Wilton DPW director says alternate energy sources could save town money

Chris Burney told the Board of Selectmen that possible natural gas shortages may materialize this winter and reviewed Wilton’s hyperfocus on solar energy over the past five years.

Chris Burney told the Board of Selectmen that possible natural gas shortages may materialize this winter and reviewed Wilton’s hyperfocus on solar energy over the past five years.

Stephanie Kim / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — In a recent discussion with the Board of Selectmen, Director of Public Works Chris Burney outlined the ways the town could save money with its utilization of renewable energy sources.

He led his review by relaying a warning issued from Eversource Energy, the town and state’s main energy provider, hinting at possible natural gas shortages in the event of extremely cold weather that could result in “brownouts or rolling blackouts in New England.”

A solution to that predicament, Burney explained, is prioritizing renewable resources like wind, hydro and solar power — the latter being something that Wilton has prioritized for the past five years.

“Four years ago, five years ago, we had no solar (power),” Burney said. “Now, we’re up and over 70% of our total energy use in the town is generated by solar.”

The town began its investment into utilizing solar energy by installing 300-kilowatt solar panel systems on the roofs of Miller-Driscoll School and Middlebrook Middle School. Since their installations, along with any other solar paneling in town owned by the municipality, the systems have generated about “2.4 million kilowatt hours” of energy, per Burney. The town also has invested in two solar energy fields in Middletown that provide power to Wilton.

These effects are saving the town over $200,000 each year, the DPW director said. And while the prices of other utilities used by the town increase — such as the price of heating oil and diesel — the utilization of solar energy means that the grand total of avoided costs increases as well.

As for the amount of heating oil used by the town, Burney reported that Wilton averages roughly 21,000 gallons a year. While the town has cut back on heating oil use in years past with the implentation of solar, it is still used to power the Transfer Station, Town Hall, police headquarters, the Annex and a number of houses owned by the town.

Fluctuation is pricing will play a role this year, Burney said. In 2019, oil was $2 a gallon. Last year, it was as low as $1.77 a gallon. Presently, the price sits at about $2.25 a gallon and Burney said that at the current price, the town will not want to contract supply for the long term.

As for diesel, prices have gone up in recent years from $1.86 per gallon to the current $2.50 per gallon. The town’s annual budget for diesel runs about “$75,000 to $85,000” a year and is “not something that is significant.” The town mostly uses diesel for its DPW utility trucks that Burney said do less than an average of 3,000 miles per year.

The pandemic has not just affected the market and caused price hikes, though. Burney told selectmen that required ventilation system accomodations in schools during the pandemic have caused for gas consumption to jump between 30 and 40%, depending on the school building. With the new ventilation standard during COVID requiring that all air filtered into the building be “outside air,” more gas is needed to warm that air in colder months, causing the usage jump.

He outlined these methods of energy use by the town after noting Eversource’s possible blackout warning because, Burney explained, the pipelines, overseen by ISO New England, are “not big enough” to pump gas through and that extreme cold temperatures could affect power supplies not just in Wilton, but across the state and New England as a whole.

Even trickier is that the weather does not have to particularly affect the Northeast, Burney explained. As these pipelines connect to other parts of the country, Burney said large percentages of natural gas consumption can be experienced quickly in other regions during extreme cold spells, such as in the Midwest, all while Connecticut is experiencing milder conditions.

“So we could be having normal weather temperatures, mild weather temperatures, rather the Midwest is having severe cold, and gas consumption is up,” Burney explained, “then we could be seeing some blackouts.”

States like California, he said, have banned installation of natural gas in new buildings. Even nearby cities like New York City are implementing the same restriction.

The DPW director acknowledged that natural gas is “one of the heavier pollutants,” but also said it is the predominant fuel for generating electricity.

Selectman Bas Nabulsi inquired whether the town could reach higher than the current 70% solar threshold, to offset the need of oil and natural gas, to which Burney said the town is also looking for more opportunities in that regard.

“I don’t have a limit on what I would recommend the town, and we could still go forward,” Burney said. Once achieving full capacity, he said, if the town does not have a concomitant use for the power while selling some not used, then the “numbers start to make less sense.”

“But we haven’t reached that point yet, and if something comes along and its attractive, I will certainly be looking at it, talk to Lynne (Vanderslice), and bring it to you for approval,” Burney said.