January 14, 2013

ISO New England to build $39M Windsor facility

HBJ File Photo
HBJ File Photo
Regional power grid administrator ISO New England plans to build a $39 million backup command center in Windsor similar to its master control center in Holyoke, Mass.

Regional electric grid administrator ISO New England will build a $39 million command center in Windsor to serve as a backup in case its main control operations in Holyoke, Mass., go down.

"It is the best site that was available at the optimal distance from the main control center," ISO spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg said.

The capital project comes as multiple Connecticut officials objected to ISO's proposed 10 percent budget increase to $165 million for next year. The objections of Attorney General George Jepsen, Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz, and the three officials that make up the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority earned an unprecedented hearing on ISO's budget with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the sole authority to approve the proposal.

ISO's proposed budget includes the capital costs for the Windsor center, but Jepsen, Swanson Katz, and PURA did not object to that portion of the spending plan, focusing on the number and salaries of ISO employees.

All of ISO's operations are supported by a charge on every New England ratepayer's electric bill.

As the power grid administrator, ISO controls the cost and level of power generated in New England at any given moment, calling on generating plants to power up and down as demand for electricity fluctuates throughout every day. At its Holyoke command center, ISO monitors the level of power supply and demand in real-time for the region's 14 million residents, making decisions that could import power from other areas or prevent blackouts in emergencies.

FERC requires ISO to have a backup control center that can be staffed and running in less than two hours, remaining operational for prolonged periods, Blomberg said.

The planned 70,000-square-foot backup center at 55 Helmsford Way in the Day Hill Road section of Windsor will replace ISO's current 5,000 backup facilities in Newington. Once complete, the Windsor facility will be the only ISO backup command center in its service territory.

The Newington facility meets the FERC requirements, Blomberg said, but ISO will need to expand the space needs for essential systems and emergency staffing in the near future. The Newington site cannot accommodate that expansion.

The Windsor site is 28 miles from ISO's main operations in Holyoke and along the Interstate 91 corridor, making travel to the facility quicker in the case of an emergency.

"It speaks to that location as being a good location," said Jim Burke, Windsor's economic development director. "It talks about our location. It is a great place because it is so accessible to the whole region."

The Day Hill Road area has been prized by incoming businesses for its power and utility reliability, along with its ease of access to major interstates in New England and Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Burke said. Because it is north of Hartford, businesses can avoid many of the traffic congestion that comes in the southern, more urban parts of the state.

The expansion of the command center will create 25 new jobs in Connecticut, Blomberg said, working in ISO's operations training and information technology departments.

"Those are good jobs to be hard in the community," Burke said. "It is a pretty exciting looking development."

The Windsor center will be designed to the gold standard under the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program by the U.S. Green Building Council.

"The project represents a major capital investment in Connecticut," Blomberg said.

The reinvestment in a Connecticut backup command center comes after the state debated on a number of occasions studying opting out of ISO New England in favor of another power grid administrator, such as the New York ISO. The state General Assembly passed a bill in 2010 authorizing the study, although that legislation was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

"There is no question that I had a rough relationship with ISO," said State Sen. John Fonfara (D-Hartford), who was co-chair of the legislature's Energy & Technology Committee during the talks about switching away from ISO New England.

The main conflict centered around ISO's policy for pricing electricity in New England, which pays every generator the same price as the highest cost operating generator in the region. Fonfara and others in the state government thought this contributed to Connecticut electricity rates, which are the second highest in the nation behind Hawaii.

"They claim it is the most efficient (pricing method), but I don't buy it," Fonfara said.

Fonfara stepped down as Energy & Technology co-chair this year to take over as co-chair of the powerful Finance Committee. The talk about leaving ISO New England has died down, and ISO hasn't changed its pricing policy.

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