull this off," he said.

"Does the city have the political will to pull this off?" asked Bill Andreas of BEDCO.

"I think the body that's in place right now would be willing to work on this project," Mayor David Bertrand said. "To slam the door in the face of something with this kind of potential is ludicrous."

Dr. Pierce said he would look into the feasibility of the project, to see if the basic numbers work in the city's favor. Bill Gabler of CPD suggested the group of people around the table form a district heating commission for the city. Mr. Liston said it's important to get the planning together so the city can take advantage of any federal money that is made available.

"The window of opportunity is right now," he said.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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