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Cogeneration power plant heats up at former American Optical

March 20, 2019 : Telegram & Gazette, by Brian Lee

SOUTHBRIDGE — The massive Southbridge Innovation Center, already a hotel and conference center that rents a satellite campus to Quinsigamond Community College and businesses, is serving yet another purpose.

To a contingent of state and local officials Tuesday, the owner of the 130-acre campus on the grounds of the former American Optical Co. unveiled the completion of a $5.6 million transformation of a traditional, off-line electric power plant, into a state-of-the-art cogeneration power facility.

Cogeneration plants recover "waste" heat.

During a press event Tuesday, Charles "Chip" Norton Jr., owner of Franklin Realty Advisors, said the project was financed by MassDevelopment and Middlesex Savings Bank, and more than $1 million in rebates from National Grid.

The innovation center, which holds 1.2 million square feet of commercial, industrial and manufacturing space in 11 principal buildings, of which about 535,000 square feet is under leases and 665,000 square feet are available, is one of the region's largest consumers of energy and gas in a single location, Mr. Norton said.

As part of the new cogeneration plant, it is using an engine to generate electricity. Heat from the electricity generation is recovered and used for heating and cooling.

It is considered the most efficient use of fuel because the potentially wasted heat is captured and used, substantially reducing the carbon footprint compared to generating steam and hot water and purchasing electricity off-site.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the event's keynote speaker, motioned to an image of the former AO facility on a projection screen and suggested others have looked at old facilities such as this center and walked away.

Mr. Norton turned it into an amazing collection of assets, she said.

"You have an incredible team here, and a great investor and partner with Chip Norton, who said this is exciting, it's worth investing in, it's worth developing a strategy around, and he's literally put his shoulder behind this project with all of you to bring it to where it is today," Ms. Polito said.

Mr. Norton said the innovation center shared Ms. Polito's and the governor's goal of reducing the carbon footprint, creating self-sufficiency and bringing utility costs down, under initiatives announced by the commonwealth in December.

As a large consumer of electricity and gas, Mr. Norton noted that he's worked with National Grid for many years, and the utility was a "big part of the success of this cogeneration system." In addition to the financial assistance, it provided engineering and support to allow the system to go into operation, Mr. Norton said.

The developer said there's even more to come.

The innovation center, according to Mr. Norton, is working with National Grid on designing and permitting a 4.5-million-megawatt electricity solar generation, and with New England Hydropower on a 175-kilowatt Archimedes screw turbine where a hydro wheel was once located. The first similarly sized installation in the U.S. came online in April 2017 in Meriden, Connecticut.

The technology, according to Mr. Norton, is new to the U.S. and is habitat-friendly in that a fish can swim through it unharmed, as opposed to when they are caught and killed when entering a hydro wheel.

Also, National Grid is in the final weeks of relocating a gas line for the center under the Quinebaug River, which bisects the property.

John Isberg, vice president of customer solutions for National Grid, said it was great to be part of a significant customer success story, and it reaffirmed much of the work the utility is doing with the state around creating energy strategy, policy, and implementing programs. He said these efforts are working for both the commonwealth but most importantly, its customers.

Craig Blais, president and chief executive officer of the Worcester Business Development Corp., which worked with Mr. Norton's team on the co-generational project, suggested the innovation center could serve as a case study of the Baker-Polito administration's energy policy, and as a place to promote tourism, business activity, and innovation with QCC.

Town Manager Ronald San Angelo called the innovation center one of the town's greatest assets, and he called Mr. Norton "a true partner in every way." The manager was referring to Mr. Norton's plans to expand access of the campus to the public for bicycling, kayaking and other recreation.

The event also served as a welcome to Metalogic Industries LLC, which began to move about 70 employees into the innovation center Tuesday. The company is moving from two locations in Dudley that are more than a mile apart, according to company owner Michael Salame.

A manufacturing and engineering company that provides solutions for original equipment manufacturers, Metalogic's capacity will nearly triple in its new location, and it will have better efficiencies being under the same roof, the owner said.