Former Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Middletown, CT (Credit: Google Map Data, 2021)

Faced with $700,000 Roof Replacement, Middletown Debates Microgrid Offer

MIDDLETOWN — Faced with the need to replace the roof on the city’s future recreation center sooner than expected, Middletown sought out a creative solution that would not only replace the roof, but create a micro-grid complete with solar generation and battery storage that would allow the city to use the center as a warming/cooling and emergency shelter.

As Middletown officials surveyed what remains of the former Woodrow Wilson Middle School – set to become a town recreation center – they realized the roof needed to be replaced sooner than they expected when they sold “phase one” of the building’s redevelopment as a part of the $55 million bond package city voters approved last year. 

The city thought the roof had more time, and the cost to replace the roof – estimated at about $700,000 – wasn’t in the $1.5 million budget the city set for itself to finish the first phase of renovations using some of the bond money. 

At a Tuesday meeting of the Common Council, Middletown Finance Director Carl Erlacher said federal aid money from the American Rescue Plan Act – from which Middletown is slated to receive $21.7 million – could potentially free up more bond money to go towards the community center. 

But the city also sought a more creative solution, anticipating that the unexpected roof costs could drive up the cost of the project to the point they would have to go back to voters to ask for more funding.

Agility Clean Energy Finance presented that possible solution to the Common Council on Tuesday. For a monthly charge paid over 20 years – Agility said it would replace the roof, as well as installing solar panels, a battery storage system, a backup generator, and a natural gas-fired “cogeneration” unit that would generate electricity and use the excess heat to warm the building.

The proposed system would create about 40 percent of the energy the building needs on site, and the building could be used on an “island mode” to keep power on and serve as a warming and cooling center during power outages.

Instead of asking voters for more money to pay $700,000 up front for the roof replacement, the cost of the new roof and new energy system would be spread out over 20 years in monthly payments that would be paid out of operating funds, like utility payments for the building are now. 

The cost of the new power system, the new roof, and add-ons like a more efficient LED lighting system would be about $4.1 million in total, Scott Preiser, managing director of Agility, told the council. That would cost about $32,000 a month for 20 years. Currently Middletown pays about $23,835 a month for utilities and maintenance in the building – so it would be an added cost of about $8,000 a month – Agility estimated.

Middletown Energy Coordinator Michael Harris said the idea was still in preliminary stages, and they wanted Agility to give the council a good picture of the numbers. He asked the council for approval to move to the next phase, where engineering and design would be finalized, after which there would be a much better estimate of the cost.

Harris said the proposal would mean the city avoids a lot of future capital expenses by fixing things in the building that need to be fixed.

“When you look at the combination of the lower operating costs and the avoided capital costs, we are at least breaking even or having a reasonable savings over the 20-year term, when you consider the work that is going to get done now, as opposed to leaving it to us to go through the bidding process and referendums, or whatever else is required in the future,” Harris said.

The council voted to approve a bid waiver, allowing Agility to work up an energy services agreement with Symbiont Energy for the council to review.

Council member Eugene Nocera said the funding would be discussed in more detail at a future meeting, when Agility returns with its proposal. 

“Once this project, hopefully, gets approved and established, for the first time on the south end of the city, we’ll have a location for a warming center,” Nocera said. “We’ll have a place where, if an emergency exists, we can move a neighborhood to.”

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